Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said President Trump is not acting like an innocent man and is "dead wrong" when he insists he can pardon himself.
Asked by NPR's Rachel Martin about whether a self-pardon would prompt Schumer to support moving toward impeachment, the top Senate Democrat said, "We don't want to get to the point where there is a constitutional crisis." But he added about Trump's behavior, "for someone who keeps loudly proclaiming his innocence he sure doesn't act like it if he did. Then why would he want to talk about pardoning himself?"
Schumer took issue both with the president's legal team arguing the executive held this authority and Trump calling special counsel Robert Mueller's probe "unconstitutional," telling NPR that the president was "0 for 2 on the Constitution."
"We do not have a dictatorship. The Founding Fathers did not want a king. That means no one — including the president himself — is above the law. He's just dead wrong," Schumer said in an interview with Martin in his Capitol office on Monday.
Schumer, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has repeatedly steered away from discussing the threat of impeachment, arguing it's premature to discuss the possibility. He sidestepped the issue again in his conversation with NPR, but instead raised questions about why the president is even talking about a pardon.
The New York Democrat, who would be in line to be the Senate majority leader if his party takes control of the chamber in the November midterm elections, told NPR that the Senate is "definitely in play."
He agreed with the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who told the Washington Post last month that Republicans are at risk of losing their narrow 51-49 majority in November because of tight contests in several battleground states.
"The conventional wisdom is very hard for Democrats to take back the Senate when you look at the geography from 10,000 feet. When you look at what's happening in each state, McConnell's right it's definitely in play," Schumer said Monday.
The math for Senate Democrats is challenging this election cycle. They are defending 26 seats, including two independents who caucus with Democrats, while Republicans are only working to retain 9 GOP seats in November.
One area where Schumer did say he agrees with Trump more than his predecessors, former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, is his focus on being tougher on China.
"I don't think either previous president did much to show China they meant business. Trump has talked about it," the Senate minority leader said. But Schumer said he's still waiting to see how the president follows through on the issue, saying, "he hasn't yet done it but let's wait and see."
Of all the top congressional leaders, Schumer has the longest relationship with the president, stemming from their New York ties. He told Martin that he talks with the president "every so often" and most recently weighed in with him with a half-hour conversation about trade policy with China.
"We are certainly adversaries and I think he's doing damage to our democracy and damage to the middle class in this country." "But," Schumer added, "I'll never cut off a line of communication."
Miranda Kennedy edited the broadcast version of this story. Ashley Westerman produced it.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants to make sure he is heard when it comes to a nuclear deal. He and other top Democrats sent a letter to President Trump yesterday. It lays out five demands ahead of President Trump's summit with North Korea later this month, including, quote, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program.
I spoke with Senator Schumer yesterday afternoon in his office in the U.S. Capitol. And I asked him whether he's concerned that the Trump administration will offer too many concessions without getting enough in return.
CHUCK SCHUMER: The worry we have is the president will be so eager for, quote, "an agreement" that it won't protect the security, first and foremost, of the United States. When you have North Korea with ICBM capability and nuclear capability, it's extremely dangerous. So having an agreement that doesn't dismantle that would be really troublesome. And secondarily, we've had allies that we've had since World War II in South Korea and Japan, in particular - Australia on the periphery, Philippines. And we have to do things in accord with them and protect their security as well.
MARTIN: Why did you feel it important to write this letter? I mean, do you have any evidence that would suggest that the administration wouldn't also be concerned about those issues?
SCHUMER: The administration has been somewhat erratic. They've moved rather precipitously without real guidelines in effect. And everyone knows that there are many times when Donald Trump likes the show of it as opposed to the substance of it. And the substance is vital here because our security is at stake. Now, we may be wrong on this. Maybe he's going to, you know, just demand the kinds of things that we've requested. That would be so much better, and we hope it happens. But we have to set out signals that that is a bottom line, not just gratuitous.
MARTIN: How do you reinforce the bottom line? I mean, is this just talk at this point? What mechanism do you have to make sure that...
SCHUMER: Well, first...
MARTIN: ...The administration does what you want them to do?
SCHUMER: Well, first, I think laying out five principles clearly does set some real parameters that the American public will judge the president by. Second - obviously, if he comes to an agreement, one of the things that North Korea wants most is removal of sanctions. And in the past, when it comes to Russia and others, in a bipartisan way, when Congress has not agreed with what the president has done, we have taken away his ability to waive sanctions.
MARTIN: That's something that you could see happening again?
SCHUMER: It's very possible because a good number of our Republican colleagues probably - I don't think they'd send him a letter publicly because they're of the same party. But a good number of our Republican colleagues agree with every one of these principles and realize the danger to America if North Korea continues on the path it's continued.
MARTIN: But it has to be a give-and-take. In any negotiation, North Korea is going to expect something.
SCHUMER: Well, what North Korea will expect is being welcomed into the community of nations, being able to trade economically and things like that. And those are fine incentives. But they ought only to be granted when we achieve our goals, not ahead of time. In the past, North Korea has proved to be a very unreliable negotiating partner. They've promised things and backed off. They've lied. And we have to really be strong here because the danger is much greater than in previous negotiations because North Korea's nuclear capability is large. And for the first time, it seems quite clear that they have ICBMs.
MARTIN: Let me ask you - also in the letter, you urged the president to continue to take a, quote, "tough approach to China" to make sure that China's doing everything it can...
MARTIN: ...To make sure North Korea is complying with any potential deal. Are the Trump administration's new trade tariffs on China part of that? I mean do you...
MARTIN: ...Believe those tariffs are a good idea?
SCHUMER: One doesn't know. I have said repeatedly that my views on trade with China - not trade in the rest of the world but on trade with China - are closer to President Trump's than they were to President Obama or President Bush.
MARTIN: You like these sanctions?
SCHUMER: Well, it's unclear what he's doing. Take ZTE...
MARTIN: This is the Chinese telecom that Donald Trump propped up.
SCHUMER: ...The Chinese telecom - golden opportunity to show the Chinese we meant business. He talked tough and then backed off. So we don't know where it's going to end up with China because, again, sort of like with North Korea, the administration's, A, been erratic and, B, has different voices saying different things. You know, his secretary of Treasury seems to be different than Lighthizer and Navarro. So we have to wait and see. But if the president were tough on China, I think it would have two benefits - one, that would make China more, not less, inclined to help us on North Korea because that is the mother lode. That's what they care about.
But B - and maybe just as importantly - China has been stealing our intellectual property, our jobs, our wealth for 20 years. General Keith Alexander, hardly a hyperbolic man, a four-star general who was head of cybersecurity said - and this plagues me - there has been no greater transfer of wealth in the history of the world as has occurred in the last 20 years as Chinese companies have stolen the intellectual property of American companies. That can't be allowed to continue, or our economy will eventually sink.
MARTIN: So you like the focus at least - when you say you're closer to Donald Trump than you were to Barack Obama on this issue. You like the focus that this president is putting on China and trade.
SCHUMER: I don't think either previous president did much to show China they meant business. Trump has talked about it. He hasn't yet done it. But let's wait and see. When the president backed off on the sanctions again ZTE, which really damages our national security if they were to be allowed here, both parties reacted strongly. And it looks like Congress will overrule the president and not allow him to undo the sanctions.
MARTIN: Let me ask you about some news the president has made tweeting about what he has described as his absolute power to pardon himself, this coming in response to a letter that his lawyers sent to special counsel Robert Mueller.
SCHUMER: He said he had the absolute power to pardon himself. And then a few minutes later, he said that the special counsel is unconstitutional. He's 0-2 on the Constitution. We do not have a dictatorship. The Founding Fathers did not want a king. That means no one, including the president himself, is above the law. He's just dead wrong.
MARTIN: We should make it clear - the president says he's done nothing wrong but it is within his power, he argues, to pardon himself. His own lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says that would be impeachable. It would be politically untenable. If he were to pardon himself. Is that something that - would you move towards impeachment?
SCHUMER: Look, let's hope the president doesn't do that, plain and simple. We don't want to get to the point where there's a constitutional crisis. And we've been doing everything we can to urge the president to avoid it. But I'll say this - for someone who keeps loudly proclaiming his innocence, he sure doesn't act like it. If he did, then why would he want to talk about pardoning himself?
MARTIN: Are you worried that voters see you as the resistance, a party defined in its opposition to President Trump?
SCHUMER: We work with the president when we can - trying to on China, trying to here on North Korea. When he's wrong, we oppose him. We have to be guided by our own internal gyroscope, plain and simple.
MARTIN: You've known Donald Trump a long time.
MARTIN: In the beginning, about a year ago, it seemed like you two were kind of getting along.
SCHUMER: You know, we still talk to each other.
MARTIN: Do you? How often would you say?
SCHUMER: And we've never - every so often. I can give you an exact moment. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago on trade. I called him. We talked for a half hour, encouraging him to be strong on China. He had his advisers there.
MARTIN: How's your relationship? How would you characterize it now?
SCHUMER: Well, we are certainly adversaries. And I think he's doing damage to our democracy and damage to the middle class in this country. I don't think he's kept his promises. But I'll never cut off the line of communication.
MARTIN: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, thank you for your time, sir.
SCHUMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.