President Donald Trump wasted no time pointing his finger at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after an alleged terrorist killed eight people in New York City this week.
Yet the president’s broadside against a top lawmaker whose home city just suffered a tragedy stunned absolutely no one on Capitol Hill. It was the latest — some argue saddest — display of political discourse that once would have been unthinkable but has become the new normal in the Trump era.
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“It’s probably not the time to be attacking the native son of the city where the attack occurred,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said.
Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday morning to blast Schumer for authoring legislation in 1990 creating a green card lottery that the administration said the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, used to enter the United States seven years ago.
It wasn’t just part of Trump’s broader anti-immigration mantra. It also showed that for Trump and Schumer — who was caught on an open mic six weeks ago bragging that Trump “likes me” — their relationship is purely transactional. Trump will cut deals with Schumer if he can or has to, but at all other times, it’s a bare-knuckles brawl.
There had been some signs it would be different between the two New Yorkers. They’ve chatted semi-regularly throughout Trump’s first year in office. When Trump calls Schumer, it’s generally on Thursday mornings when the New York senator is exercising at the members-only gym.
Along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Schumer and Trump struck a deal to stave off a government shutdown and debt default in September. They also had a tentative immigration agreement that would grant at least hundreds of thousands of Dreamers a pathway to a legal status.
But the Trump-Schumer relationship has frayed badly since then. The Dreamers agreement has all but unraveled by now. Trump has not spoken to Schumer since an early October call about health care. Schumer has heard nothing from the White House in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack.
Trump’s feelings about anyone in Congress apparently are based on whether that person, no matter their party, is of use to him that moment. If not, Trump will attack them if he feels it’s politically worthwhile. Personal feelings mean little or nothing.
A number of Senate Republicans appeared clearly uneasy about Trump’s handling of the first major terror attack on U.S. soil under his presidency. And Schumer, along with other Senate Democrats, hit back forcefully at Trump — calling the tweets ugly yet unsurprising.
“It’s so typical of him,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of Trump’s barrage. “He tries to find a political advantage and to divide this country at a time when he should be standing with him.”
Schumer seemed to try to avoid making the fight with Trump even nastier. He compared Trump’s behavior unfavorably with that of former President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, rebuking the president for sowing division after the tragedy.
“New Yorkers, and all of us, compare President Bush right after 9/11, and President Trump right after this horrible terrorist attack,” Schumer said. “President Bush united us. He had us in the White House the next day, saying how we need to work together. All President Trump does is take advantage — horrible advantage — of a tragedy, and try to politicize and divide.”
“This is a tragedy. It’s less than a day after it occurred, and he can’t refrain for a day from his nasty, divisive habits,” Schumer added. “He’s called me names before. I stick by my values. It doesn’t divert me.”
Schumer also snuck in his own counter-punch, pointing out that Trump’s budget proposal had cut back on anti-terrorism funding, and he called on Trump to seek more money for those programs.
Yet Schumer found himself having to answer questions on the so-called diversity visa lottery program the terror suspect reportedly used to emigrate from his native Uzbekistan. Schumer was the author of that program, which was included in broader immigration package signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Schumer and other senators proposed scrapping the lottery as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package in 2013, but the House never took up that bill.
Thus Trump succeeded in one sense: Flipping the debate following the New York attack to immigration, not whether the U.S. intelligence community and law-enforcement agencies had somehow missed Saipov as a potential terrorist.
“We don’t know the details of this person. The green card program has a long serious program that takes a year,” Schumer said. “I have always believed in immigration as good for America. So do most Americans. I stand by that today.”
Senate Democrats defended Schumer, saying it was “completely inappropriate” for the president to make such remarks before the victims are even buried.
“My reaction is disbelief and dismay that the president is once again dividing us rather than bringing America together at a moment of consummate challenge and difficulty,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a frequent Trump critic. “He should be unifying the nation rather than engaging in blaming and bullying.”
“Just when you think something new can’t happen, it happens that he would do this,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said of Trump. “It’s so wrong.”
Heightening tensions further, the latest Trump vs. Schumer fight comes on an issue — immigration — on which the White House will need significant cooperation with Democrats in the coming months.
Trump wants Congress to send him legislation that codifies into law an Obama-era executive action that currently grants work permits to nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came as minors. But Democrats will have to provide the broad swath of votes on a legislative deal that revives the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and it’s Schumer who will ultimately determine how much Democrats can concede in terms of border security and enforcement in that agreement.
One White House official said he expects Trump and Schumer to speak on DACA soon. As for Trump’s rapid-fire tweets against Schumer, “I wouldn’t read that much into it,” the official said.
Democratic senators, as well as others close to Schumer, say they don’t expect Wednesday’s spat to dramatically damage the minority leader’s ability to cooperate with his fellow New Yorker in the White House on major tasks such as immigration and government funding.
Still, senators in both parties made it clear they prefer Trump react much differently than he did in his response to Tuesday’s attack.
“I think that less than 24 hours afterward, we ought to not apportion blame and actually try to find out the facts and be a little more unified,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added, “I don’t think it’s particularly helpful, no.”
Other Senate Republicans — as they do with most Trump controversies — delicately tried to distance themselves from Trump’s comments on Schumer, feigned ignorance on the remarks or simply offered their condolences.
“My own preference early on after one of these tragedies is to just express our condolences and thoughts and prayers and take a look at this as part of the legislative process,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Senate Majority Leader John Cornyn of Texas also declined to take sides: “I think the president’s entitled to do what he wants to do, and Sen. Schumer is very capable of defending himself.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.