The Chris Murphy Doctrine: Trump, coronavirus, and foreign policy

For Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, everywhere he goes is a reminder that his star is on the rise.

On a gray, rainy February evening in Hartford, he spoke for two hours with constituents about why he’d just voted to remove President Donald Trump from office in the Senate impeachment trial. What should have been a stuffy political event turned into a cathartic, almost religious experience for the 100 attendees aggrieved by Washington politics.

With elbows tucked at his side, hands together, and a preacher’s cadence, Murphy regaled the friendly crowd at the University of Connecticut School of Law — his alma mater — with accounts of indignity after indignity.

Trump’s “malfeasance” was destroying our democracy, Murphy said. His Republican colleagues in the Senate had failed to protect the republic by voting to acquit the president. And America’s allies around the world, seeing how Ukraine had been turned into a political weapon by Trump and his GOP enablers, would surely now be rethinking their relationships with the US.

Trump’s impeachment saga, in essence, was a fight for the soul of American foreign policy.

“Once the Trump presidency is over, we won’t have nations coming back to the United States looking for those partnerships, because they will have gotten what they need from others,” he told the nodding public. And after a brief pause, his lament: “That weakens us as a country.”

The senator teased the congregation — “I can give you a longer sermon” — but he knew he’d said enough. His appearance, which began with applause once he entered the hall, ended with a standing ovation.

The fanfare continued later that evening at the senator’s old college haunt, a dimly lit pub called the Half Door, just spitting distance from the law school. Murphy — 46, lean, with coiffed brown hair and a knowing gaze — was spotted the second he walked in with me and a staffer in tow. A few bar patrons walked over to our dark booth to greet him, including a 20-something former soldier whom Murphy, as a House member, had nominated to attend West Point.

“Chris, you changed my life,” Sam said, explaining how he’d left the military to become a public defender in town.

The exchange noticeably lifted Murphy’s mood ahead of our interview, one of five we had over months during the course of my reporting. Aware of what I was after, he knew I’d ask how a junior senator from Connecticut — who gained national fame with his passionate response to the mass shooting of children in his state — got anyone to listen to him on foreign policy. More to the point, why did he want to be listened to on foreign policy?

With a smirk, he put down his burger next to his Moscow mule, locked eyes with me, and slipped right back into that preacher’s lilt.

“I’m 100 percent sure that I’m right about how badly positioned America is in the world today. I’m 100 percent sure this world cannot become a better place unless the United States is an active force for good,” he told me. “I’m 100 percent sure that the foreign policy consensus in Washington has made us less safe. I’m 100 percent sure that the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against has become the very nightmare he envisioned.”

“Not everything in domestic politics am I 100 percent sure about,” he continued, “but I am sure that we need a massive reorientation of America’s place in the world.”

The coronavirus crisis is exactly the kind of threat Murphy has long warned about. “I think it’s incredibly sad that we made a choice as a nation to leave ourselves vulnerable,” he told me. He ascribes a lot of the blame to Trump. “President Trump’s obsession with beefing up military coffers left the country more exposed to nonmilitary threats, including pandemics.”

Instead of building more hospitals, the US chose to build more fighter jets and aircraft carriers. Instead of prioritizing the recruitment of medical professionals, the US focused on recruiting more troops. And instead of increasing the ranks of embassy staff that could catch oncoming problems early, the US kept gutting the diplomatic budget. Trump embodied all of these worst tendencies when it was his turn to govern.

In a sense, then, this moment was predetermined.

“We are currently very dependent on medical sourcing from Europe, but the Europeans are in no mood to help the United States today, both because they are facing a crisis and also because we’ve spent the last three years kicking the shit out of them,” he said.

“When times get tough, you need friends,” he continued, “and America doesn’t have a lot of friends right now.”

What makes it worse is that the president Murphy voted to remove from office still uses the playbook that got him impeached in the first place. The governors who pledge fealty to Trump so far have received much of the medical equipment they need from federal authorities. Those who don’t get berated in press conferences and on Twitter.

“What we’re watching, potentially, is Trump using the same tools domestically that he used internationally. What he did to Ukraine he is arguably doing to Michigan, New York, and Connecticut today,” Murphy said. “He sees the money at his disposal as a mechanism to advance his political agenda. We should have removed him from office because he showed no contrition after his extortion campaign in Ukraine, suggesting that he was willing to use those same tactics domestically.”

Does that mean Trump should be removed from office for leading an extremely slow response to the coronavirus outbreak while pressuring states? Not exactly. “President Trump is a constant, evolving tangle of unconstitutional behavior,” Murphy said, but he added that “our focus right now needs to be on getting through the Covid-19 crisis.”

Someday, though, Trump will leave office, and a new president will set the course for American foreign policy. Among other things, they will be tasked with protecting the country against the next pandemic. That requires not only a rethink of how the US acts in the world, but also a wholesale change in how it prepares for what’s to come.

Murphy’s proposed reorientation — his gospel — is what he and others call a “progressive foreign policy,” and he’s proselytized it in bits and pieces since entering Congress shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The US shouldn’t get involved in long-term wars, particularly in the Middle East. The president must get Congress’s approval before committing acts of war. More money should go to diplomats, not the military. Washington should invest in anti-corruption programs to weaken autocracies from Russia to China to Saudi Arabia. Climate change and pandemics are continuous global threats. Fixing and sustaining American democracy is vital to promoting it elsewhere.

This is the foreign policy Book of Murphy.

If those stances sound familiar, it’s because they form part of a growing consensus among the foreign policy left (and some segments of the right). Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have echoed or borrowed from Murphy’s canon. The party, it seems, has finally arrived at where Murphy has long been.

It’s quite the change. The senator for years formed part of a small chorus blasting White Houses for using the old-school foreign policy framework, though not in equal measure.

With President Barack Obama at the helm, Murphy proved an ally, though he criticized the wars in Yemen and Libya, and complicated a congressional effort to authorize strikes in Syria. Now, with Trump in charge, he’s taken up the mantle as a lead antagonist by passing bipartisan legislation to reestablish congressional war powers, meeting with Iranian leaders, and making multiple public appearances to lambaste what he sees as the president’s global missteps.

Murphy’s record shows he wants to be (though he wouldn’t put it in these words) America’s new foreign policy evangelist at a time he feels the country desperately needs one.

“I would love to effectuate a new way of America leading in the world that makes Americans more comfortable with globalism,” he told me in his Senate office. “I worry about the economic unrest in this country, leading us to turn inward and forsaking what I think is a responsibility and duty to lead.”

It’s a mindset that has drawn critics from all sides. The far left says his ideas aren’t as radical as he thinks because he’s unwilling to say America shouldn’t be the world’s top power. The right says he’s too naive, claiming his underemphasis of military strength and lionization of diplomacy — especially with adversaries — makes the US less safe.

The senator welcomes the debate, but he clearly believes he has the way forward for US foreign policy. So do his fans, who say Murphy’s comfort with global affairs, along with gun control and health care, make him the future of the Democratic Party. “Someday, Chris Murphy will be president,” Barbara Rodman, a 72-year-old retired business leader who attended the senator’s speech in Hartford, told me.

Murphy’s allies in Washington are on a similar wavelength.

“I would be very surprised if Chris Murphy, in the next 10 years, isn’t playing a very senior role in a Democratic administration to shape foreign policy,” said California Rep. Ro Khanna, who served as Sanders’s presidential campaign co-chair.

“The testament to his talent is that I could see Sanders, [Elizabeth] Warren, or Biden tapping him for a very senior role,” he told me before Sanders and Warren dropped out, refusing to elaborate. If asked to recommend someone for a top job in a new administration, “Murphy’s would be the first name that would come to my mind,” Khanna said. Multiple reports indicate Biden’s team is working closely with former Sanders campaign members on foreign policy.

The Biden campaign wouldn’t say if it’s considering Murphy as a secretary-of-state candidate right now — it’s not commenting on potential Cabinet positions — but behind the scenes, his name has often come up for that role during the Democratic primary. That said, many I’ve spoken to in Washington say more experienced diplomats, like former top State Department officials William Burns or Wendy Sherman, have the edge for a nod.

Should Murphy stay in the Senate, though, some people note he could carve out a prominent place in the party on foreign policy.

That Murphy has rocketed his way up to the heights of Democratic politics — partly on the back of his left-wing foreign policy views — is a sign of how much the party has shifted in its global thinking. Murphy’s trajectory means he could soon have even greater power to put his convictions into practice.

“I ran for Congress as an opponent of the Iraq War”

Murphy was seen as an aggressive up-and-comer in Connecticut politics in the 1990s, with some even comparing his rise to that of Bill Clinton.

He won a seat in the state’s House of Representatives in 1998 as a 25-year-old and moved over to the state Senate five years later. There, as the co-chair of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, he scored a major win by passing a bill to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. It helped solidify him as not only a local party leader but also one of Connecticut’s next big political stars.

But when he ran for the US House of Representatives in 2006, few thought the “boyish state senator” stood a chance of uprooting Nancy Johnson, the popular moderate Republican who’d held the seat for more than two decades. Murphy’s résumé was good, but others with stronger backgrounds had failed before — including one Democratic candidate whose campaign Murphy managed 10 years earlier.

He still drew confidence — foolishly, he admits — from that experience. “I was 22 years old and had just graduated from college,” Murphy told the Hartford Courant in 2006 of his time managing the campaign. “I was in way over my head and so naive, but because I didn’t know any better, I actually believed we could beat Nancy Johnson and I would only hire people who believed that. Well, it must have worked because we lost by only 1,587 votes.”

Born in White Plains, New York, Murphy had a working-class childhood outside of Hartford that he’s previously described as “Norman Rockwellish.” It’s from his parents that he learned to compete. “My mother taught me to never remain on the sidelines in a fight,” he told the same paper. “And my father taught me that if there is a battle, it’s how you fought it that counts.”

The ambition, though, is all his own. “It must be some recessive gene from an earlier generation that gave him all of this drive,” Murphy’s father added.

Murphy’s 2006 race started out focused primarily on local issues like health care and taxes. But America’s military failures abroad soon put national security and foreign policy at center stage.

The Taliban, the hardline Islamist group George W. Bush’s administration had pushed out of power in 2001, was making a comeback in Afghanistan. On top of that, a presidential commission had concluded just a year earlier that “not one bit” of intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program had proved true, and public opinion was turning against the invasion of that country as well.

That growing discontent gave Murphy, who had long opposed both conflicts, a big opening.

“I ran for Congress in 2006 as my friends were being sent off to fight a war that seemed completely unjust,” he told me in his Senate office. “It was people that I knew — my friends and my family — that were being sent over to Iraq and Afghanistan for what seemed like a very unwise mission. So I ran for Congress as an opponent of the Iraq War.”

Johnson, meanwhile, stood by Bush, emphasizing the scourge of terrorism and even calling on Arizona’s John McCain — the most prominent foreign policy voice in her party — to back her. “The security of our people is my No. 1 priority,” she said at a 2006 campaign event in Connecticut before appearing onstage with the Vietnam veteran. The day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, she put out an ad to label Murphy soft on national security for opposing the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program.

But Murphy still hammered away at what he deemed ill-conceived wars.

“Al-Qaeda and a gentleman named Osama bin Laden attacked this country on September 11, and yet you haven’t heard a lot about them recently because we have focused so much of our energy on one part of this world in Iraq,” he said during a debate that October. “And yet what we know now, from the 16 most important and influential intelligence agencies in this country, is that the focus that we’ve had on Iraq has … created a breeding ground and training ground for terrorists.”

But like other Democrats at the time, he also showed signs of wanting to help the Bush White House in a worldwide counterterrorism campaign. “We should give this administration every tool we need to go after those terrorists,” he continued. “We should make sure that our military intervention around the globe is hunting down terrorists wherever they are.”

After one of the most expensive and brutal campaigns in Connecticut history, Murphy beat Johnson with 56 percent of the vote. (Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.) He knew then what victory meant for him. “I got to Congress as somebody who had a mandate to try to untangle the United States from our unwise interventions in the Middle East,” he told me in his Senate office.

Chris Murphy, then-Democratic candidate for Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District, addresses a crowd after his victory over Rep. Nancy Johnson on November 7, 2006.
George Ruhe/AP

Rep. Nancy Johnson, center, speaks to supporters after losing her House seat to Chris Murphy on November 7, 2006.
Jessica Hill/AP

Murphy didn’t push hard on that mandate at first, as he spent most of his time working on health care reform. But as a member of the House Oversight Committee, he used that platform to highlight the role of private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During an October 2007 hearing, Murphy confronted Erik Prince, then the head of the mercenary outfit Blackwater, for reaping immense profits from those conflicts. Prince wouldn’t disclose how much money his company had made, drawing the lawmaker’s ire.

“I guess I’m a new member of Congress, but as a representative of my constituents that pay 90 percent of your salary, pay 90 percent of the salaries of your employees, I think it’s a little difficult for us to fathom how that information isn’t relevant to this committee or this Congress,” Murphy said.

Four years later as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he started delivering a consistent antiwar message as a repudiation of Obama’s policies.

In February 2011, protests against longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi spread across Libya. The regime responded brutally, killing more than 100 people in the first few days and sparking an armed rebellion. Qaddafi didn’t take that well: He sent his forces toward Benghazi, calling demonstrators “cockroaches” and promising to cleanse Libya “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by alleyway.”

The death toll rose to somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 before NATO allies stepped in. Obama’s advisers saw two options for a military response: a no-fly zone, which wouldn’t do much to combat Qaddafi’s ground forces, or a broader resolution allowing America and its allies to take a more involved stance, including the creation of what became a no-drive zone around rebel forces. The president chose the latter.

Murphy offered some qualified support for the mission. It was fine for the US to engage “to avert human disaster,” he said in a March 2011 statement, “but we need to be careful about engaging in a protracted struggle that forces us to pick sides in an emerging civil war.”

“Ultimately, the president has an obligation to bring Congress a detailed plan with specific goals and cost estimates if he is going to do more than provide support to a limited international mission,” he added.

Obama still chose to intervene with the support of NATO allies — and the backing of his party leadership — but without congressional approval. Murphy and most of his House colleagues voted against authorization legislation brought to Congress. While the mission did save lives, it also helped fuel further fighting. For many, the mission ended in failure, and Obama later called his decision the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

That May, Murphy traveled to Afghanistan and didn’t like what he saw. “The fields are still filled with poppy, the Afghan government is still corrupt, and Pakistan is still a problem,” he told constituents at a senior center in Connecticut. “Ten years into this war, more things should be different.” That comment came at the height of Obama’s troop surge to the country, where the president increased the number of US service members to around 100,000 to defeat the Taliban.

Murphy’s experiences with these issues made him thirst for more foreign policy influence, people close to him said. He saw an opportunity to seize it after longtime Sen. Joe Lieberman announced his retirement in 2011.

The following year, Murphy took on billionaire Linda McMahon for the open seat in a campaign that quickly turned nasty and personal. (McMahon declined to comment for this article, citing her work as the chair of Trump’s official political action committee. “All of her public comments will be focused on the 2020 presidential election,” her aide told me.)

Then-Rep. Chris Murphy debates Linda McMahon for Joe Lieberman’s Senate seat in New London, Connecticut, on October 15, 2012.
Jessica Hill/AP

When it came to issues, their race focused more on domestic problems, though the ongoing war in Afghanistan did make a cameo. McMahon, like Obama, wanted US troops out of that country by the end of 2014. Murphy wanted a complete US withdrawal sooner than that.

It was a change from his previous stance in support of an aggressive counterterrorism posture, but the messaging was consistent with his congressional record. In 2012, he’d voted against two important defense-spending bills because they included perennial funding for the war (the legislation eventually made it through the chamber). He also voted yes on an amendment sponsored by California Rep. Barbara Lee to permit the use of war funds solely for a full withdrawal.

But Murphy also hinted at his budding, grander worldview in the October debate with McMahon. “Moving forward, we have to be a lot more stingy about how we use American resources abroad, and commit ourselves to the notion that if we do engage in foreign intervention, it has to be in a multilateral basis,” he said. “The biggest mistakes we have made as a nation is when we have gone in alone.”

Murphy would get the chance to promote that vision after beating McMahon — who spent more than $42 million of her own money on the campaign — with 55 percent of the vote.

“I just want to be a really great senator”

Every senator arrives in Washington with grand ambitions. For Murphy’s team, who saw the boss quickly move his way up the national political ranks, a path to the White House didn’t seem so far-fetched.

In an early 2013 meeting, top members of the lawmaker’s staff spoke with Murphy about how to make him a viable presidential contender, according to people familiar with the conversation. Pretty quickly, though, Murphy shut that talk down.

“This is the job I wanted,” he told them. “I just want to be a really great senator.”

Murphy was skeptical that a Senate newcomer from the Northeast could win over the country. Instead, he sensed that becoming a leader in Congress was where his future lay. “He was pretty firm about it,” a former senior staffer told me. “There was no ambiguity there.”

But how to be a really great legislator? Murphy drew inspiration from his predecessors, particularly Lieberman and Chris Dodd, who used their platform as Connecticut lawmakers to push their foreign policies. “I watched my two US senators become not just national figures but international figures,” Murphy told me. “I grew up learning that part of the job of a United States senator was to try and secure America’s place in the world.”

I asked Dodd if he recalled what advice he gave Murphy after the election. The former lawmaker said he told Murphy, who was once an intern in his office, to champion something important. “The most effective members of the Senate are those who pick one or two issues and do deeper dives,” he told me. “Even the people who disagree with you seek you out.”

The expectation during the campaign was that Murphy would dive right into global affairs. “From the beginning, he wanted to have an impact on foreign policy in the Senate,” said another former senior Murphy staffer. Tragedy, though, forced his attention elsewhere.

A shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 — less than a month before Murphy officially joined the Senate — captured the nation. Twenty children, many as young as 6 years old, and six adults were killed.

Murphy had to respond in a big way on the big stage. He used his first Senate floor speech in April 2013 to do just that.

“In a job like this you’re driven to find the issues that move you,” he said that day. “And then sometimes there are issues that find you. When I was elected to the United States Senate last November, I never imagined that my maiden speech would be about guns or about gun violence.”

He continued:

I think it’s important for all of my colleagues to understand why we’re having this debate this week and next week about gun violence, why for the first time in decades we were able to break the logjam to do something about the waves of violence that have plagued this nation. It’s easy to avert your eyes from the horror of what happened in Newtown. It’s easy to just box your ears and pretend that it didn’t happen. But we can’t ignore the reality because it’s here. And on a disturbingly regular basis it’s here. In Columbine, in Tucson, in Aurora, in Sandy Hook, and the next town’s name is just waiting to be added to the list if we do nothing.

It was an address that marked the first-termer’s arrival. “Murphy gave the most memorable maiden speech of any senator that I have seen in my more than 30 years,” Bill Dauster, who served as deputy chief of staff for policy to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, told me.

Many close to Murphy say without that speech, his platform would be much smaller today. If he had been unknown to an American audience, he wasn’t anymore.

It wouldn’t be much longer before Murphy had a chance to nab the international spotlight, too.

Murphy and McCain go to Ukraine

In 2013, Murphy became a member of the Democrat-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and served as chair of its subcommittee on Europe. He took to the new job quickly, with one Democratic and two Republican former Senate staffers separately calling him a “workhorse.”

Getting on the committee gave Murphy more opportunities to distinguish himself than he may have first realized.

John Kerry, the SFRC’s longtime chair, had become Obama’s second secretary of state. The new Democratic leadership on the committee was much more centrist and hawkish than the Connecticut senator, and recent elections had moved the Republican delegation further to the right.

“There was an opening for someone with an instinctive progressive view to become a big voice, and Murphy was ahead of the curve,” Rebecca Brocato, who at the time worked on legislative affairs in the State Department, told me.

The world beckoned.

In November 2013, Ukraine’s leadership abruptly reversed a plan to associate with the European Union under pressure from Moscow. Thousands of Ukrainians who wanted to continue the country’s Westward tilt descended on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti — “Independence Square” — to protest the former Soviet territory’s Russia-friendly government.

McCain, the strongest Republican foreign policy voice in the Senate, was vocal about his support for the demonstrators. To show solidarity, he planned a visit to the Maidan.

That worried Victoria Nuland, then the top Europe official at the State Department. She liked that someone with McCain’s stature was going to Kyiv, she told me, but she also wanted the trip to be bipartisan. Otherwise, it would look like McCain — a prominent Obama critic — was blasting both Russia and a White House that still hadn’t crafted a coherent response.

What happened next is still fuzzy. Murphy says Nuland called him to “suggest” he speak with McCain about joining the upcoming trip. After all, Murphy was the Europe subcommittee chief and hadn’t yet been to Ukraine. Nuland, however, told me she doesn’t remember inviting Murphy but that it was “possible” she spoke to the Democrat or his staff about approaching McCain.

Either way, Murphy says he and McCain spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday, December 12, when McCain brought up that he would leave for Ukraine that evening to return in time for Monday votes. “If you want to come with me, you can,” Murphy recounted McCain telling him. Murphy accepted the offer.

The two lawmakers were together on the ground in Ukraine for just 16 hours, holding meetings with officials, demonstrators, and civil society groups. “It was a grueling trip,” a former senior McCain aide told me, not least because a congressional visit like that usually takes weeks, not days, to prepare.

But one moment made the whole thing worth it: McCain and Murphy went onstage to address the half-million Maidan protesters who had withstood a month-long government crackdown and braved the cold to hear them speak. “People of Ukraine, this is your moment,” McCain stated, his voice echoing in the open square. “This is about the future you want for your country. This is about the future you deserve.”

Murphy followed: “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the US stands with Ukraine.”

The crowd, desperate for some glimmer of hope, chanted in approval.

Sen. John McCain speaking to the half-million-strong crowd on the Maidan in Kyiv, Ukraine, in December 2013.
Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images
Sen. Chris Murphy walks next to Sen. John McCain on Independence Square during a rally in Kiev, on December 15, 2013.
Volodymyr Shuvayev/AFP via Getty Images

The former top McCain staffer told me the senator appreciated having Murphy along. It showed bipartisan support for the cause, and it gave the Arizonan a chance to mentor someone he saw as a future leader. “McCain wanted to take Murphy under his wing,” the staffer added, noting McCain also liked that a junior lawmaker wouldn’t upstage him abroad.

Murphy looks fondly on his years debating America’s role in the world and traveling with the senior lawmaker, even if their conversations could get testy. “I’ve been on the receiving end of a famous McCain shout-down,” he told me.

Still, he recalls the Maidan whirlwind as a formative experience. “The trip in many ways changed my life,” Murphy said at the Hartford bar. “I struck up a relationship with John that lasted for a long time, and I obviously acquired a passion for a policy area, US-Ukraine relations, that stuck.”

More than that, those close to Murphy say he learned from McCain how to play a global role as a US senator. “It’s more than just voting on things,” a former top Murphy aide told me, “it’s about standing up for American values.”

Nuland, who’s from Connecticut, agrees. Murphy “watched McCain and wanted to take up a similar mantle for himself,” she said. “He realized you don’t have to be in the executive branch to play a major role.”

One moment made that clear to Murphy’s team in early 2014, shortly after Russian forces annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The senator was scheduled to meet with senior Russian diplomats and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s patriarch in Washington. But there was a problem: Both meetings were around the same time. Staffers pushed Murphy to see the religious leader, as the photo opportunity alone would show his growing stature as a serious foreign policy figure.

Instead, Murphy dispatched his aides to meet with the patriarch. He wanted to speak directly to the Russians. “What you have done is outrageous,” a former senior Murphy staffer recalled the senator telling the officials, “and I’m going to do everything in my power to stop you.”

“He just lit into them,” the staffer added. “He spoke with absolute clarity about how wrong they were.” There were few reservations about what inspired Murphy to do that: “Some of that comes from his relationship with McCain.”

During the Obama years, “there was an opportunity to be in the foreign policy arena”

Murphy had a rapport with President Obama, too. “As the administration focused on prioritizing diplomacy, Murphy was seen as an ally,” said Brocato, the former State Department legislative official. Top Democrats, especially on the SFRC, were critical of Obama’s willingness to talk to adversaries instead of meeting them with firepower.

The politics made Murphy a foreign policy partner from the start. But it didn’t stop him or his staff from letting the administration know when they thought a grave error was made. “There were times we wanted to yell, ‘How did you people come to this conclusion?’” a senior Murphy staffer told me.

Indeed, the period from 2013 to 2015 led to a major fight, a major agreement, and a major fight again.

The first disagreement came on whether to bomb Syria.

In August 2013, Bashar al-Assad’s forces killed, by some estimates, more than 1,400 people with sarin gas, a particularly horrifying chemical weapon that can cause paralysis, convulsions, or death. That put immense pressure on Obama, who didn’t directly intervene for two years but did say Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross his “red line.”

Top officials in Obama’s team were pushing the president to respond with a military strike, arguing the situation demanded the US do something and that Obama had painted himself into a political corner.

The Connecticut lawmaker couldn’t have disagreed more. “There is little chance that targeted air strikes would destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, making the strikes little more than a slap on the wrist,” he said in an August 27 statement, adding “the US should not take military action without Congressional authorization.”

Sen. Chris Murphy had a rapport with President Obama but often disagreed on his handling of the conflict in Syria.
Susan Walsh/AP

Murphy and Obama spoke on the phone after the senator’s statement came out, his team told me, and the lawmaker used the opportunity to reiterate his concerns. Murphy also got a chance to chat with then-Vice President Biden and other White House officials about Syria.

It’s unclear whether Murphy’s remarks had an effect, but caught between an impulse to act and his own skepticism of unilateral intervention, Obama on September 1 asked Congress for an authorization to attack Syria. “It is too easy for a president to go to war,” he privately told aides about his decision, saying he’d have more legitimacy for the action if lawmakers backed him.

Democratic leadership, which wanted to authorize the strikes, didn’t like that they couldn’t count on Murphy’s vote. “It caused some consternation because it became an obstacle for Reid and [New Jersey Sen. Robert] Menendez to do what was asked by the president,” said Tommy Ross, a top defense and intelligence adviser to Senate Majority Leader Reid at the time. He noted that almost everyone thought Murphy’s objections were reasonable, including the senator’s worry that strikes might make it easier for terrorist groups to get their hands on chemical weapons.

The SFRC went ahead with an authorization vote on September 4, passing the legislation and nominally giving Obama the approval he sought. Murphy was one of only two Democrats who voted against it.

In the end, Obama never attacked. His administration struck a surprise deal with Russia roughly a week later to have Syria’s chemical weapons destroyed in exchange for holstering the bombs. Syria, though, continued to use chemical weapons afterward to kill civilians.

Looking back on the ordeal during our first chat last December, Murphy seemed more critical of America’s involvement in Syria in hindsight than he was at the time. Obama didn’t bomb the country, but he did wade into the conflict early through a covert rebel arming and training program to depose Assad.

“If the United States hadn’t spent money and resources propping up the rebels in the early days, we likely would have gotten the exact same outcome with a lot less bloodshed, terror, and torture,” he told me. “Sometimes US involvement doesn’t change the outcome. It just lengthens the misery between the beginning of the conflict and the inevitable end of it.”

Murphy and Obama got on the same page in 2015.

The administration faced stiff resistance from Republican and anti-Iran Democrats as it pushed for a nuclear pact. As the White House and State Department looked for an ally in Congress, they didn’t have one in top SFRC Democrats like Menendez or Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. Instead, they relied on Murphy.

“Murphy was willing to have the fight,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told me. “He was totally committed to the approach we were taking.” Obama’s team desperately needed someone in the Senate staunchly on their side, as the body had passed a measure that May allowing it to vote on any deal the Obama team agreed to.

It put any accord in jeopardy. Obama would surely veto any rejection, but the Senate could still muster up enough support to override it. Murphy went on the attack to help the Iran deal survive.

Just over a week after the US, Iran, and five other world powers put pen to paper in July, Murphy was working the Washington think tank circuit.

“The vote on this agreement does not take place in a vacuum,” he told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If the US Congress rejects this deal” — noting it was the world’s only parliamentary body voting on the accord — “then two things happen. One, the sanctions fall apart. And two, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program don’t go into effect. Period. Stop.”

“Anyone positing an alternative is frankly living in some sort of alternate universe,” he continued.

He made that stance official on the Senate floor in August, when few Senate Democrats had come out in favor of approving the agreement and when it was still unclear there would be a veto-proof majority. It was only the following month that enough senators backed the deal to guarantee Congress couldn’t sink it.

Obama, with Murphy’s help, had won. “The support he played in understanding and communicating the value of the deal — more than the vote — was very significant,” Richard Nephew, who worked on the nuclear accord in the Obama administration, told me.

The honeymoon didn’t last.

Murphy was a critic of Saudi Arabia’s war against Houthi rebels in Yemen from the moment it started in early 2015, and especially after the US agreed to provide Riyadh with intelligence and aerial refueling support.

“He was a lonely voice on Yemen before it attracted the attention of everyone else,” a former senior staffer told me. Murphy worked the phones, calling Senate colleagues from both parties to see if anything could be done to help the more than 21 million desperately endangered Yemenis. But his anger was also directed at the Saudis, and as a punishment he aimed to drive a wedge in Washington’s decades-long ties to Riyadh.

“There are more and more things not to like about the state of our relationship,” he told a Council on Foreign Relations audience in 2016. After chastising the country for its promotion of Wahhabism — a conservative, extremist Islamic ideology that has inspired several terror groups — he said “the United States should suspend supporting Saudi Arabia in the military campaign in Yemen … until we make some progress in the Saudi export of Wahhabism.”

In September 2016, Murphy, along with another Democrat and two Republicans, forced a vote to block more than $1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which would have put a hold on 150 US-provided tanks. The measure was struck down, 71 to 27. Murphy sold it as a moral win in interviews for having at least shown the relationship’s future was in question. But his optimism belied what was still a controversial view in Washington.

He told me in his Senate office during an interview for this piece that he hoped the US stepping back from its relationship with Saudi Arabia could lead to that country’s improved ties with its regional enemy: Iran.

“The Saudis would be much more interested in trying to reconcile, in some way, shape, or form, with the Iranians if they didn’t have an unconditional, unending flow of arms coming to them from the United States,” he said.

Put together, Murphy’s actions set him apart from Obama foreign policy loyalists. But he received plaudits from some in the White House, the Senate, and the public for standing by his principles regardless of who opposed him.

It helped distinguish him as a leading foreign policy voice. Even Rhodes, who spent all eight years in the Obama administration, told me he’s now come closer to Murphy’s way of thinking about the world, as evidenced by the articles they’ve written together.

When I asked a former senior staffer if Murphy aimed for notoriety during the Obama era, there was a slight, knowing pause before I got an answer. “There was an opportunity to be in the foreign policy arena,” the staffer said.

Murphy vs. Trump

In April 2017, just four months into Trump’s presidency and after years of crafting his own foreign policy vision, Murphy wrote down his doctrine.

Titled “Rethinking the Battlefield,” it outlined in about 60 pages Murphy’s views on how the United States should reallocate funds to better deal with a complicated world. Spending so much on the military wasn’t helping the US make more friends than enemies, he argued. Global players like an aggressive China, a revanchist Russia, and a nimble ISIS showed they were adapting their strategies to gain power and influence, all while the US was stuck believing it could create peace through strength alone.

Sen. Chris Murphy speaks about gun control with President Trump and bipartisan members of Congress on February 28, 2018.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

His solution? Increase America’s spending on international affairs by $50 billion, cut part of the military budget, and put those new resources into three main buckets. First, major assistance initiatives that alleviate the conditions that make violent extremism more attractive. Second, a new American presence abroad that leads more with diplomats than with troops and supports anti-corruption measures. Third, efforts to “help prevent humanitarian disasters from becoming strategic disasters” by making the US an even greater donor for at-risk people around the world.

“This budget is a blueprint for a radically new approach to American foreign policy, one that will give us the best chance to address the threats that face us in the 21st Century,” he concluded. This, in toto, was a clear distillation of his so-called progressive foreign policy.

Unsurprisingly, someone with this view of the world would be unhappy with Trump’s. On almost every issue, Murphy has vociferously opposed what the commander in chief has done.

War powers and Yemen

The first clash, beginning in earnest in 2018, was over the war in Yemen.

Murphy still wanted to end America’s involvement, while Trump quickly sided with Saudi Arabia and wanted to help Riyadh defeat the Houthis. After all, Iran was helping the rebels fight the kingdom, and the Trump administration was anti-Iran from the start.

Sanders, the longtime Vermont senator and Murphy’s ally in this cause, had an idea. He wanted to propose a War Powers Resolution that would direct Trump to remove US troops involved in “hostilities” abroad if there was no formal “declaration of war or specific statutory authorization” from Congress.

Sanders brought Murphy and Utah Republican Mike Lee into his effort. Each wanted to reestablish Congress as the rightful branch of government to declare war while simultaneously ending America’s role in a humanitarian catastrophe. The three co-sponsored the measure and pushed for a vote in March, when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — known as MBS — was in Washington. The resolution, though, was defeated handily, 55 to 44.

The calculus changed dramatically when MBS ordered a plan to kill Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who lived in Virginia and worked for the Washington Post, that October in Turkey. Even staunch Trump and Saudi allies in the Senate like South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham turned against Riyadh.

“It is not in our national security interests to look the other way when it comes to the brutal murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Graham said in a November statement. “When we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset.” That month, the Senate voted in a procedural step to consider the resolution and not outright reject it — a win in itself. Caving to pressure, the Trump administration stopped refueling Saudi planes but continued to offer reconnaissance support.

The Senate war powers trio sniffed out another chance to hit Riyadh where it hurt. In December, they and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul met to discuss a way forward. Matt Duss, Sanders’s top foreign policy adviser, told me the feeling among the staff was that a war powers caucus was forming.

“There was a real appreciation for the fact that our bosses were coming together to do something literally unprecedented, and working through ideas that could form the basis for a new and better foreign policy consensus,” he told me.

Sanders, Murphy, and Lee agreed to introduce the legislation again, this time in January 2019. After two months of debate, it passed 54 to 46. One month later, the Democrat-led House approved the measure 247 to 175. The resolution, once almost impossible to imagine sailing through Congress, was headed to the president’s desk.

Sen. Chris Murphy, flanked by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, speaks after the Senate voted to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen on December 13, 2018.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

“I’ve been waiting years for this day to come,” Murphy said in a statement after the House vote. “Democrats and Republicans in Congress sent a powerful message to the Saudi government — they can no longer take their alliance with the United States for granted, and we will not stand idly by while the [Saudis] continue to kill thousands of civilians in our name.”

As expected, Trump vetoed the Sanders-led initiative, and the Senate didn’t have enough votes to override the president’s decision. To this day, the US still helps the Saudis conduct the war in Yemen by providing military advice and intelligence sharing, with American defense officials insisting they take all necessary measures to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Yemenis have died, a humanitarian catastrophe with no end in sight — and little relief from the Trump administration.

But Murphy and his colleagues do feel they accomplished something important: reasserting Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war.

Duss thinks Murphy taking gambles like that is what’s helped his rise. “He’s broken through because he’s put in the work and understands the issues, he communicates them clearly, and he has courage,” Duss told me. “The courage part, that’s a very rare thing in Washington.”

Venezuela

On January 23, 2019, Venezuela had two presidents.

The first was Nicolás Maduro, the socialist dictator who squandered his nation’s economic potential and ruined the lives of millions. The second was the head of the country’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. He claimed to be the nation’s true leader because Maduro had rigged the previous year’s presidential election. By Venezuelan law, that meant he would take the reins until a new, free election could take place to choose the next president.

The United States immediately backed Guaidó. And while dozens of other countries did as well, Trump’s leadership of the effort fueled suspicions that Washington wanted regime change in Caracas.

Murphy’s analysis was more measured. Only six days after the uprising, he and Rhodes wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post praising Trump for backing a pro-democratic effort but criticizing him for doing so with no real plan. “In Venezuela, if the armed forces continue to back Maduro, then last week’s move may come to look feckless, while offering Maduro the opportunity to rally his domestic and foreign backers against US intervention,” they wrote.

That’s exactly what happened. Despite some defections, the Venezuelan military and security forces remain loyal to Maduro. Even after the US has imposed crushing sanctions on Caracas, the dictator remains in the presidential mansion, blaming America for the nation’s ills, while Guaidó still works to dislodge him.

The ordeal is an encapsulation of Murphy’s critique of US foreign policy in general. Yes, Washington is the strongest nation on earth. Unleashing its economic muscle on Venezuela — and threatening military action — on the surface seems effective enough to get what it wants. But not in today’s world, not even against a weak regime in Venezuela.

“It’s time for President Trump to realize that his Venezuela policy has failed, badly,” Murphy wrote for Univision in November.

Iran

In May 2018, Trump followed through on his campaign promise to end US participation in the Iran nuclear deal. The president felt the time limits on the pact put Tehran on the path to a nuclear weapon — not off it — and so he reimposed previously lifted sanctions to force the Iranians to sign a more stringent agreement.

As expected, Republicans cheered and Democrats jeered. Few were as angry as Murphy, who fought tooth and nail in the Obama years to keep the pact intact.

“Pulling out of the Iran deal is like a soccer player deliberately kicking the ball into their own team’s goal,” he said in a statement the day of the withdrawal. “There is nothing but downside for the US, especially since Trump has zero plan for what comes next … and it makes Connecticut and our nation less safe.”

Over the next year and a half, Iran decided not to negotiate with the Trump administration. Instead, it started to lash out by bombing oil tankers and Saudi oil refineries, and having proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East.

In January 2020, Trump responded to the escalation by killing Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s second-most-powerful person and the leader of its elite military force. Murphy bashed that decision.

“No matter how good it may feel that Qassem Soleimani is no longer alive, he likely will end up being more dangerous to the United States, our troops, and our allies, as a martyr than as a living, breathing military adversary,” he said the day after the killing. “There will be reprisals, and Iran will likely target American troops and even our own political and military leaders.

“This is why the United States does not assassinate leaders of foreign nations — in the end such action risks getting more, not less, Americans killed in the long run,” he concluded.

Worried that US-Iran tensions might spiral out of control, Murphy chose to do something about it, knowing full well it would anger the president.

As Murphy’s team told me, during a planning call for the congressional delegation to February’s Munich Security Conference, the senator’s staff told the US Embassy in Germany that Murphy wanted to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The embassy replied it couldn’t set up the meeting. Plan B was for Murphy’s aides to work with a facilitator — whose name staff wouldn’t disclose — to organize the chat. That proved successful.

After days of silence, Murphy acknowledged in a Medium post that he had met with the top Iranian diplomat while in Munich. They had talked before, but this was a tenser time, especially after the president had ordered the killing of such a high-level figure.

“I have no delusions about Iran — they are our adversary, responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans and unacceptable levels of support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East,” Murphy wrote. “But I think it’s dangerous to not talk to your enemies. Discussions and negotiations are a way to ease tensions and reduce the chances for crisis. But Trump, of course, has no such interests.”

The president chastised Murphy for the meeting on Twitter, saying he had violated the Logan Act, which forbids private US citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Murphy rebuffs any such suggestion. “I think it’s my job to meet with foreign leaders, especially in the Middle East, given that I’m the ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees that region,” he told me.

I asked him if he wouldn’t mind a Republican lawmaker meeting with a foreign leader whom a Democratic president deemed an enemy of the country. He dodged but didn’t discount the idea. “If I couldn’t meet with leaders of countries where I have a disagreement with the president over policy, then I wouldn’t be able to meet any leader in the world,” Murphy told me.

The coronavirus

Trump’s slow response to deal with the coronavirus has garnered Murphy’s ire.

Despite China’s initial cover-up and late reporting of the new disease, Trump spent much of February praising Beijing and failing to prepare the government for a potential spike in infections at home. One of his most egregious mistakes was initially refusing to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA), a Korean War-era law that gives the federal government broad powers to direct private companies to make and sell vital materials.

Had he used it much earlier in 2020, experts say, US hospitals might have all the masks, gowns, respirators, and ventilators they desperately need today. Instead, states are now competing against one another for scarce resources, and some health workers are forced to wear bandanas or makeshift materials to protect themselves.

With his Senate colleague Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Murphy put forward legislation on March 23 to require Trump to federalize the production and distribution of medical equipment like masks and ventilators (a companion effort followed in the House the next day).

Per the press release, the bill specifically would “force President Trump to identify private sector capacity to help nothing less than 500,000,000 N95 respirators; 200,000 medical ventilators; 20,000,000 face shields; 500,000,000 pairs of gloves; and 20,000,000 surgical gowns in addition to other medical equipment deemed necessary.”

The crisis required an all-hands-on-deck approach. “The medical supply system has turned into Lord of the Flies,” Murphy wrote in Barron’s on March 31, “and the only way to fix this desperately broken system is aggressive federal action.”

The measure hasn’t been taken up in Congress, and Trump seems to still prefer states battle against one another for resources. So Murphy has offered up his own strategy for dealing with this and other pandemics.

In a March 30 op-ed for Foreign Policy magazine, the senator said the US should take three actions to minimize the threat of the next global disease epidemic.

First, the US should revive the US Agency of International Development’s PREDICT program, which helped the country prepare for pandemics. Trump shut it down in October 2019. Second, America should create a “Global Health Security Challenge Fund” to build up the health infrastructures of other nations. Third, the country should “supersize” its global public health corps.

That last measure could only come with more funding. “Clearly we are not adequately protecting our nation when the military budget is nearly $740 billion and the global public health budget is only $11 billion,” Murphy concluded.

He continues to hammer the president over coronavirus. In a viral Twitter thread on April 1, the lawmaker effectively blamed Trump for a death total that could needlessly reach 200,000 people, as the White House itself estimated at the time. “The problem isn’t that Trump’s doing the wrong things,” Murphy wrote. “The problem is he’s effectively doing nothing.”

Put together, Trump and Murphy couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. A foreign policy more aligned with the senator’s view would alter the course America is on. If a Democrat wins the presidential election in November, it’s more likely than not the new commander in chief will pursue policies more in line with Murphy’s view.

The question is how much of a direct role Murphy would want to have in such an administration.

What does Chris Murphy really want?

Chris Murphy doesn’t want to be president — at least for now. As early as 2017, he told reporters he wouldn’t run in 2020 despite efforts to get him into the race. He seems intent on building up his foreign policy credentials while in the Senate, which he’ll have time to do after easily winning a second term in office in 2018.

He’s now calling for dramatic increases to the State Department’s budget and staff, which he thinks will help the US better understand other nations while having the requisite resources to enact everything from anti-corruption policies to economic projects. America’s penchant for leading with troops, instead of with diplomats, is a major reason America is losing its influence to growing powers, he says.

Murphy’s core belief is that a progressive foreign policy is about capabilities. The US has the tools and resources to make a better world, if only it would actually employ them in a meaningful way. If it doesn’t, American power will wane.

Some to Murphy’s left on foreign policy say the problem with this vision is that it’s still rooted in the romantic notion of American primacy. The senator still wants the US to be No. 1, and all his proposals are in service of that goal.

Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-interventionist think tank, thinks that’s the wrong mindset. “A progressive foreign policy is about objectives as well as capabilities,” he told me. “It’s about rejecting the failed and immoral objective of military domination and finally committing the resources of the United States to the major challenges the American people face: crumbling communities, global warming, and governed wealth.”

But Murphy’s worldview is popular enough that talk has ramped up about what’s next for the 46-year-old senator. Some top Democrats, including those involved in presidential campaigns, suggest he’s certainly on a shortlist of people to be the nation’s top diplomat, which has some Connecticut and party elders excited. “I think he’d be a good secretary of state,” Lieberman, the former senator, told me.

Others say there are more prominent figures in the wings who deserve it more, especially longtime diplomats who understand the intricacies of foreign policy more intimately.

Most people I spoke to say it would be best for Murphy to remain in the Senate. He’s proven effective in the body and could serve as an important asset to any Democratic president when trying to push a foreign policy initiative through Congress.

In fact, those close to him say he should aim to be — if it isn’t his goal already — the McCain of the left. Murphy’s voice on foreign policy is perhaps the strongest in his party. With his probable longevity in Congress, his influence is only likely to grow. “He could be a McCain for the Democrats in the Senate for the next 20 years,” Ben Rhodes told me.

Murphy doesn’t take kindly to pointed questions about his future. I asked different versions of the same question countless times, only to be rebuffed on each occasion.

But he did tell me that there’s still a lot he wants to accomplish. “I want to make sure that we’re still a factor for good in the world and I want to be able to lead,” he said in his office. “I’m hopeful to be able to paint a path forward by which Americans feel better about us continuing to be involved in the world.”

Whether he’ll do that from behind his Senate desk or some other seat in Washington is one issue with global implications Murphy won’t talk about.

Credits

Editors: Jenn Williams, Ben Pauker
Photo editor: Kainaz Amaria
Fact checkers: Becca Laurie, Danna Takriti
Copy editors: Tanya Pai, Tim Williams, Kelli Pate

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