WASHINGTON — Some Democrats are taking a “hell no!” approach to dealing with Donald Trump when he ascends to the presidency, but incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is laying down a more pragmatic approach, and it appears to have won him praise Sunday from the president-elect.
Trump’s tweet referred to retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has regularly blistered Trump from the Senate floor.
When it comes to Schumer, not only has Trump had a good relationship with him, but he and his family have donated nearly $20,000 to the New York lawmaker’s past campaigns.
Yet Schumer is in a historically precarious position with Trump.
He is the first Jewish lawmaker ever to lead a party in Congress. And his elevation comes as Trump’s own rise was spurred along in part by racism and anti-Semitism. That aspect of Trump’s success inspired hundreds of Jewish scholars to declare last week that “our reading of the past impels us to resist any attempts to place a vulnerable group in the crosshairs of nativist racism.”
Schumer’s own knowledge of the past includes very personal reminders of what anti-Semitism has wrought. His grandfather came to the United States long before the Holocaust, but his great-grandmother stayed behind in Eastern Europe, and was there when Hitler’s forces arrived.
“They gathered them all on a porch in the Ukraine,” Schumer recalled Friday during an interview with The Huffington Post. It was 1941 or 1942. “They said, ‘All come here.’ They said to my great-grandmother, ‘You all have to come with us.’ She said, ‘No, we’re not moving.’ They machine-gunned them all down, 17 or 18 of them, kids, old people, every one of them.”
He has heard a Trump adviser speak approvingly of America’s imprisonment camps for Japanese-American citizens during the war.
“It sends shivers down your spine,” Schumer said.
He’s also well aware that the man Trump has named as his top White House counselor and political adviser is Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart News website was a virtual platform for white nationalists during the presidential campaign.
“The bigotry — I mean, take Bannon. Breitbart News trafficked in bigotry almost every week, and it’s just appalling that this guy’s in a high-up position in the White House,” Schumer said.
But he pointed to the strength of the American system as a reason that a racist, white nationalist government will not take hold.
“Barack Obama talked to Trump, and said the presidency is sobering,” Schumer said. “Trump has an obligation — any time any bigotry comes out of anyone near him, including people he’s appointed — he’s got to condemn it strongly. We’ll see if he does.”
Schumer agreed that Trump has not condemned the bigotry so far.
“Nope,” he said, promising that he and Democrats would. “We will. We’ll be really strong on that stuff.”
Children of Schumer’s era in his Brooklyn neighborhood — and many still today — are taught of the Holocaust and warned that it can happen again.
“I have enough faith in the American structure, in the American people. As long as we’re strong and vigilant and not afraid, that it won’t happen here,” Schumer said.
He said he believes he and Democrats can work with Trump without legitimizing the anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman bigotry displayed by Trump and so many of his supporters.
“What you have to do is not, quote ‘compromise’ with him, but challenge him,” Schumer said. “He did make some promises we support. If he wants to call China a currency manipulator, which I’ve been asking for for five years, I’m not going to vote no because he’s calling for it.”
The biggest area where Democrats are primed to work with Trump is on infrastructure, rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, airports and other vital systems. Schumer reaffirmed that intention to HuffPost, but insisted any agreement must include a massive program.
“It’s got to be large and bold — a trillion dollars makes sense,” Schumer said. “It’s got to be real new expenditures. The idea you can do this with tax breaks, tax incentives isn’t going to get the job done. And, it cannot cut existing programs.”
Schumer was not convinced Trump could come up with such a plan.
“He won a lot of the blue-collar areas on a Democratic message on trade, on carried interest [tax breaks for hedge funds], on transportation, on infrastructure,” Schumer said. “Well, we’re going to challenge him. Break your promise to the blue-collar world, or work with us and split with the right, the Republican establishment, which hates these things.”
While Trump’s tweet Sunday suggested he’s at least offering Schumer a chance to talk, it came with yet another reminder of the anti-Semitism simmering all around Trump.
The president-elect appears to have first tweeted a misspelled version of Schumer’s name, and described the senator in a way that was favored by Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, and is still used by anti-Semites today.