It was supposed to be one of Washington’s most intriguing relationships. Instead, they’ve had virtually no relationship at all.
President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in Washington, have yet to meet one-on-one or even speak on the phone in private since Trump took the oath of office more than two months ago.
“Right now there’s not much to talk about, okay?” Schumer told POLITICO in an interview last week.
“Schumer’s name has not come up,” a top White House official said of conversations with the president. “He really hasn’t mentioned him in a long time. That’s really telling in and of itself.”
After Trump’s spectacular failure to advance health care legislation last week among his fellow Republicans, the president has suggested that he’s open to rekindling his relationship with congressional Democrats. But for that to succeed, Trump needs Schumer on board. On Tuesday night, the president will host the minority leader and other senators at the White House.
The silence is an abrupt turnabout from their regular banter last November and December when the two outer-borough dealmakers—both of whom perfected the art of self-promotion in New York’s tabloids—spoke roughly a half-dozen times and engaged in happy talk of working together.
Some lawmakers and strategists wonder whether Trump missed his best shot at having a productive relationship with Schumer, as freshly emboldened Democrats push to define Trump as a failed president.
“Any type of cooperation with Trump is looked upon as treason now,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who knows both men.
How Trump and Schumer went from phone friends to silent strangers in a matter of weeks was described by a dozen advisers and friends of both men, who said the fissures date to almost the moment the calendar turned to 2017.
From Trump’s perspective, there was Schumer’s rude pre-buttal of his inaugural address, anger about Schumer labeling the GOP health care plan “Make America Sick Again,” and deepening frustration with his procedural stalling tactics over confirming cabinet picks as well as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. From Schumer’s vantage, Trump bypassed even the patina of bipartisanship as he forced one controversial executive order after another and pushed a Republican-only repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
“He moved. He, not me,” Schumer told POLITICO. “He moved so far over to the right that it’s virtually impossible to work with him.”
But if Schumer believes Trump has been captured by the hard right, then Trump believes Schumer has been captive of the far left.
“Chuck, I’m very disappointed, because he’s a guy that should make deals for the people,” Trump said recently on Fox News. “Instead, he’s just an obstructionist.”
At the White House, Schumer has been mostly an afterthought. “By the time we got to inauguration, any hope that Schumer wanted to actually work together to find any common ground was clearly gone,” said a second senior administration official.
As with so much else about Trump’s presidency, the evolution of the relationship can be tracked in 140-character updates on Twitter.
Back in November, Trump tweeted about their “good relationship” and the chance to “get things done” together. Jared Kushner, Trump’s influential son-in-law, said in a closed-door speech that Trump and Schumer were closer policy-wise on infrastructure than Trump and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. And in one phone call that leaked, Trump told Schumer that he personally liked him better than either McConnell or Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Trump probably thought Schumer was as shallow as he is and could be won over with idle flattery,” said former top Schumer aide and Hillary Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. “Schumer is too savvy for that.” Fallon added that talk of a Trump-Schumer relationship was always “exaggerated.”
By the first week of January, Schumer rolled out the “Make America Sick Again” slogan in POLITICO. Within hours Trump, who was annoyed by it according to two people close to him, went on Twitter and called Schumer—to whom he gave thousands in political donations over the years—a “clown.”
Chris Ruddy, a friend of Trump’s and the CEO of Newsmax, said that as far as Trump insults go, that’s mild. “In Donald Trump’s lexicon, it’s not too bad to be called a ‘clown,’” he said. “It’s not an enemy of the state.”
The relationship then turned even frostier two weeks later, after Schumer took the stage at Trump’s inaugural and delivered a speech that a third top White House official went so far as to call “anti-Trump.” Schumer praised all Americans “whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity; whether we are immigrants or native-born; whether we live with disabilities or do not.” Some in the crowd booed him.
“They booed when I said rule of law. Who does that say more about, ok? I was proud of it. I expected I’d get some flak,” Schumer told POLITICO.
Then, at the inaugural luncheon afterward, Trump tried to buttonhole Schumer about confirming his Cabinet members. Schumer responded by criticizing Trump’s picks as too conservative to the president’s face.
The pair spoke at the White House on Jan. 23 during a gathering for legislative leaders. After the gathering, Sen. Mitch McConnell dryly remarked about listening to “the President and Senator Schumer talking about all the people they knew in New York.” But it would be one of the last times Schumer and President Trump engaged. They met once more the next day, along with the Judiciary Committee leaders.
They haven’t talked since, Schumer said.
The closest they’ve come to direct interactions is on Twitter, when Trump called for Schumer to be investigated for ties to Russia and Schumer replied he’d “happily” speak “under oath.” “Would you &your team?” Schumer retorted.
Two White House officials said Schumer’s private sit-down with Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, was the most hostile of any of Gorsuch’s Senate meetings. Then, in mid-March, Trump fired almost all the sitting U.S. attorneys, including Preet Bharara, a former Schumer aide whom Trump had previously, according to Bharara, promised to let stay on.
White House officials said Trump had little reason to keep him, given they were no longer on speaking terms with Schumer.
Those in Schumer’s orbit, and even some Republicans, said that Trump’s pursuit of a partisan health care repeal first instead of, say, an infrastructure package that could have drawn Democratic support doomed any chance of rapport between the two men. Schumer and Trump also agree on some trade issues.
“This is not Monday morning quarterbacking but if they had maybe led off with the infrastructure bill,” King, the GOP congressman, said of the White House, “that may have been more grounds they would have had” for deal-making.
“It’s not complicated,” said Phil Singer, a former Schumer adviser. “Trump has pursued an agenda that is antithetical to everything Schumer and the Democrats have worked on for years.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat, said of Trump and Schumer, “The president knows that Chuck is not going to be rolled over or bowled over or pushed over. And the other thing is Chuck is very personable, and when they can work together they can.”
But Trump’s team believes Schumer was boxed in by the liberal activists who showed up by the thousands to protest the day after the inauguration.
“He’s a much more transactional pragmatist but he’s forced into a spot where he’s not allowed to work with Trump,” said one of the White House officials.
Fallon said that Trump’s plummeting approval ratings — he sank to 36 percent in a recent Gallup survey — give Schumer the upper hand in setting the terms of discussions, should they happen in the future.
“To the extent Schumer was ever going to feel pressure to show openness to Trump, it was going have to come from the red-state members who were in cycle,” Fallon went on. “But those members are feeling less and less pressure to stand up to Trump. And that gives Schumer added freedom.”
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