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 I said look, I know you’re in between a rock and a hard place because you’ve repealed and you don’t know what to replace ACA with.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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