Schumer: Democrats Can Work With Trump—if He Moves Their Way

In an interview, the new Senate Minority Leader says his party won’t sacrifice its values just to earn the “bipartisan” label.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is interviewed in his Capitol office on Jan. 5, 2017.
Chet Susslin
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Jan. 5, 2017, 8:45 p.m.

In the new 115th Con­gress, Sen. Chuck Schu­mer has to or­ches­trate a strategy to lead the Demo­crats back to power. His im­me­di­ate task is to game out how to slow down—or block—some of Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump’s in­com­ing nom­in­ees, in­clud­ing the one to fill the Su­preme Court va­cancy. Schu­mer has had to act quickly; hear­ings for many slots be­gin next week. On Thursday, the new Demo­crat­ic lead­er laid out the rules for com­bat and co­oper­a­tion with Pres­id­ent-elect Trump, and the Re­pub­lic­ans con­trolling Con­gress, in an ex­clus­ive in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al.

What fol­lows has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

I wanted to start broadly just about your view and your un­der­stand­ing of how the pres­id­ent-elect works and in­ter­acts. You kind of got a taste of that this past week where you had the re­cent call where he said he liked you bet­ter than Paul Ry­an and Mitch Mc­Con­nell and then today he tweets, say­ing—

Yeah, look. I thought they were try­ing to flat­ter me. And that’s all well and good. But I’m go­ing to be af­fected by what they’re do­ing and what they’re pro­pos­ing, not by the things they say.

But what’s his MO?

You know, what I’ve said is, that you can’t be a Twit­ter pres­id­ent. That it’s all fine and well to com­mu­nic­ate with your con­stitu­ents through tweet­ing. That’s just great. But it’s not suf­fi­cient. I think there’s too much of a tend­ency in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to call names as op­posed to com­ing up with sub­stance. So for in­stance with me, he called me a name and today I re­spon­ded. I said look, I know you’re in between a rock and a hard place be­cause you’ve re­pealed and you don’t know what to re­place ACA with. But in­stead of call­ing names, roll up your sleeves and pro­pose an al­tern­at­ive.

Flat­tery in private, some rib­bing in pub­lic. It kind of sounds like a politi­cian.

Well, I don’t know. I hope that he’ll be sub­stant­ive. And my oth­er fear about him is he cam­paigned as a pop­u­list, as a change fig­ure let’s say, against Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ments. If you look at his Cab­in­et, he seems to have gone over to the hard Right. He’s chosen people who are way over—and who are against what he said. He said he wouldn’t cut Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity and he picks [HHS sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee Tom] Price. … He’s said he’s go­ing to be for the work­ing man and pro­tect the work­ing man and he picks [Labor sec­ret­ary nom­in­ee An­drew] Puzder, who has been against the work­ing man all along. On so many of these Cab­in­et po­s­i­tions, the way he cam­paigned and the people he chose are dia­met­ric­ally op­posed.

Do you think … that if Sen­ate Demo­crats work with Trump, voters will re­ward Sen­ate Demo­crats or Trump?

Look, I think the bot­tom line is to stick to our val­ues. So I’ve said we’re not go­ing to op­pose things simply be­cause the name Trump is on it. You know, Mitch Mc­Con­nell said he’ll op­pose everything. But we’re also not go­ing to sac­ri­fice our val­ues so we can get the stamp “bi­par­tis­an.” So take in­fra­struc­ture. That’s a good ex­ample. I be­lieve we should build large in­fra­struc­ture and as Trump said he wants to build a tril­lion dol­lars of in­fra­struc­ture, which is a big num­ber—a num­ber we like.

But I said to him three things. I said first, it can’t be just tax breaks. A) That won’t build enough and B) in the places it will build there’ll be enorm­ous tolls. Two, he can’t pay for it by cut­ting pro­grams we Demo­crats have sup­por­ted—edu­ca­tion, Medi­care. But third, I said to him, that it’s got to prob­ably be new spend­ing. And your Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues—par­tic­u­larly your hard-right col­leagues—won’t go for this.

… You didn’t an­swer that [last ques­tion] dir­ectly. Do you think that ob­struc­tion is the clearest path back to power?

I think stick­ing to our val­ues is the clearest path back to power. I think that fo­cus­ing on the work­ing fam­ily—middle-class fam­ily that feels that it’s harder to stay there, the fam­ily try­ing to get to the middle class that’s find­ing the lad­der to get up there much steep­er, a much harder climb—is the way to go. And if Trump joins us on some of those things I’m not go­ing to—If Don­ald Trump says, ‘I’m for re­peal­ing the car­ried-in­terest loop­hole,’ we’ll join him! We’re not go­ing to op­pose it be­cause he pro­posed it. But we have to stick with our val­ues. I think the reas­on we lost the elec­tion is we didn’t have a sharp enough, fo­cused enough, plat­form, mes­sage, aimed at work­ing people and the middle class.

How come Hil­lary Clin­ton couldn’t de­liv­er that mes­sage?

I’m not go­ing to get in­to the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign. I’m just say­ing we have to as the Demo­crat­ic caucus in the Sen­ate, work­ing with the House, pro­pose it.

In 2007, you said that you look back every two years and take stock of your fail­ures. Back then you said that your greatest re­gret was not do­ing enough to block Alito.


With this va­cancy now, does that re­gret from 2007, back then, does that still mo­tiv­ate you?

It’s still a large re­gret. And I think he’s proved to be so far out of the main­stream. Now he did get Demo­crat­ic sup­port, but my test is main­stream. If these people will fol­low the law, that’s one thing. If they have an ideo­lo­gic­al bi­as and want to turn Amer­ica back to the 20s. [ends ab­ruptly]

Is that in the back of your mind now?

I still re­gret it. You bet. What happened was I thought we ought to block Alito. Harry Re­id—we were three or four votes short of block­ing Alito. And I went to Harry, and he said no, we’re not go­ing to get the votes. I should’ve pushed Harry harder.

And are you think­ing about that now?

Do I think about it? No, not very much, but when you bring it up it still both­ers me.

What was your greatest re­gret when you look back at the past two years in Con­gress?

You know I haven’t, I’ve been so—it’s been such a whirl­wind. I usu­ally do this between Christ­mas and New Year’s and I haven’t had a chance to do it.

You have your list of eight Cab­in­et of­fi­cials that you’re tar­get­ing. Three of those that are not on the list—Sec­ret­ary of De­fense, DHS, and the UN am­bas­sad­or. Do you ex­pect—or are you in­clined—to vote for those three po­s­i­tions?

Well, I have to wait and see what they are [like] at hear­ings. At least their po­s­i­tions don’t seem to be totally out of line with what the Amer­ic­an people be­lieve or what Trump cam­paigned on. The eight either have some com­bin­a­tion of con­flicts of in­terest, fail­ure to bring in their pa­per­work, or po­s­i­tions that are quite, quite dif­fer­ent than what Trump cam­paigned on and what people ex­pect. The most glar­ing—the one who seems to com­bine all these in a pack­age—is Price, who is for privat­iz­ing Medi­care. Trump pub­licly stated over and over again he wouldn’t cut Medi­care. [Price] is po­ten­tially con­flic­ted be­cause of all of the stocks he owns. He might have even vi­ol­ated the Stock Act and we asked for an in­vest­ig­a­tion today. … And [Price] seems to take po­s­i­tions that are just way to the right of Amer­ica and even to the House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans.

Preet Bhar­ara is stay­ing on as U.S. at­tor­ney [for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York]. Usu­ally the pres­id­ent chooses his own people for that. You’ve been known to make a deal … I was won­der­ing if you said any­thing—

No, he called me up and he said, ‘Do you like Preet Bhar­ara?’ I said, ‘I like him very much.’ And I said to him, ‘if you were to nom­in­ate him’—I said it de­lib­er­ately, I didn’t ask him to nom­in­ate him—I said, ‘if you were to nom­in­ate him, I would fully sup­port him.’ He said, ‘Then I’d like to meet him, would you ar­range it?’ So I did and then he called me and says, ‘I like Preet, I’m go­ing to an­nounce his ap­point­ment.’

Does that bode for any­thing in the fu­ture? Are there any as­sur­ances or any­thing else?

His MO, as you asked, is un­clear as pres­id­ent. It’s got to be a lot dif­fer­ent for him to be suc­cess­ful than his MO as can­did­ate.

How are they dif­fer­ent?

You have to gov­ern. You can’t Twit­ter. You can’t be a Twit­ter pres­id­ent. You’ve got to be ser­i­ous. You’ve got to study the is­sues. You got to see the nu­ances. You can’t base things just on quick little im­pres­sions.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that stick­ing to your val­ues is the way you think you can de­rive a polit­ic­al be­ne­fit—

I have been in polit­ic­al of­fice a long time. … And what I’ve learned is the best way to suc­ceed is to have an in­tern­al gyro­scope, your val­ues, and stick to them. The high­er up you go, the fiercer the winds blow. And the way you won’t get blown off the moun­tain is your gyro­scope.

Lastly on the Su­preme Court. Every­body’s been talk­ing about what you said on (The) Rachel Mad­dow (Show). What ex­actly did you mean by that “ab­so­lutely” you’ll keep the [Su­preme Court va­cancy] open? Is that a fili­buster threat? What ex­actly do you mean by it?

I will work hard to op­pose nom­in­ees out of the main­stream. Not just one, but as many as he of­fers.

And you haven’t looked at [Trump’s] list of 21 po­ten­tial nom­in­ees?

I have not.

I don’t be­lieve that.

No, I haven’t. … Spec­u­la­tion is fine, and he’s de­vi­ated from what he’s said in the past. So let’s wait and see who he nom­in­ates.

So it sounds like Price is the scalp that you think that you guys could get.

Look, you nev­er know what hap­pens when you have a full hear­ing. The FBI brief­ings, which have not been done for hardly any of the nom­in­ees, were what brought down [Tom] Daschle and [Bill] Richard­son.

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