Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) speaks during a during a news conference after a GOP caucus meeting on December 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was in a relaxed, confident mood when I met him in his office Tuesday afternoon—and for good reason. President Donald Trump had recently been forced to agree to the Democratic position that the government be reopened before any talks about a possible border wall—the reason Trump shut the government down—without a penny being designated for construction of the wall. Working in concert with his House counterpart, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schumer was able to stand up to Trump’s petulance by telling him something he isn’t used to hearing: No!

Schumer plans to keep on telling Trump “no” on a border wall and other things he feels amounts to “hostage taking.” During a 15-minute sit down interview with The Root, Schumer explained how he plans on negotiating with Trump and the GOP-led Senate to keep the government open, what concessions he is willing to make, his interactions with Trump, and why Stacey Abrams was chosen to deliver the State of the Union rebuttal.

(Schumer’s staff said the senator could not discuss election-related questions over his handling of the midterm Senate races, so I did not address that during our interview; I was referred to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for that subject.)

This conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity.

The Root: Stacey Abrams will be delivering the State of the Union rebuttal.

Chuck Schumer: I called her three weeks ago. I thought she was the best possible choice we could have because of her life history, commitment to voting rights, which is at the root of everything else. And because she is the new Democratic Party.

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TR: She is the new Democratic Party. She also took on an attitude of, “We are about reaching our base” and she rejected this notion that we need to directly appeal to the type of white working-class voter that appealed to Trump. She pushed back very heavily against that during her campaign in Georgia.

CS: I think she works for everybody. Her story of how she grew up and how she struggled applies across America, to all generations, and to all ideologies. She knows the struggles working people and working families have, Native Americans and immigrants and people like that. That is what America is all about. Creating ladders, creating opportunities and taking away the barriers of discrimination and bigotry that stand in so many peoples’ way.

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TR: Let’s talk about the shutdown. What deal are you willing to accept from Trump?

CS: No hostage taking. If President Trump is supposed to care about working people, why did he throw the lives of working people into chaos in a temper tantrum? And now I say is he going to do a shutdown again? He touched a very hot stove. Everyone knows you don’t touch a hot stove twice.

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TR: Well, he doesn’t know. He’s touched it more than twice. He’s touched it dozens of times.

CS: But this time he really got burned. He touched it a very long time. It wasn’t just a momentary phenomena. And when he picked up his hand, he saw what happened. First, we’re not going to negotiate if he’s holding innocent people hostage. Second, we believe in border security, but not a wall. The symbol for America should be the Statue of Liberty, a welcoming symbol, not a 30-foot wall.

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TR: So you aren’t going to budge on that at all, because you know he’s going to continue to ask for it. That’s the reason why he…

CS: We’ve always been for some border security, not a 30-foot border wall from sea to shining sea. There are places where border security works. Every Democrat has voted for that, House and Senate, who was there in 2014, 2016 and 2017. But no wall, and we’re not going to let them undo other parts they proposed in their last proposal to take away all asylum. We would oppose anything like that.

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The ports, where drugs come into the country, they need all kinds of upgrading. They have these machines that can detect drugs like Fentanyl. Fentanyl sends molecules into the air, and these machines can detect it. A lot of the portals don’t have that. A lot of the portals don’t have modern technology. These kinds of things we can agree on.

But Trump has been so stubborn. Only a wall and only $5.7 billion. If he sticks to that, we’re not going to get anywhere.

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TR: You know that many of the drugs coming into our country are intercepted by the Coast Guard. I asked Adm. Paul Zukunft, former commandant of the Coast Guard, if a wall will significantly slow the amount of drugs entering the country, and he said no. Have you proposed increasing funding for the Coast Guard?

CS: Yes.

TR: What did he say?

CS: Trump...he doesn’t listen to facts.

TR: What if he declares a national emergency over this border wall. What is the legal response?

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CS: I hope he doesn’t do it. I hope we can come to an agreement. The good news is some of our Republican colleagues, particularly in the Senate, realize that a shutdown is a bad thing. Leader (Mitch) McConnell had a lunch with (Vice President Mike) Pence Thursday afternoon, and from the reports, obviously I am not there, even his own caucus said, “You can’t do this anymore.”

So [Trump] came to me and said give me a small piece of wall and I’ll open up the government, and I said no. We’ll open up the government and we will debate what should happen. And we’ll do it in a conference committee, which is how we get things done around here, and he relented. So I think the Republicans understand that and I think there is a good chance we’ll come to an agreement.

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But if we don’t and he tries an emergency, there will be lawsuits galore from all kinds of people, and I don’t believe he’ll prevail.

TR: But we don’t know that…

CS: Let me just say there are two parts to emergency. One, whether it is an emergency. He says there’s an emergency at the border. I don’t think that’ll hold up. The lawyers say he has some flexibility on what’s an emergency. What he doesn’t have flexibility on is getting money from one place and moving it to another even when there is an emergency. That’s the rub.

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TR: Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the speaker right now. There are ways in which she can wield power, particularly with this invitation for the State of the Union. You’re in a different situation.

CS: We work great together. We’ve known each other since 1986 and 1987. We finish each other’s sentences we know each other so well. Second, I would have liked to have a majority in the Senate. We didn’t get it. But I am very glad we got one in the house. Even without a majority in the Senate, a majority in the House gives us more strength because we have a party in power who can work with us. The Senate still has some power because you need 60 votes for everything. So the key to my strength in the Democratic caucus, but also with House Democrats and Pelosi, is unity.

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TR: What’s the hardest thing about being minority leader in regards to working with your Republican colleagues?

CS: On certain things, we can’t stop them. They can do reconciliation and only get 51 votes. On judges, we do everything we can to block them. But we can only delay them.

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TR: What’s the biggest surprise about Trump’s behavior?

CS: I never expected it would be this bad. Here’s what I thought. I knew who he was. But I thought he could learn. If anything, he’s regressed.

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TR: Regressed?

CS: Yes.

TR: What’s the worst regression you’ve seen? Did you think he would be this xenophobic?

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CS: He’s always picked on immigrants. Even before he was president. Here’s what I said to him when be became president. I said, Mr. President-elect, you ran as a populist against Democrat and Republican establishments. If you continue to do that, there are certain areas where we can work together on infrastructure without sacrificing our values. But if you continue to embrace the hard right, we’re gonna have to fight you tooth and nail, and you’re gonna be a failure as president, and that is what he’s done.

TR: Did you consider him a friend before he ran?

CS: Never a friend. We never had dinner. I bumped into him at things in New York.

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TR: I wanted to ask you about voter rights.

CS: One of the three most despicable decisions of the Supreme Court in the last decade that took away fundamental building blocks of our society was Citizens United versus the Federal Elections Commission. One was Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, that undid labor unions. But the third, and maybe the worst of all, was Shelby County vs Holder, which took away Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts said, there was no discrimination anymore, and within a year, 19 states cut back on the Voter Rights Act without the protection of Section 5. There are emails where officials (in some states) were actually caught saying we want fewer blacks to vote. Awful.

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TR: How do you get around that?

CS: Well, the House has introduced this bill as H.R.1, and it is a really good bill. I’m for automatic voter registration and getting rid of all of this gerrymandering.

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And take back the Senate and we can get it all done. That’s my goal.