By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – During his two years in the U.S. Senate, Republican Todd Young has been a persistent voice on the plight of people tormented by the Yemen civil war. He describes the current situation as one of the most severe humanitarian disasters since World War II.

Since October, events in Yemen have collided with Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with U.S. intelligence services directly implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). President Trump has not accepted those assessments, prompting Young and 13 Republicans to join Democrats in a delivering a historic rebuke to Saudi Arabia, which Young says has indiscriminately bombed citizens and perpetrated a famine that could kill 14 million people.

After that procedural vote last week, Young said in a statement, “There are serious and legitimate concerns regarding human rights in Iran. However, those who would ignore or minimize the pattern of abuses by Saudi Arabia, including the murder of Khashoggi, risk undermining their own credibility when speaking out regarding the very real human rights abuses in Iran. The postponement of genuine justice for Khashoggi, the continuation of the Yemeni civil war, and the deepening of the humanitarian crisis there will only increase opportunities for Tehran to further its malign activities in the region.” 

That statement and the fact that 14 Republicans voted to begin sanctions on Saudi Arabia were seen as warning shots for President Trump, who has cast doubts on U.S. intelligence assessments that MBS was involved. On Monday, after CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed a small group of senators, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he had a “high confidence” in the intel and added, “There’s not a smoking gun — there’s a smoking saw,” a reference to reports that one of MBS’s henchman showed up at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with a bone saw that is believed to have been used to dismember Khashoggi, a graduate of Indiana State University.

On Wednesday, Young was part of a biparisan group filing the bill sponsored by Sens. Graham and Dianne Feinstein. “This resolution — without equivocation — definitively states that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was complicit in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and has been a wrecking ball to the region jeopardizing our national security interests on multiple fronts,” Sen. Graham said. “It will be up to Saudi Arabia as to how to deal with this matter. But it is up to the United States to firmly stand for who we are and what we believe.”

In this HPI Interview conducted Monday in Young’s downtown Indianapolis office, the freshman senator says he “trusts” U.S. intelligence assessments. Asked if he was offended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Putin’s high-fiving antics at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last weekend – both are now known journalist killers – Young curtly said “yes.”

His Senate term enters its middle stretch with sensational events on the horizon. Beyond the Saudi conflict, Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to be preparing the release of his Russian collusion probe, one which Young believes will eventually be accessible to the public.

He stressed his willingness to work in a bipartisan manner, noting that he is in the top 10% of the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index. A former staffer to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, Young is picking up one of his former mentor’s mantles, just selected as chair of the Republican National Senatorial Committee. Thus, Young becomes the partisan point man when the GOP will have to defend some 20 Senate seats, coinciding with a potential reelection bid by President Trump and Vice President Pence. Young told HPI that he reached out to Lugar, who chaired the senatorial committee in 1984, and the former senator ardently encouraged him to accept that chair. During his political career, Young has been a money-raising machine. His path to Congress is littered with defeated former members (former Reps. Mike Sodrel and Baron Hill in his 2010 pursuit of a U.S. House seat) and Reps. Marlin Stutzman and former Sen. Evan Bayh in his 2016 breakthrough to the U.S. Senate.

Here is our HPI Interview with Sen. Young:

HPI: Walk us through your stance with Saudi Arabia.

Young: I’ve been working since March of 2017 on this issue. There are four major famines of great concern to the international community: Yemen, Northeast Nigeria, south Sudan and Somalia. Yemen is actually the most serious humanitarian crisis since the 1940s, according to the United Nations. Fourteen million people are on the brink of starvation.

HPI: Is this a Saudi blockade?

Young: This is a man-made humanitarian crisis on account of an existing civil war going on for a period of years, significantly exacerbated by the Saudi-led blockade of the major port of Hodeidah, going on for a period of years, where 80% of food and medical supplies and energy are typically delivered. Also exacerbated by the indiscriminate targeting of civilians through air strikes and other violations of the laws of war. So, we have at once the largest humanitarian crisis in the world and a very significant security crisis. As Yemen continues to destabilize, Iran will get a stronger foothold in the country where they have aligned themselves with the Houthi movement, which is opposed to Saudi Arabia. And, as Yemenis are deprived of food and medical attention, they are radicalizing in a country that is the headquarters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, the most dangerous affiliate of al-Qaeda, and where ISIS also has a presence. Why should Hoosiers care about this? This is inconsistent with our values as a country and the world is watching, as we provide refueling assistance to Saudi aircraft, logistical assistance to their military operations, including the starvation of blockade they’ve been involved in, and intelligence assistance to Saudi Arabia. We should also be concerned about the national security implications of further destabilizing a country where the largest state sponsor of terror, Iran, has a major foothold. 

HPI: I thought your statement last week was extraordinary. President Trump’s decision not to accept U.S. intelligence assessments of the Jamal Khashoggi murder and how that reflects on values, you just talked about American values and yet we have a president who seems to be equating our relationship with Saudi Arabia simply on financial terms as opposed to humanitarian or cultural concerns. What led you to make that statement? The Senate follows up this week to that vote last week.

Young: As a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, I’ve spent a lot of years relying on the work product of our intelligence professionals. I trust their work product. They don’t always get it right, but they’re the best in the world. That informs my work on this and on other issues. From the beginning of my work on this Yemeni humanitarian and security crisis, my point of emphasis has always been and remains to give the Trump administration enough leverage as is required to bring all parties to the table, so that a political settlement can be negotiated to this very complicated conflict. Because that’s the only way we’ll address the humanitarian needs of the Yemeni population and our own security needs.

HPI: As a journalist, I cannot tell you how appalling it was to watch that handshake or high-fiving between the Crown Prince and President Putin in Buenos Aires last weekend. Was that an affront to your sensibilities?

Young: Yes.

HPI: Since Helsinki, we’ve watched President Trump really dispute assessments by U.S. intelligence services on the Russian election meddling. He’s met one on one with President Putin. When I was with Sen. Donnelly in August he told me he has no idea what the read-out was on that meeting and the national press has reported that National Intelligence Director Dan Coats doesn’t know what Trump and Putin talked about. Do you know what they talked about? If you don’t, does that bother you?

Young: I’m always wanting more information on what’s going on in the world and the conversations that top leaders have. That will always be imperfect information I’ll have. I can remember when President Obama made some whispering comments to then-President Medvedev of Russia that they discussed outside the microphones. Right? So, of course as a member of the Oversight Committee, I’m always concerned about such conversations. Vis-a-vis Russia, the Trump administration has been as vigilant as I can imagine with respect to their actual actions. President Trump and others in this administration, working with this Republican Congress, has sent heavy weaponry into Ukraine, to try and deter to the extent possible Russian encroachment. They have sent troops into Poland for rotational exercises and to help deter further Russian encroachment into Eastern Europe. They’ve regularly participated in military exercises in the Baltics. Within the cyber realm, they’ve been monitoring Russia’s nefarious activities. And in the Middle East, we’ve done all we can recognizing the horrific realities of the situation in Syria, to check Russian adventurism there. So this is incredibly refreshing and ought to be encouraging to national security observers and analysts as they compare this level of engagement to what we saw during the Obama administration. Now with that said, I don’t want to create an impression that this is a partisan issue. I’ve worked very hard in the United States Senate to work with my Democratic colleagues. 

HPI: They say Putin only really understands power. It appears he’s cutting off 40% of Ukrainian exports through the Sea of Avoz. Do we have a growing crisis from the actions of a couple of Sundays ago?

Young: I don’t know if it’s a crisis, but here again working with our security partners, we need to continue to lead, send messages to Vladimir Putin and others around the world watching that every illicit action will be met with a reaction. We’ve already implemented robust sanctions against those who are close to Vladimir Putin and this may be an opportunity to level further sanctions. I admit there are diminishing returns on further sanctions, so sending our naval assets into the area may be something we consider doing. We, of course, want to measure an action against the risk of escalation that might occur. These things need to be carefully modulated. Again, I’m incredibly proud of the work our State Department, working with our Department of Defense and the commander-in-chief have done with respect to Russia.

HPI: When you were in the military, how many presidents did you serve under? Two or three?

Young: Just one, Clinton. 

HPI: Watching you on “Morning Joe” the other day, you appear to be giving President Trump a broader bandwidth for how he formulates foreign policy. It’s different than the two president Bushes, Clinton and Obama. Is that a challenge for you on how to react? And I have not pelted you with requests for reaction on every controversial thing President Trump does, says or tweets. Is this different how you formulate and give him a more unique space than you did with President Obama?

Young: Clearly, this president is a different sort of president than those I’ve served in my lifetime. That’s one of the reasons the American people elected him. He communicates differently, he makes decisions differently. He wants to shape policy in different directions. I’ve not only accepted that, in many cases I embrace it. I credit this president with elevating to the top of our agenda to counter Chinese theft of our intellectual property. I credit this president with keeping his promises on multiple fronts, like ensuring border security is a priority and that we would, indeed, reform our tax code. So, I look for opportunities to work with this administration on a number of fronts. I’m very proud of our achievements for two years and much of that record is a bipartisan record of achievement, which is actually obscured much of the time.

HPI: Saturday night President Trump dined with his Chinese counterpart President Xi and they appeared to strike a 90-day truce in the tariff and trade war. I was with the soybean and corn farmers last week and many of them are meeting with their bankers in December and January to plan the 2019 seasons. They had hedges on prices this year, but 2019 and 2020 will be different. President Trump will be dealing with the very same sort of intellectual property issues that President Bush 41 did a generation ago. What’s your message to Hoosier farmers?

Young: I want to affirm the views of a vast majority of Hoosier farmers and those who live in rural communities that President Trump has identified legitimate grievances with Chinese predatory and economic practices. But I’ve seen, Brian, in your writing that you question whether or not the president and the administration more broadly have a clear plan for our trade strategy.

HPI: Do you think they do?

Young: That’s why I’ve introduced legislation that would require the administration to provide a coherent, comprehensive, written national economic security strategy that lays out for all to see precisely what the plan is. I think this would be a very helpful tool for members of Congress, so we could provide oversight for our trade policy and other economic policies moving forward. I think it would be helpful to have outside stakeholders to provide critical analysis of that plan and I think it would be a powerful signaling device for our allies and adversaries alike about what the consequences of illicit economic activities will be. We have a national security strategy. It’s written and periodically produced, quite helpful to our country, and helps us rally around a particular security strategy in a bipartisan way. We’re able to typically achieve a level of consensus about what a security strategy should look like. I think the very same thing with our economic strategy would be quite helpful to our country. 

HPI: You mentioned you’ve worked in a bipartisan manner. What are the highlights of these efforts in your first two years?

Young: I spent the first two years in the Senate developing as many close relationships as I could on both sides of the aisle. We’ve already seen that is paying dividends. I’ve passed into law an entirely new model of social service delivery in this country through our Social Impact Partnership legislation. President Trump signed it into law. This will enable the least among us to be served through evidenced-based practices currently being delivered by non-profit and for-profit entities, using private capital to scale up these approaches around Indiana and other parts of the country. Lives will be improved, thus saving taxpayers a whole lot of money on government services in the process. That’s an example of working with my Democratic colleagues. 

Another example is housing policy. I had no idea this was on the minds of Hoosiers and others around the country in such a significant way. The lack of affordable housing across income groups is a real barrier, not just to people not realizing their dreams and moving up the economic ladder, but also employers as they look to attract new hires into their community. I launched an initiative called the Fair Shot Agenda. I’ve visited some of the most distressed areas of the state. The lack of affordable housing stock is not just leading to homelessness and eviction rates. We’ve got three cities in the top 20 in the country in terms of eviction rates: South Bend, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis. It’s also preventing people from moving into Jasper, Ind., where there is a real dearth of labor supply because there is not enough housing. It’s preventing people from moving into Warsaw and taking jobs up there. 

Retirement security is another area that I’ve been working in a bipartisan way, very actively with Cory Booker, to ensure that as this population ages and there’s increasing strain on our Social Security system, people are saving more for their own retirement. Another one that comes to mind is opioids. We in Congress have authorized a number of evidence-based programs to address this scourge. We’ve dedicated billions of dollars to address this challenge as well. I’ve gotten six bills in which I was a leader, passed. Here again, working in a bipartisan way to get them done. 

As I look forward, there will be other meaningful opportunities as well. Infrastructure comes to mind as one possibility. The State of Indiana, as the “Crossroads of America,” has significant surface transportation needs, but we also have needs when it comes to rail, ports and inland transportation, rural broadband, airports and other areas. As a member of the Commerce Committee, I look forward to playing an out-sized role there. 

We need to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. I’ve spent the better part of two years coming up with creative ideas, working with college presidents, financial analysts and even many student groups to determine the best way to fund higher education, upskill our workforce, retrain existing workers and make sure when people enter the workforce after their K-12 experience, they are ready to go and meaningfully participate in what is a growing economy. 

HPI: You’ve got a new colleague coming into the Indiana delegation with Mike Braun. I know you worked well with Sen. Donnelly. You’ve got Braun who spent a good part of the campaign talking about what he did in his company with regard to health reforms. One of the things he said, if we’re going to repeal Obamacare – which you voted for – we’re going to have to replace it with something. Do you look forward to working with Sen. Braun on what comes next with Obamacare? Because, to tell you the truth, my small business has been socked with skyrocketing insurance rates. My premiums have gone from $400 a month to close to $1,000. It’s a major problem.

Young: I really look forward to working with Mike Braun. He has an incredibly impressive professional background and has professional experience in dealing with health care issues, and I believe he’ll be able to add some value as we tackle this issue. I’m a member of the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. We will be intently focused on this issue in the next two years and beyond. I think we need to move beyond the conversation about health insurance reform and discuss health care more broadly. Health care innovation will be essential if we’re going to drive down the cost of care and increase access to care. There are other creative things we need to consider that have not been part of the conversation.

For example, how might we empower the consumer with health care transparency so you can have a functioning market? This is an issue fraught with complexities. There are a number of different computer systems out there that aren’t speaking with one another. If we can order a procedure and give them the information they need to make informed health care decisions through transparency initiatives, that would be quite helpful.

We have had some significant accomplishments with regard to health care. We were able to in a bipartisan way achieve the longest expansion in the Childrens’ Health Insurance Program in history. We repealed the individual mandate tax, which was highly regressive. Here in the State of Indiana, 85% of that tax was paid by those who have a household income of $50,000 or less and half of that demographic had a household income of less than $25,000 or less. The structure of that mandate was something that was unpopular with Hoosiers and unfair. There have been, despite the narrative, a lot of successes, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.

HPI: President Trump is signaling he wants to again meet with Kim Jong Un. I think one of the most alarming interviews I’ve ever done was with you in the summer of 2017 when you said that people need to wrap their heads around the potential for a nuclear war. We seem to have pulled back from that significantly. Talk about how we have pulled back and what the opportunities are now.

Young: I still remain convinced this administration deserves some credit from pivoting away from the campaign of strategic patience with Kim Jong Un and moving toward a campaign of strategic pressure. 

HPI: He’s not lobbing missiles over Japan any more. 

Young: That’s right. We had to rattle the cage a little bit and try something new because, as you indicated, he was not only improving his missile technology and miniaturizing his nuclear weapons, he was testing them on a regular basis. I think the president is to be commended for taking some arrows and trying a different approach. This is one of those situations, as with so many when you’re dealing with foreign relations, that can’t necessarily be solved but can be managed. This is something my former boss, Sen. Lugar, emphasized to me at one time. I’ve thought about it ever since. We Americans are problem-solvers. We like to think there is a solution for every challenging global problem as well as domestic problems. As conservatives, we need to approach many of these with a great deal of humility. 

HPI: The news is cascading in almost a sensational manner on the Mueller Russia collusion probe. There’ve been moves in the Senate to protect Robert Mueller to allow him to finish his investigation. You’ve urged me as a journalist to be patient and await his report. So, a two-prong question: Are you confident the administration is going to allow him to reach his conclusions and issue a report? Do we need to worry about him being fired? Second, tell Hoosiers how they should process what’s just over the horizon, because it’s going to dominate the news.

Young: I recommend that Hoosiers watch less television and understand that there are a lot of us on Capitol Hill and a lot of us close to the president advising the administration to continue to cooperate at every turn with Mueller, all with the understanding that a fair and unbiased report will be forthcoming as quickly as possible.

HPI: So you don’t see the need for legislation to protect Mueller and the investigation?

Young: I think the president understands what so many other senators have said.

HPI: Like Sen. Graham?

Young: Those close to the president are telling him it would not be a good decision to fire any of the principals to this investigation.

HPI: Any reaction to the piecemeal information we have been getting? How are you processing this?

Young: I do think it’s troubling that so much of this information is leaking out. 

HPI: It’s not leaking out. We’re learning things via indictments, plea deals and court filings. 

Young: There have also been on background and off the record, unsourced comments that have been made. I’m withholding judgment on the bigger picture until I’m briefed in a classified setting and then am able to digest the entire report.