Inside the Democrats' Plan to Fight Trump

How progressives in Congress got over their election night disappointment and formed a strategy to fight back

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks during a rally against President Donald Trump's travel ban outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, U.S. January 30, 2017. Credit: Aaron Bernstein/Reuters

Congressman Gerry Connolly, a five-term Democrat who represents northern Virginia, marched into his office on Capitol Hill and assembled his staff for an impromptu meeting. "I'm going to the airport," he told them, "and I may be arrested."

Two days before, Friday, January 27th, President Donald Trump had signed his now-infamous executive order that temporarily banned refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, plunging the nation's immigration system into chaos. Those on planes en route to the U.S. were detained upon arrival and held without lawyers. Green Card holders traveling abroad were uncertain if they could return. In all, the government revoked nearly 60,000 visas in the wake of Trump's order. Soon, protests had erupted at airports around the country in an unprecedented display of raw anger.

Connolly arrived at Dulles airport in Virginia to find an incredible scene playing out. Hundreds of people had gathered in the international arrivals area. They hoisted signs that read WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS and NO MUSLIM BAN and chanted, "Let them see their lawyers!" Uniformed police officers guarded the corridor that lead to where refugees and other foreign travelers were held. One officer stopped Connolly from visiting the detainees.

"I am Gerald Connolly, I'm a member of Congress, I represent right up to this airport, and we're asking for access to the people you're detaining," he told the officer. A federal judge had temporary halted Trump's order, and Connolly demanded to know why Customs and Border Protection officials weren't complying. In New York, members of Congress were also refused access to detainees affected by the ban; immigration lawyers were told to "Call Mr. Trump" if they had a problem. It was a constitutional crisis in real time, a modern-day Little Rock.

"What do you see your responsibility as in terms of enforcing a legitimate federal court order?" Connolly asked the Dulles police officer.

The officer demurred. A lawyer standing nearby chimed in, "I want you to know that the Dulles police have actually been very helpful with the legal team."

"And I want them to know," Connolly said, "that I'm going to be a pain in the ass."

Something clicked for him in that moment. Something clicked for Democrats in Congress around the country as they joined the spontaneous airport protests and led demonstrations in opposition to Trump's immigration order. Their tenor changed. They stopped mourning the election results. For the first time in the Trump era, Democrats had found their voice. "You're going to find us unified in a way you've never seen before," Connolly told me recently.

In the West Wing office of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, there are lists tacked to the wall of the campaign promises made by President Donald Trump. Seven weeks in, the Trump administration has wasted no time hurriedly implementing those promises. On top of his immigration order, Trump has signed executive actions to defund sanctuary cities, roll back the Affordable Care Act, restart the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, build a new border wall, and weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. He has seemingly ignored his promise to "drain the swamp" in Washington by naming more millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet than any president in history. And he has refused to divest in any serious way from his business, making it all but certain he will personally profit from the presidency.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are the front-line soldiers in the fight against President Trump and his chaotic administration. Relegated to the minority in both chambers, House and Senate Democrats have almost no legal or procedural power – they can't subpoena documents or control what gets a floor vote. Under a rule change they made several years ago, Democrats can no longer filibuster most presidential appointees. (Supreme Court nominees still need 60 votes for passage, but it's likely Senate Republicans will invoke the "nuclear option" and change that to a simple majority vote.)

Those obstacles would apply under a more normal presidency. Trump is the furthest thing from normal. He has a soft spot for strongmen and an authoritarian's disdain for a free press. He shows little respect for small-d democratic norms or the office of the president. He fumes on Twitter about the news media ("FAKE NEWS!") and the Democratic opposition ("led by head clown Chuck Schumer"). From the outside, the Trump White House looks like a soap opera, where senior aides battle for favor and access to the commander-in-chief, where policy is hammered out in secret by a small crew of loyalists, and where the quickest way into the president's good graces is to shill for him on TV or hawk his daughter's fashion brand.

Over the last three months, I've asked dozens of congressional Democrats how they plan to deal with Trump and his administration. Their collective response has moved from shock and despair to deep uncertainty to outright resistance. With few tools at their disposal, Democrats have resorted to guerrilla tactics to delay Trump's agenda and inflict damage on him and his administration. They've found strength – not to mention ground troops – in a newly-energized grassroots that is putting pressure on Republicans in Congress, without whom much of Trump's agenda is dead on arrival. Yet there is no precedent for what Democrats now face. "There is no playbook," says Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). "We're going to be writing it as we go."

The day after Trump won the presidential election, Senator Sherrod Brown, the gravelly voiced Democrat from Ohio, celebrated his 64th birthday. He spent the day moping around his house in Cleveland, looking stunned. Brown is one of the last true populists left in Congress – for decades, he's argued that global free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership decimate the industrial Midwest. (He discouraged the word "Rustbelt" in his office.) Now Trump, a billionaire who flew around in a private jet with gold-plated bathroom fixtures and who had a history of stiffing his workers, had claimed the mantle of populism and used it to defeat Hillary Clinton, for whom Brown had heavily campaigned. What the hell did he do now?

A couple of days later, Brown put in a call to Trump's transition official in charge of trade, a steel company executive named Dan DiMicco. If Trump was serious about his pledge to get the U.S. out of TPP and other multilateral trade deals, Brown told DiMicco, "I want to help you do this." But when Trump announced that he was naming Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, as his chief strategist, Brown blasted Bannon for promoting "anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic and dangerous views" and launched a petition demanding that Trump fire Bannon.

"Those are the bookends," Brown told me soon after. "When he's doing things that I think help my state, if he's doing infrastructure the right way, I'm there." At the same time, Brown was joining a call that evening with Ohio activists to discuss how to resist Trump and his agenda. But he had no plans, he said, to oppose every single thing Trump did: "I'm not going to be a blanket, like some of my colleagues."

As they squared up to the reality of a President Trump, House and Senate Democrats struck a wary if open stance toward the new president. Perhaps, they said, he would turn out to be a dealmaker, even an ally of Democrats in Congress on trade or infrastructure. Party leaders urged cooperation with the new president. "You won blue-collar voters, President-elect Trump, because you happened to support a lot of Democratic issues," soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said on Fox News in late November. "Don't break your promise to the blue-collar voter. Work with us."

But Democrats soon realized Trump would not be bound by his populist campaign rhetoric. For his cabinet, Trump picked a hedge fund investor who profited off the foreclosure crisis for Treasury secretary; a Republican mega-donor with no experience in public schools for Education secretary; and a multibillionaire corporate raider for Commerce secretary. Members of the Goldman Sachs universe were tapped to lead the National Economic Council and the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Trump did not run on, 'I will hand economic policy in the United States over to Goldman Sachs,'" Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells me, "and yet he has now brought enough Goldman Sachs bankers into the White House to open up a new branch office for Goldman."

Democrats had to get creative to expose and undermine Trump's nominees. They held shadow confirmation hearings that featured witnesses Republicans refused to allow testify in the formal confirmation process. At one such hearing, homeowners testified about the shoddy foreclosure practices at OneWest, the troubled bank that Steven Mnuchin and other investors bought and later flipped for $3.4 billion. "The OneWest model was terrible for homeowners," Warren said, "but it was great for Mr. Mnuchin" who made a reported $200 million on the deal.

On the morning of the OneWest shadow hearing, a TV ad hit the airwaves in three states and Washington, D.C., targeting five Republican senators. The ad, sponsored by a coalition of progressive groups, featured a woman who said that OneWest had foreclosed on her while her husband battled cancer. "Steve Mnuchin ran the bank that committed fraud and took our home," she says to the camera. "And now Donald Trump has nominated him to run our economy as Treasury secretary."

The Mnuchin attacks highlighted an inside-outside strategy that has been essential to Democrats' early anti-Trump efforts. Liberal grassroots groups like Our Revolution, the spin-off from Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, have helped draw huge crowds for rallies in support of the Affordable Care Act. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which sponsored the Mnuchin ad, told me it's been a decade since he last saw such strong collaboration between congressional Democrats and outside groups. "The grassroots is going to rise up and apply a lot of pressure here," says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a leading progressive. "That needs to be a key part of our strategy."

On the day after Trump's inauguration, some 3 to 4 million people marched in the streets in cities around the world in protest. A week later, thousands more flocked to dozens of airports to demonstrate against Trump's travel ban. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) later told me he hadn't seen civil disobedience of this magnitude since the Vietnam War. Many Democrats, by their own admission, underestimated the massive foment at the grassroots. When all 11 Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee voted to confirm Dr. Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a job that Carson himself admitted he wasn't qualified to hold, progressive activists denounced Democrats and demanded they oppose all future Trump nominees.

The message out of the grassroots was clear: Resist. That groundswell, on top of the steady drip of revelations about Russia's interference in the election and the Trump campaign's ties to Russian leaders, has hardened House and Senate Democrats in their stance of firm opposition. When I caught up with Sen. Sherrod Brown recently, he said he hadn't given up on working with Trump, though he also seemed less optimistic about that happening and more eager to resist. The protests across the country, he told me, "have emboldened us to fight back."

"Let's start with a simple fact," Sen. Elizabeth Warren began. "Our moment of crisis didn't begin with the election of Donald Trump."

It was the first Saturday in February, and Warren had traveled to Baltimore to speak at the annual retreat of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Warren dismissed those who said all the Democratic Party needed was better talking points, better data, better outreach. The rot was deeper. For far too long, Warren said, Democrats had gone along with corporate-friendly Republicans. For far too long they had hesitated to throw a punch. "That ends today," she proclaimed. "It's time for Democrats to grow a backbone and to get out there and fight."

It's easy to forget that the biggest battles in Washington are yet to come – the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the future of Medicare, Supreme Court nominations that could reshape the court for a generation, federal budgets that could level whole agencies and gut huge swaths of the government. Warren's speech was a pep talk for Democrats headed into the thick of battle. "This," she told her fellow Democrats, "is our test."

Emboldened by the airport protests, Democrats agreed to drag out the confirmation process by boycotting committee votes and using procedural motions to delay final votes on Trump's nominees. They used every minute of floor time to argue more forcefully against Trump's picks – a tactic that, in the case of Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination to be attorney general, took the form of Warren reading a letter penned by Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, that was critical of Sessions. The move led to Warren's much-covered silencing on the Senate floor. “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” These tactics served a double purpose: to galvanize the Democratic base and to irritate President Trump. They succeeded on both accounts. "When will the Democrats give us our Attorney General and rest of Cabinet!" Trump tweeted. "They should be ashamed of themselves! No wonder D.C. doesn't work!"

Provided they can keep their nerve, Democrats are now eyeing how to translate their opposition into electoral success in 2018. The party that controls the White House loses on average 33 House seats in a president's first midterm election; Democrats need to pick up 24 to reclaim the majority. The Democrats I interviewed laid out a two-pronged plan – still in the works – for gaining seats next year: Damage Trump in the eyes of his supporters, and drive a wedge between Trump and the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Democrats hope to weaken Trump with his base by highlighting his business holdings and his personal wealth. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have vowed to investigate the many potential conflicts arising from Trump's domestic and international dealings. "He's the king of conflicts," says Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). Other Democrats say they should withhold votes for any major legislation needing bipartisan support – say, a major infrastructure package – until Trump releases his tax returns and use every policy debate as an excuse to highlight Trump's many conflicts of interest via amendments and floor speeches. "It's not rule of the people," Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) says of Trump's agenda. "It's rule of the plutocrats and insiders and billionaires and the Wall Street crowd."

One senior House Democrat, who asked for anonymity to discuss party strategy, told me that pushing for a full accounting on Trump and Russia is the best way to turn Trump into an albatross around the necks of congressional Republicans to the point that party leaders like McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan might abandon him. Not a week goes by without more evidence of Trump's ties to and sympathies for Russian leaders – former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Trump underlings secretly pursuing a deal to lift Russian sanctions, contacts between Russian intelligence officials and Trump surrogates during the 2016 campaign. "I think that's going to be the other shoe to drop," the House Democrat said, "and will likely be the basis for Republican support of Trump to crumble."

Already, a growing number of Republicans, including Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Bob Corker, have asked for a full examination into Trump's Russian connections, including the recent revelations that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign (despite suggesting otherwise in his confirmation hearing). "We should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned," Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told a Missouri radio station.

On the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, privatizing Social Security, or rolling back Obama's Climate Action Plan, most Democrats say they're ready for all-out war to stop the unwinding of major policy victories of Obama years. During the dead-of-night vote that set in motion the roll back of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats disobeyed Senate rules by speaking out in protest while casting their "No" votes. "For all those with pre-existing conditions, I stand on prosthetic legs to vote no," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a disabled Iraq War veteran. "A lot of us are eager to do battle if we need to," says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "There is going to be no problem of faintheartedness on our side."

Should they waver, outside activists are ready to pounce. In a tactic ripped straight out of the tea party playbook, alums of Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign recently launched a political action committee called We Will Replace You that will support primary challengers to run against congressional Democrats who do not vote against every one of Trump's nominees, including his pick for Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch. Eleven progressive groups recently sent a letter to all 48 Senate Democrats chiding them for not showing "a strong, unified resistance" to Gorsuch's nomination. "We need you to do better," the letter says. "We can't have Vichy Democrats," says Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party, a leading outfit in progressive politics which cosigned the Gorsuch letter. "We need the resistance Democrats."

Democrats in Congress have shied away from comparing the current groundswell on the left to the tea party revolt in 2009 and 2010, but the lessons of the tea party aren't lost on them. Rep. Gerry Connolly told me that his party will likely suffer big losses over the next two years. What matters is how well they translate those losses into votes at the ballot box. "We may lose the battles," Connolly says, "but in the process it is toward winning the war."