Rules of Engagement

Chuck Schumer Rising Above ‘Babyish Street Fight of Name-Calling’

Donald Trump may have called him a ‘clown,’ but the Democratic Senate leader tells The Daily Beast he’ll stick to the substance—starting with eight of Trump’s nominees.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Sen. Chuck Schumer is acutely aware that one moment you can be basking in the golden glow of Donald Trump’s compliments and the next freezing in the shade of his Twitter feed.

Like how on the one hand Trump said he gets along with the New York senator better than his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, but on the other—as of this week—the president-elect called Schumer a “clown.”

Schumer couldn’t care less either way.

“It doesn’t faze me in the least,” he said in an interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday inside his new Capitol Hill office. “The name-calling doesn’t bother me and I’m not going to engage in a petty, babyish street fight of name-calling. I’m going to stick to the substance.”

Schumer is in the process of literally and figuratively moving into the role of the leader of the Democratic Party. His office suite is cluttered with boxes and his head is filled with ideas for how a depleted Democratic minority can still make progress despite being outnumbered at every turn.

He made part of those plans clear during a meeting with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Wednesday. If the Trump administration wants Schumer’s help getting presidential appointments through in a quick and timely manner, he said, they’ll have to give Democrats something in return: fair hearings.

“I told him, ‘Look, what we are asking for is fair, and if you can help us with that, that would be great’… they want to try to fill up particularly the national-security appointments quickly,” he said. “But I told them that if they don’t give us fair hearings on the eight people we ask for, none of whom are national security, then we couldn’t cooperate on anything.”

The eight nominees in the Democratic crosshairs include Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Price, Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, Office of Management and Budget director nominee Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, Labor Secretary pick Andy Puzder, and Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Schumer has asked for extra scrutiny for the eight nominees, including at least two days of hearings for each, the completion of their full paperwork, and their tax returns.

Schumer added, “I’ve been talking to Mitch McConnell, we’ve been having fruitful discussions, and if he can give us what we need here, we are not going to demand everything, we can be more flexible on the schedule on the floor and on moving fairly quickly on other nominees that are less controversial.”

So far, the hearing schedule for Trump’s nominees appears daunting. At least half a dozen are scheduled for the same day, a feat that hasn’t been attempted since the early days of the Bush administration, when six nominees—several of them controversial—were slated for the same day in 2001.

“Look, these nominees, there are three points about them,” Schumer said. “One, they haven’t gotten in their paperwork. Second, there are huge conflicts of interest… Third, the ones we picked are all out of the mainstream and most of them are different than what Donald Trump campaigned on.”

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Schumer acknowledged that the glut of hearings will make it hard to get their message out that day, and Democrats don’t have the votes to block Trump’s Cabinet picks. But he promised that Democrats will take their arguments to the Senate floor if they feel like they were not heard during the committee process.

“They have the right to schedule the hearings, but we can hold things up on the floor for a very long period of time,” he said.

That’s not to say the next four years (at least) will devolve into a partisan standoff. During a recent meeting with Trump, Schumer remarked that the president-elect’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan could be an area where deals could be made.

“I said, ‘You have to remember a few things if you try to do it by tax breaks. You’ll get nothing that’s really needed to be built and they’ll be huge tolls,’” he said. “‘So you’ve got to do it by real spending, and your hard-right people will not want to do that. So you are going to have to work with us if you need a major infrastructure built.’”

“I said, ‘To do it with us, you are going to have to break with the hard right,’ and he acknowledged that.”

Another area in which Schumer said he could personally work with Trump is trade—an issue where he is closer in principle to the incoming president than President Obama.

“I don’t agree with his solutions, but my trade position is closer to Trump’s than it has been to Obama’s and Bush’s. I voted against NAFTA,” Schumer said. “I haven’t talked to any of them about trade. But I could work with them.”

And that’s not all.

“I told Jeff Sessions that I didn’t like his positions as attorney general, but tell Donald Trump to make you trade rep, and I will support you.”