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Politics & Government

Democrats Prepare For Chances To Serve As A Check Against Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Senator Amy Klobuchar expected something different this election year. The Democrat from Minnesota expected her party to hold onto the presidency and possibly win control of the Senate. Now Klobuchar and other Democrats are grappling with how to overcome the Republican majority.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: A lot of us have talked through this and we believe there's going to be some major reasons for us to be a check and balance and to say no and to be in Tim Kaine's words an emergency break here. But that aside, I have always believed that if you can find common ground you have to seize that ground. You just can't go there and say, we are against every single thing someone says.

INSKEEP: Our conversation suggested how some Democrats are looking at the next couple of years. They talk of working with Republicans on an infrastructure plan. But Klobuchar says on many other items, Democrats plan to resist.

Do you think there are Republicans who, while they may disagree with you on most issues, are willing to join Democrats in serving as a check against the president if he should abuse his power?

KLOBUCHAR: I think it depends on the issue. Already you see people like Senator McCain and Senator Flake who have been much more open to changes in immigration policy. Senator Flake himself went to a mosque after attacks and angry rhetoric directed at Muslims. You have people like Lindsey Graham who've shown an ability to stand up to Trump. You've seen people like Susan Collins who's always a moderate who's willing to compromise. So that gives me some hope that they may join with us. They will not all join with us on every issue. I don't want to be a Pollyanna about this, but I think there'll be certain things where we'll be able to work with them.

INSKEEP: How much power, if any, do Democrats have to trigger investigations of this administration?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, obviously the Republicans control the Senate so that can be hard. That doesn't mean that we don't call for investigations. Senator Cardin announced that he's going to be leading a resolution calling on the Senate to make it clear that Donald Trump should eliminate any conflicts of interest between his business and the work that he does. When he did his interview with The New York Times, he talked about how, well, the president basically will...

INSKEEP: He said the president can't have a conflict of interest...

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Which is technically true because there's an ethics law that exempts the president.

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But there's the provision in the Constitution against receiving gifts from a foreign power.

KLOBUCHAR: That is exactly right. And that's a concern.

INSKEEP: We had ethics lawyers - Republican and Democratic - on the program last week who both said that if Trump were to continue in the way that he has begun, that it would in fact be a violation of the Constitution. Do you view this as a violation of the Constitution?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, again, I would like to see what he does. But if he starts doing things that would seem to meet that standard where he's receiving gifts or getting a benefit then that is a violation of the Constitution.

But I think it's pretty obvious that Democrats are going to be on the watch for this, that citizens should be on the watch for this and that I hope Republicans will be on the watch for this because you want to have a democracy and a government that's worthy of the people of America.

INSKEEP: Do you view fundamentally the president-elect as a Republican whom you disagree with about a lot of things or as a threat to the system which is what a lot of Democrats will describe him as?

KLOBUCHAR: I've certainly viewed some of his comments during the election as a threat to the civility of our democracy. On the other hand, if he is willing to work with us, we have such enormous challenges here. For so long we've been governing from crisis because of the economic downturn. And President Obama and his leadership were able to stabilize that.

Now America should be governing from opportunity. And I know that's what the people in my state believes. And for them, opportunity means an increase in the minimum wage. It means doing something about infrastructure. It means a rural agenda that's meaningful so that I don't have farmers and small business people and students that are going to the McDonald's parking lot to do their work because they don't have Wi-Fi in this day and age. It just makes no sense.

INSKEEP: What lessons did you draw from the fact that Democrats lost so many elections this time around and have done quite poorly for quite some time now?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, I think that this election became dominated by what President-elect Trump would say. And then we would be responding to that as opposed to being able to come out from under that with a strong agenda. I watched every one of those debates. And in my mind, Hillary Clinton won those debates. But somehow the message got muddled. And it got away from a message that unified people and got more focused on standing up for individual groups, which is of course important and I will always do. But we lost that unifying message about the economy, about what our policies were that would help people.

INSKEEP: We had a historian, Mark Lilla, on the program on Friday who argued the Democrats had lost their way by focusing too much on identity politics, appealing to specific demographic groups rather than the country as a whole. I think you just said the same thing.

KLOBUCHAR: Well, I think we need a unifying message to transcend any one community. That does not mean that we don't stand up for individual communities. I have one of the biggest group of refugees in the country with Somalis and Hmong. I was just at their Hmong New Year this weekend. And I can see their strength and how important it is to our country. But the things that would help the Somalis and Hmong in my state, which is having less costs for prescription drugs, making it easier to attend college, they would help the people in rural Minnesota as well. So I think that kind of unifying message is what our Democratic Party needs to move to.

INSKEEP: Senator Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota. Thanks very much.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.