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McConnell Condemns Schumer's Comments Targeting Supreme Court Justices

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is being criticized for comments he made to abortion-rights activists at a rally outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Andrew Harnik
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is being criticized for comments he made to abortion-rights activists at a rally outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., condemned the top Senate Democrat for comments he made on the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday calling out Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

Appearing before a crowd of abortion-rights demonstrators, Schumer, D-N.Y., referred to the court's two Trump appointees, saying: "You have unleashed the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won't know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions."

"At the very best, his comments were astonishingly reckless and irresponsible," McConnell said.

He added, "The minority leader of the United States Senate threatened two associate justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Period." He suggested Schumer should "withdraw his comments and apologize."

President Trump also blasted Schumer on Twitter,saying he "has brought great danger to the steps of the United States Supreme Court."

"No matter the intention, words carrying the apparent threat of violence can have horrific unintended violence," McConnell said.

Shortly after McConnell's stern lecture, Schumer came to the Senate floor and told his colleagues: "I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They did not come out the way I intended to."

He explained, "I'm from Brooklyn, we speak in strong language."

Schumer didn't apologize, and instead explained that he felt "passionately" about the issue the court was considering — whether to uphold a Louisiana law that would restrict access to abortion services.

"So, yes, I am angry. The women of America are angry. And, yes, we will continue to fight for a woman's right to choose. I will continue to fight for the women of America," the New York Democrat said.

Schumer's remarks on the steps of the Supreme Court were supposed to be a reference to Kavanaugh's warning to Democratic senators about the fight over his record in 2018 at his confirmation hearing, "You sowed the wind. For decades to come, I fear the country will reap the whirlwind."

In a rare public rebuke, Chief Justice John Roberts responded to Schumer late Wednesday. "Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter," he said in a written statement.

Other Republicans joined McConnell on the floor to pile onto the GOP blowback to the episode. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, noted that judges are appointed to a lifetime term to be "free from political pressure." He said Schumer's remarks were "an injection of partisan politics into a process that should be immune to them. At worst, it was a threat targeting two sitting members of the Supreme Court."

Schumer pushed back at those lawmakers who argued he was inciting violence.

"I did not intend to suggest anything other than political and public opinion consequences for the Supreme Court," he said, "and it is a gross distortion to imply otherwise."

Senate Republicans worked to put pressure on those Democrats in competitive races in 2020 to speak out against Schumer.

"Chuck Schumer's reprehensible attack on Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh was met by predictable silence from the Democratic candidates Schumer's DSCC and other dark money entities are spending millions to elect," Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the Senate GOP campaign arm, said about Democrats backed by the leadership. "Every single DSCC-backed candidate beholden to Schumer's money machine should demonstrate a degree of decency and disavow the dangerous attack on our independent judiciary."

Schumer's office initially didn't back down from the comments when GOP lawmakers decried them Wednesday. Justin Goodman, his spokesman, said they were a reference "to the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court, and a warning that the justices will unleash a major grassroots movement on the issue of reproductive rights against the decision."

The episode signals how the issue of Supreme Court nominees will likely become a flashpoint in the 2020 presidential campaign. Conservatives continue to point to Trump's record appointing and confirming Kavanaugh and Gorsuch plus hundreds of lower court judges to the bench. Liberal groups concerned about the impact Republican-approved nominees will have on abortion and other issues are working to remind voters about the influence a Democratic president could have if any justices decide to retire.

McConnell vowed his party would be on watch for any further criticism from Democrats of the independent judiciary, saying, "This majority will ensure the only casualties of this recklessness are the reputations of those who engage in it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
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