WASHINGTON — When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer goes home to Park Slope, Brooklyn — he lives a couple blocks uphill from the Food Coop — his neighbors tell him two things. They’re worried about what a Trump presidency is going to mean. And they want him to fight the president-elect at every turn.
“They say, ‘I hope you’ll stand up to him,’” Schumer told BuzzFeed News in an interview in his Senate office Thursday. “I say, ‘Of course I will.”
Schumer, 67, will be the most powerful Democrat in America after President Obama leaves office this month. He, more than any other individual, will decide whether Democrats seek to accommodate Trump — who once raised money for Schumer — or fight him. And as some nervous Democrats worry about Schumer’s deal-making instincts, the New Yorker made clear to BuzzFeed News that he plans to take a hard line.
“Watch my actions,” Schumer said, promising that nervous progressives would be reassured. “They have to see what I do.”
Schumer has already begun to signal a political course, and an analysis of his party’s stunning 2016 defeat. Unlike his predecessor, Sen. Harry Reid, Schumer doesn’t entirely blame Russian interference in hacked emails or the letter released by FBI director James Comey for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Instead Schumer said Democrats lacked “a sharp enough, bold enough, strong enough economic message.”
What that message looks like — how progressive it is, which kinds of voters the party prioritizes, and in which states — will require direction from somewhere, whether in the party’s grassroots or from national leadership. And it will require leaders — compelling, combative champions for a party that wants to fight, visionaries for a party suddenly short on vision.
Could that be Chuck Schumer, the Senate tactician and rumpled Chinese-food connoisseur? Does he see himself as, say, a visionary leader?
“I think visionary would be too strong a word,” Schumer replied.
But he says he does have a plan.
“I certainly have some beliefs and direction of where the party ought to go,” he continued. “Basically I think that when you look at the last election, when you lose the way we lost, you don’t blink, you don’t flinch, you look it right in the eye and say: What could we have done better? You don’t say oh maybe we could have won without Comey, without the hacking, but the onus is on us to have won.”
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Schumer moved to put Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on his leadership team and endorsed Rep. Keith Ellison, a progressive member from Minnesota for the Democratic party chair.
He also denied the chummy relationship Trump tried to paint of the two.
“At the beginning I think they were trying to flatter me,” he said. “That’s not going to change what I do, guided by my values and my job.”
“Did we cross each other’s paths at various events in New York? Yes. Did I ever have a meal with him or play golf with him? No. I don’t know him that well. He started out saying I’m his friend and he likes me better than he likes the Republicans. Flattery won’t get you very far if you are going to have bad positions and bad values.”
Schumer also moved quickly in the first week of the new Congress to establish some distance with the president-elect, earning the Trump moniker of “clown” in a barrage of tweets. He launched a campaign to back Obamacare (#MakeAmericaSickAgain), pushed for in-depth hearings on Trump’s cabinet picks, and then suggested that Democrats might take a sharply confrontational approach on Supreme Court nominees.
In a press conference this week, Schumer said Democrats would oppose any Supreme Court nominee they considered “out of the mainstream.” Republicans quickly moved to paint Schumer as a hypocrite as Democrats spent much of last year pushing for hearings for Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, Merrick Garland. Schumer rejected that comparison.
“We're not saying we won't even give them a hearing. We won't even look at their records. We won't give them a chance,” he said. “I've said what I've said for a decade or two — I will not vote for anyone out of the mainstream. I believe that the hard right is trying to tip the court way over from where the American people are, and I will oppose that.”
Asked if he would consider a candidate like Scalia, whose death last year created the vacancy on the Supreme Court, Schumer responded, “I don't think he's in the mainstream.”
Although Schumer is no stranger to being in front of a camera, he’s spent the first few days of the new Congress doing a bevy of media interviews and press conferences to make sure his resistance to Trump has been seen far and wide.
“We have have a strong message, policy platform, but we have to get it out,” Schumer said when asked about differences with the previous Democratic leadership. “So I'm doing more social media and electronic media."
“I think we're going to try — without saying anything about Harry Reid — to try to be very strategic, and look forward where we want to be three months from now, six months from now, a year from now. I guess I'm also consultative. I have strong views but I also talk to people. My leadership team has 10 running from [West Virginia Sen. Joe] Manchin to Sanders. His team was much smaller and our political views were much closer to one another.”
As he moves out Reid’s old furniture from his new office, Schumer smiled when asked if the liberal backlash has bothered him after a week of being in charge.
“I've been getting a lot of praise from those quarters this week.”