Kirsten Gillibrand has a different word for the family separation policy which the attorney general and White House press secretary call “Biblical.” Her word is “evil.” In the Biblical sense.
Referencing the “devil’s schemes” from the Book of Ephesians, the New York senator said President Donald Trump’s administration qualifies for that label “if you were talking in Christian language.”
“To me? Yes, these are all things that come from the darkness that are ripping children from their mothers’ arms. That’s outrageous. I mean, that is not a positive, good thing. It is an evil, dark thing,” she told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
She ducked calling Trump himself evil, or saying that the person she accuses of acting out the devil’s schemes is the devil himself. But she said what he’s doing certainly is.
“It’s not specifically about the president. It’s about ideas that are evil. It’s about darkness, which is rooted in hate,” Gillibrand said. “There’s a lot of ideas right now that are in this county that are dark ideas: building walls, dividing this country, marginalizing trans [military] members who are troops, marginalizing kids who are transgender, not supporting DACA kids, literally polluting our air and our water.”
“In the civilian world, you would just say those are horrible, outrageous things that we should fight against because they’re harmful and they hurt people. And so we don’t really talk about good and evil in our day jobs, but we certainly talk about policies that harm people and are hurtful and are cruel, and a lot of the policies that this president has put forward are harmful and cruel. And if you want to call it evil,” Gillibrand said, “you can.”
“This is an issue of right versus wrong,” Gillibrand said in a voice-cracking speech on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, calling for action on the family separation policy. “It is wrong of us to stand by silently. It is wrong of us to do nothing. This is what the darkness looks like. We have to stand up against it.”
The rest of that passage in Ephesians is about believers taking up the “armor of God”—the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit. Gillibrand goes to three Bible study sessions on the Hill each week, and really is the only Democrat who attends in the Wednesday group convened by Oklahoma Sen. Jim Lankford, really was there that morning in December when aides pulled her out after Trump’s tweeted about her “‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).” And she really does see herself as wearing the “armor of God” (including, in the words of Ephesians 6:16, the “shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”).
Close aides and advisers acknowledge it sounds trite, but add that they never would have believed it was genuine if they hadn’t heard her going on about it non-stop: she thinks in terms of black and white, good and evil, of Christian good works as her calling and speaks of a crusade towards those ends in a pugilistic way that’s become much more familiar with politicians on the right.
“This is not somebody who’s reading a well-crafted speech. She does it extemporaneously, which means it’s in her. She does it in private conversations,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, who said Gillibrand “went straight preacher” at an event at the National Action Network in April commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was there where she first rolled out the Ephesians quote, then hit it with a coda from the Book of Esther.
“There is right versus wrong. Unfortunately, wrong is winning in a lot of ways. And so what my job is, is to stand firm, to stand strong, have the belt of truth around my waist,” Gillibrand said in the interview. “This president, I think, is leading the country in a very wrong direction, and so our job is to try to push it back in the right direction.”
How people think of Gillibrand is all about their tone when they say, “Of course she did”—with excitement, with an eyeroll, with respect, with exasperation. Of courseshe said she’d vote against every one of Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Of courseshe was the first big Democrat to come out against taking money from corporate PACs (after she’d built up millions in her own account). Of courseshe fired a warning shot at progressive Senator Al Franken after sexual harassment allegations were made against him and said she was returning all the money he’d given her campaign. Of courseshe was then turned around and said Franken had to go (after she’d said she wanted to wait on the Senate Ethics Committee process to finish).
Take that fervor, run it through a gut that’s never lost an election, through political instincts that would slice the throat of anyone who tries to take her down, through a media savvy that knows how to propel herself into being the person everyone’s talking about, and she’s either the bold hero who gets cheered for leading the way, or the striver who seems like she’ll elbow everyone out of the way to get the headline and the camera shot.
“She relishes being in front—she’s seen it work for her so many times. When has she ever been burned by breaking the mold and stepping in front of the crowd? Never. She knows intuitively that people respect that,” said Jon Reinish, a former aide.
People who don’t respect that include George Soros, other top Democratic donors and operatives who are looking forward to payback in 2020 over her calling for Franken’s resignation. Franken himself has told people privately how betrayed and angry he still is at her for, in his mind, drumming him out—“I have to tell you, she doesn’t want to lose,” he said admiringly of Gillibrand for a 2014 New Yorkerprofile, comparing playing squash with her to seeing her push for causes. Franken declined a request to talk about her now.
She says she doesn’t love the role she’s taken on as the arbiter of sexual misconduct. That Monday evening last month when the revelations about New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman exploded, she and a few advisers huddled, trying to figure out what to do. They knew Schneiderman would have to resign and that she’d call for him to, but she was pushing back against rushing out the statement. “Why do I always have to be the first?” she asked advisers, according to people who remember what happened that night. She knew Schneiderman and had worked alongside him statewide for years. That day at Sharpton’s MLK event, he was two seats over from her.
In the end, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for resignation hit inboxes first, while she was still reading the New Yorker’s Schneiderman exposé to the end. Her statement followed soon after.
Schneiderman announced his resignation that night.
“It had to be said that it’s not okay and that you can’t do those jobs with that kind of allegations credibly reported in detail, multiple allegations,” Gillibrand said. “It’s a sad state of affairs, but it really comes down to this issue of, do we value women in society and, you know, do you believe them, do you value them?”
In the combination of intuition and luck of timing that’s defined her, the “Me Too” movement fit perfectly into the issues she’d carved out for herself, from fighting military sexual assault to encouraging more women into politics (she founded the Off the Sidelines PAC in 2011, devoted to that purpose).
She seizes on causes, finds the nexus of what she sees as morally indefensible and government inaction, and pokes at it every way she can to amp up public pressure.
Take, for instance, the way she’s used “The Daily Show” to become familiar to a whole set of liberals nationwide. Her first appearance on the talk show was intended to promote the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But when that was passed in the 2010 lame duck session—after she’d done her own whip count and convinced then-Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin to hold a hearing, despite the Obama White House initially telling her to hold off—she was already booked and instead arrived to applause. She hit it off with Jon Stewart, which led to a partnership pushing for the 9/11 health bill, and from there, garnered her enough appearances that she might as well have been an official contributor. Just last Monday, she headlined a panel with Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, on military sexual assault, which, despite the two other credible people sitting alongside her, would probably never have made for a whole segment on the show if not for the United States senator who showed up.
Before Gillibrand was ever on set with Stewart, though, she was sitting in Roger Ailes’ office at Fox News, pitching him on the 9/11 health bill. She’d heard he was a military buff, that he’d bought his house for its view of West Point. She appealed to him about first responders dying for serving their country, and no one caring; she called it “a moral duty” to help them. Ailes seemed to like having a senator come to see him in his office. He seemed interested, Gillibrand said, but didn’t do anything for a few months—until her appearance with Stewart got Fox going, and they were all in. The bill passed.
“She knows more than anything how to best leverage the Senate. We’re in a modern America,” said Bill Hyers, who managed her first House campaign and remains a friend. “The Senate is a platform and if you use it right, you can advance an agenda. And that’s what she’s done.”
Next up: trying to turn up the media heat over reauthorizing the language on military sexual assault and trying to actually pass a bill to create a sexual harassment policy on Capitol Hill. Eight months after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, six months after pushing Franken out and a month after tweet-shaming the Senate into passing her version of the bill, the rage is over, the news has moved on, and they’re still going back and forth.
“If the House is unwilling to vote on our bill, which would be the simplest way to pass the bill, if they’re unwilling to vote on our bill, then they need to conference it,” Gillibrand said, to which the lead House Democrat on the legislation, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) responded, “easy for her to say.”
“What I would say is that I’d like them to pass the House bill so it can just get done, because it’s a much better bill,” said Speier. The Senate bill has a much narrower definition of harassment, and allows taxpayer money to be used on settlements. That’s a no-go, according to the California congresswoman. “The House Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much, but we do agree on this.”
Gillibrand calls the Senate changes “a little bit of tweaking” from the original ideas that she worked on in the House, and says “the simplest way to pass the bill” would be for the House to just pass her bill.
“If we pass my first version, it still would have passed unanimously because I don’t think anybody would have had the guts to vote against it,” Gillibrand said. “It’s frustrating to me because this should be the most easy, fundamental thing we could do, is make this a safe workplace for men and women who work here.”
The night Trump won, Hyers responded to every despondent text by responding with “Gillibrand 2020.” He says he doesn’t know if that’s more than just his fantasy, but other people who know her well expect she’ll run—her instincts are to go for the next big thing, her sons are old enough that the impact would be smaller than it was a few years ago, and there’s not too much worry about finding a way out of saying in February that she plans to serve a full term if she’s reelected in November.
“These decisions are so far outside the norm of what we know to be true that we are all feeling called,” Gillibrand said. “If we don’t do this one right, there’s no way we’ll unseat [Trump] in ’20 anyway. He has the megaphone. He is defining what his version of right versus wrong is, and it’s not consistent with the values certainly of my state and of the people that I represent. And so that’s why the battle in front of us is so important.”
“She will not be 75 and still in the Senate,” said Jef Pollock, the political consultant whom she talked into working on her first House campaign and has stuck with her. “She’s on a mission and where that mission takes her, who knows?”