Q&A: Cardin on Baltimore, Senate Life, and What He Tells Foreign Leaders Privately About Trump

U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) at a Democratic luncheon earlier this year. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) found another reason to loathe President Trump last week.

Cardin – a Baltimore native – was still fuming a week after the president first called Charm City a “rat and rodent infested mess” and lashed out against Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), who leads oversight efforts in the U.S. House.

“It’s horrible,” Cardin said.

But Cardin wasn’t surprised. “It’s his MO,” Cardin said of Trump’s Twitter attack. “He doesn’t want to give credibility to congressional oversight. He wants to continue to show his, what he thinks is a macho way of doing business, which is racist.”

Cardin sat down with Maryland Matters in his Senate office late last week to discuss the president’s feud with Maryland Democrats, the 2020 White House primary field and whether it’s any fun to work in the Senate these days.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity:

Maryland Matters: Do you think Trump’s attack on Baltimore was premeditated? 

Cardin: I don’t think he has a premeditated part of his body, he’s not that deep. It doesn’t mean he isn’t calculating. He does calculate. I think he just lets it go. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He thinks his strategy is right even though everyone around him tells him it’s not. I’ve seen this on major foreign policy decisions where he’s absolutely wrong, jeopardizing the national security of this country … and his advisers are telling him not to do it and he does it because he’s impulsive.

MM: Do you think people in Baltimore and Maryland feel ashamed by these attacks? Do they feel emboldened? 

Cardin: I think emboldened. They’re not ashamed. They recognize the city is a great city, they recognize the city has deep problems and it’s not unique to Baltimore. Some of this has been self-inflicted because of the leadership problems that we’ve had or just dumb things that have happened. So some of it was avoidable, but that the city is strong, and the city has a great future.

MM: Do you think Democrats in Congress shoulder some blame for Baltimore’s problems? 

Cardin: No. We all are in this together, it’s really a team effort. I think our federal delegation has been particularly strong for Baltimore for a long time.

MM: Given the attention, is there a way that Baltimore could come out of this on top? 

Cardin: First of all, we would have much preferred the president not to have said what he said. It is embarrassing to the White House, and it’s something we don’t like to read about our city.

Make it clear: this was a dark moment in the Trump administration and for Baltimore. I do think we will use it to try to leverage additional help for Baltimore, and I think some of our colleagues in Congress on both sides of the aisle may be more sympathetic to some of our requests than they would have been otherwise. So it may have some positive impact in that regard. But once again, we would have much preferred the president to have acted as president.

MM: Are there any specific efforts you have in mind? 

Cardin: We’ve already made numerous requests during the appropriations process concerning Baltimore and we have prioritized that with the appropriators. As the senior senator, I sort of put all that together. There are specific requests that we’re going to try to advance, and we may be able to use what the president did as leverage to get attention on those issues.

MM: What was your biggest takeaway from the Democratic presidential debates? 

Cardin: I think it’s creating a lot of public interest. I really do think that there have been attacks made that I wish were not made, but generally I think there’s a focus on the principles of our party.

We’re for universal health coverage – we have different ways of getting there. We’re against the president’s implementation of our immigration policies. We may disagree as to what the underlying law should be on health care and on immigration, but we have the same exact objectives, whether we are the most progressive or the most moderate of our candidates. On foreign policy, the president can’t conduct foreign policy through tweets, many of our candidates have said that, we are for ending these endless wars.

MM: Do you have an early favorite candidate? 

Cardin: I think I have 23.

MM: Is it weird to see so many of your colleagues fighting on TV? 

Cardin: It is. You know, it’s lonely in our cloakroom … They’re friends, they’re really friends. We have a lot of pride that we see our friends on the national scene running for president of the United States. I wish all of them well and obviously recognize there’s going to be some disappointment here.

MM: If you don’t want to endorse yet, what’s your main priority for 2020? 

Cardin: To beat president Trump, that’s my number one, two and three priority. But the way I think you do it – this could be the most progressive or the most moderate candidate could do it – you’ve got to be able to appeal to a broad audience of people who are disappointed by President Trump that are not going to be afraid to vote for our candidate, because we know how the fear factor will be flamed by the Trump supporters about our candidates.

MM: Is the Senate a fun place to work right now? 

Cardin: Yes. It’s frustrating because we should be doing a lot more. I’m disappointed we’re not using the floor of the Senate for appropriate debates and votes, but the committees are extremely rewarding. … The relationships and the debates we have among ourselves, and working across party lines to get things done, that occurs every day, literally every day. Fun may not be the right word, rewarding probably. What we’re doing today in the Senate is more important than the other years I’ve been here because the president is such an outlier. It’s important that we have a body that can put us back on the right path.

My meetings with foreign leaders, critically important. I probably meet with foreign leaders two or three times a week. They want to hear that America will be there again. And I have many Republicans sitting next to me and our message is the same, so that’s encouraging.

MM: And what do you tell them? 

Cardin: That the president doesn’t represent our country. We’re for NATO, we’re for partnerships, we’re for democratic states, we’re against totalitarian, authoritative rule. We’re for our values, our values are that people that are at risk, we want to welcome them here to America. Those types of issues, no, we’re not for Muslim bans. We stand for America, we stand for our values. We don’t marginalize people.

MM: Are your Republican colleagues supportive of Trump publicly and then suggest otherwise behind closed doors? 

Cardin: Yes.

MM: Do you expect the Senate to shift dramatically in a post-Trump era? 

Cardin: Don’t underestimate the division of views in this country and how it has really broken down on partisan lines. It’s real and it’s not just Donald Trump. In fact, Donald Trump to me doesn’t have any real philosophical base. He’s an opportunist who saw a way to be a populist to become president of the United States and who does it his way and is really not representing this country. I think we still have an underlying problem in this country between the two sides and that we don’t come together in the middle enough.

MM: How do you fix that? 

Cardin: By being leaders, just doing what’s right.

MM: Are you hopeful? 

Cardin: Yeah, I am. I think there’s enough people here that really want to see this happen. We have great role models that we can use that have broken through this in tough times. Our country does go in cycles, and we’re at I hope an edge and we’ll come right back into the center again. I think it’s going to happen.

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