Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Thursday expressed regret for saying President Trump’s two nominees to the Supreme Court would “pay the price” for a vote against abortion rights, a retreat in the face of scathing criticism from the president, Republican lawmakers and some liberals.
Schumer defended his passion on the issue, saying his anger reflected that of “women across America.” But he conceded his comments had gone too far.
“I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They didn’t come out the way I intended them to,” Schumer told Senate colleagues Thursday. “I’m from Brooklyn. We speak in strong language. I shouldn’t have used the words I did, but in no way was I making a threat. I never — never — would do such a thing.”
Schumer’s walk-back came shortly after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted his remarks as “astonishingly reckless.”
“The minority leader of the United States Senate threatened two associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, period,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “There’s no other way to interpret that.”
McConnell also dismissed a later statement by Schumer that his remarks were aimed at Republicans more broadly and not the justices.
“Perhaps he would like the most generous possible interpretation, that he got carried away and didn’t mean what he said,” McConnell said. “But if he didn’t even admit to saying what he said, we certainly cannot know what he meant.”
The episode highlights the extent to which the fight over the judiciary has become politicized in recent years. It also underscores the stakes for November, when both parties will battle for control of the White House and the Senate — as well as the chance to shape the judiciary for decades, particularly if there is a Supreme Court vacancy.
Since taking office in 2017, Trump has installed a total of 193 judges to the federal bench, with the president’s nominees now making up 1 in 4 U.S. circuit court judges.
Among Trump’s judicial successes were the confirmations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. McConnell has described his 2016 move to block former president Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland — and the subsequent confirmation of Gorsuch after Trump took office — as one of his proudest moments.
Trump himself has frequently lashed out at judges. In recent weeks, he has taken to Twitter to harshly criticize U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson over her handling of the sentencing of his friend Roger Stone. Last month, Trump called on liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse themselves from any cases that were “Trump-related.”
Roberts declined to speak out after either incident. He responded within hours to Schumer’s remarks on Gorsuch and Kavanaugh that created a firestorm, amid universal criticism of the New York Democrat from Trump and the GOP as well as complaints from liberal legal scholars.
By Thursday afternoon, after Schumer’s admission that he misspoke, the furor had largely subsided, though the GOP was likely to use it as a cudgel in the election year.
Senior Republicans were discouraging an earlier effort by 15 GOP senators to offer a censure resolution against Schumer.
“Listen, if you start this, there’s probably no end to it. I didn’t like what he said, it really was dangerous. I like Sen. Schumer,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said, explaining what he told his colleagues at a GOP lunch. “I think the burden is on Sen. Schumer to kind of walk this back in a meaningful way. That’s enough for me. Because if we start censuring him, they’re gonna censure Trump. And this stuff never ends.”
Speaking to abortion rights supporters Wednesday morning as the Supreme Court heard arguments in an important abortion case from Louisiana, Schumer called out Gorsuch and Kavanaugh by name.
“I want to tell you, Gorsuch; I want to tell you, Kavanaugh: You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price,” Schumer said. “You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
In his Senate floor remarks Thursday, Schumer said he was voicing frustration that Republicans are trying to use the courts to restrict abortion rights in a fashion they cannot accomplish in Congress.
“Republicans are afraid, here in the Senate, to confront this issue directly, so they try to accomplish through the courts what they’d never accomplish in the court of public opinion. And they leave women out in the cold,” he said.
Some Republicans on Thursday wanted Schumer to specifically say the words “I’m sorry” before they were ready to let go of the matter.
“I wish he would go ahead and use the word apologize, and that would be the end of it,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said.
At a Fox News Channel town hall Thursday night in Scranton, Pa., Trump also weighed in on the issue, saying, “If a Republican did what Schumer did, they’d be in jail right now.” He repeated his claim that he is treated unfairly by “Obama judges.”
In a statement, the National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Democratic candidates supported by Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to speak out.
“Every single DSCC-backed candidate beholden to Schumer’s money machine should demonstrate a degree of decency and disavow the dangerous attack on our independent judiciary,” NRSC spokesman Jesse Hunt said.
Schumer’s remarks also drew rebukes from some legal scholars, including Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe.
“These remarks by @SenSchumer were inexcusable,” he tweeted. “Chief Justice Roberts was right to call him on his comments. I hope the Senator, whom I’ve long admired and consider a friend, apologizes and takes back his implicit threat. It’s beneath him and his office.”
New York City Bar President Roger Juan Maldonado condemned Schumer’s remarks, saying they had “crossed the line from fair criticism to intimidation.”
“We are grateful that Senator Schumer recognized that these statements were not in the tradition of fair criticism and that he has acknowledged that he should not have made these comments,” Maldonado said.
Schumer’s Democratic colleagues, however, stood behind him.
Asked about the New York Democrat’s comments at a news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said he had already acknowledged they were “inappropriate.”
“I support him in that,” Pelosi said.
She also suggested a double standard was at play when it comes to talking about the Supreme Court.
“I think the Republicans say it’s okay if the president does it, but it’s not okay if other people do,” she said. “It wasn’t right for anybody to do, and Chuck recognized those words.”
Some Democrats criticized Roberts for speaking out on this occasion when Trump’s attacks on the judiciary have gone without notice so many other times.
“It’s kind of amazing to me that if Justice Roberts doesn’t feel like there’s a complete lid on his political speech, he hasn’t been willing to come to the defense of the judiciary against the president’s attacks,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
In late 2018, after Trump publicly berated an “Obama judge” for a ruling he disliked, Roberts waited a day to issue a statement declaring federal judges were part of an “independent judiciary.”
On Wednesday, Murphy noted, Roberts decided to speak out “inside the news cycle.”
Even the most conservative Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, said he was fine with Schumer’s statement of contrition. He warned Democrats against falling into the political trap of acting out like the president does.
“Don’t let the president bring you down to his level and that type of toxicity. We’re better than that,” Manchin said. “And we can’t think it’s the norm now and all of us move to that level. That is not what the people in this country want, it’s not what we are.”
Colby Itkowitz and Robert Barnes contributed to this report.