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Harry Reid in retirement: Railing against Trump, bemoaning a broken Senate and making peace with Romney

Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) speaks to the audience before the start of the ninth Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates debate, at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, on Feb. 19, 2020.
Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) speaks to the audience before the start of the ninth Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates debate, at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, on Feb. 19, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

LAS VEGAS — Harry M. Reid has not set foot in the U.S. Capitol in almost two years.

He and his wife sold their condominium in Washington’s West End and returned here full time, with no clue when they will return or if the former Senate majority leader will ever again enter the building where he represented Nevada for 34 years.

“Ever is a long time, but I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t have any plans on coming back,” the Democrat from Nevada said in an hour-long interview Thursday.

Instead, from his perch 2,500 miles away, Reid has settled into a life that is personally rewarding, being so close to his family, but mixed with a sense of bitter despair at the state of national politics and dysfunction in Washington, particularly in the Senate.

Reid recalls the dread he felt the first time Donald Trump arrived at the Capitol as president-elect, only to now believe things are worse than he had feared.

“He and his entourage pulled up in front of the Capitol. I just couldn’t believe it. So the question is, is it worse than I imagined? The answer is yes. I mean, what he has done, with his amorality,” Reid said.

Reid has spent the past week basking in the glow of the spotlight shining on Nevada’s Democratic caucuses, an unofficial master of ceremonies since he used his clout as Senate leader to push his state to next in line after Iowa and New Hampshire on the primary calendar. Boosted by a huge voter registration drive ahead of the highly competitive 2008 caucuses, Nevada Democrats turned this state from voting twice for George W. Bush into a solidly Democratic bulwark in the West.

On Thursday, Reid sported a lapel pin on his suit jacket that was the image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) departing the White House after a 2018 meeting with Trump, donning her sunglasses in a manner that liberals turned into a social media meme. It was a gift from Christine Pelosi, the speaker’s daughter, who presented the pin Wednesday night before the raucous Democratic debate here.

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The past five years have turned Reid’s world upside down, beginning with a violent exercise accident on New Year’s Day 2015 that left him with several broken bones and no sight in his right eye. A few months later, he announced that he would not run for reelection in 2016, as Nevada remained strong for Democrats only to see the remaining swing states break for Trump.

In the spring of 2018, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, leading to surgery at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore and a brutal set of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that damaged vertebrae and led to multiple back surgeries. Reid, who turned 80 in December, uses a cane to walk or, because his balance is off, a wheelchair if he is in a crowded public setting.

Things are so upside down that one of Reid’s biggest nemeses is now his favorite Republican: Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah).

In 2012, when Romney was the GOP presidential nominee, Reid falsely accused the co-founder of Bain Capital of paying no taxes over 10 years. “I think I had something to do with his not being elected,” Reid said Thursday, expressing pride and no remorse. “Mitt and I are okay.”

A few years ago, Reid used his family connection to Michael Leavitt, the former Utah governor, to travel to Utah and meet Romney. “He’s a very nice man,” Reid said.

After his vote to convict Trump on one count in this month’s impeachment trial, Reid sent Romney a thank-you letter, going through Leavitt. “I thought he did a great job.”

Reid talks regularly only to one Senate Republican, Richard C. Shelby (Ala.). When Reid arrived in the House in 1983, Shelby was his neighbor in the Longworth House Office Building, and they moved to the Senate together four years later.

“Generalities,” Reid said of their discussions.

Absence has not made Reid’s heart grow fonder of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Their relationship grew bitter in their 10 years standing at the leader desks a few feet from each other. Reid thinks the Senate has been irrevocably changed from an independent institution that could both stand up to the heated passions of the House and block overly ambitious presidents.

Now the Republican-led Senate protects Trump and does not engage in the weighty debates of the day, according to Reid.

“What McConnell and his Republican colleagues have done is irreparably damaged the Senate. And I know what the word irreparably means. The Senate will never be as it was,” he said.

Reid is still not willing to take any blame for the Senate’s deterioration, something that veteran senators in both parties are willing to discuss. His last couple years as majority leader saw almost no major work done by Senate committees, with his leadership team in charge of every decision.

In November 2013, he executed a partisan rules change to make presidential confirmations easier, breaking with decades of precedent. McConnell has since used that parliamentary move twice.

But Reid said McConnell’s obstruction of then-President Barack Obama’s appointees was impossible to ignore, suggesting that it would have been “legislative malpractice” not to blow up some of the filibuster rules.

Reid also does not apologize for his blunt way of speaking, what some have suggested was a precursor to today’s harsh, highly personal rhetoric. Words such as “liar” and “loser” poured out of his mouth.

To Reid, this was one of his strengths. “No one ever had to guess how I stood on an issue. . . . I was able to say no. You find a lot of leaders can’t say no. I could say no,” he said.

He stays in touch with Obama, and they “talk a little politics,” but mostly they just check in on each other. “He’s just who he is. I worked with him for eight years, and he’s not changed. He’s very, very reserved, always very serious. He doesn’t joke around much at all,” Reid said.

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He keeps an office in the corporate offices of MGM’s Bellagio, part of his role as the co-chairman with former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) of a public policy institute.

Most mementos around the room are markers of his career, such as a letter from President-elect John F. Kennedy thanking him for organizing young Democrats in the 1960 election.

Then there’s one framed letter for comedic effect: “Congratulations — you are amazing. With best wishes.” It’s dated Nov. 8, 2010, signed “Donald,” from Trump, who supported Democrats for years before becoming a Republican.

Reid said he had “a couple good scans” for cancer recently. His encounter with the disease has left him without any hair and a newfound penchant for stylish hats. But he has been inspired by the research in cancer, to the extent that he picked up the phone a few weeks ago when he learned that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) also had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Don’t think this is the end of the world,” Reid said he told Lewis.

All that’s left of Reid’s time in the Senate is an official portrait made in his honor as he served the second-longest tenure as majority leader. It hangs in the offices of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who occupies Reid’s old corner office on the second floor, just steps from the Senate chamber.

While the world around him has spun on, Reid remains grounded as the tell-it-like-it-is politician who rose from deep poverty in a mining town to become the most powerful figure his state has known.

“So that’s who I am. I can’t change. And so that’s that,” he said.

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