Amid widespread condemnation, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer backpedaled Thursday from inflammatory remarks the day before about two conservative Supreme Court justices, but blamed political opponents for misinterpreting what he said.
“I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They didn’t come out the way I intended [them] to,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Speaking at a Center for Reproductive Rights rally Wednesday outside the Supreme Court as the nine justices heard an aborton case, Schumer warned Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh by name that they had “released the whirlwind” and “will pay the price” if they rule the wrong way on abortion, adding that they “won’t know what hit you.”
“My point was that there would be political consequences, political consequences, for President Trump and Senate Republicans,” Schumer said Thursday on the Senate floor. “Of course I didn’t intend to suggest anything other than political and public opinion consequences for the Supreme Court. It is a gross distortion to imply otherwise.”
The top Senate Democrat did not apologize.
Schumer took to the Senate floor with a defiant tone, moments after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., became the latest voice from both the right and left to criticize Schumer’s comments at the rally on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The high court was hearing arguments in a case involving a Louisiana law requiring that doctors who perform abortions at clinics have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
During his remarks, Schumer called out Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, both veteran jurists named to the court by President Donald Trump.
“I want to tell you, Gorsuch, and I want to tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price,” Schumer said in remarks captured on video. “You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
The remarks prompted a rebuke later in the day from Chief Justice John Roberts, who issued a written statement saying:
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.
The usually left-leaning American Bar Association and other organizations from both the right and the left also criticized Schumer for the remarks.
“The American Bar Association is deeply troubled by today’s statements from the Senate minority leader threatening two sitting justices of the U.S. Supreme Court over their upcoming votes in a pending case,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said in a formal statement. “Whatever one thinks about the merits of an issue before a court, there is no place for threats—whether real or allegorical.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump tweeted: “Schumer has brought great danger to the steps of the United States Supreme Court!”
In seeking to explain away the comments Thursday, Schumer cloaked his comments in abortion politics.
“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,” Schumer said.
“I’m from Brooklyn. We speak in strong language. I shouldn’t have used the words I did,” he said. “But in no way was I making a threat. I never normally do such a thing. Leader McConnell knows that. And Republicans who are busy manufacturing outrage over these comments know that too.”
The previous day, Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman had criticized the chief justice, saying in a written statement:
For Justice Roberts to follow the right wing’s deliberate misinterpretation of what Senator Schumer said, while remaining silent when President Trump attacked Justices [Sonia] Sotomayor and [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg last week, shows Justice Roberts does not just call balls and strikes.
Trump had said Sotomayor and Ginsburg should recuse themselves from cases involving his policies because both justices have criticized Trump publicly.
In his floor speech, McConnell said of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh’s reactions to Schumer’s remarks the day before: “Most likely, they would hear them as threatening or inciting violence.”
“That’s certainly how Democrats would have characterized them if President Trump or any senior Republican had said anything remotely similar,” McConnell said. “We’ve seen much more hay made out of much less.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., announced that he would introduce a resolution to censure Schumer for his remarks.
“I would call on Schumer to apologize, but we all know he has no shame,” Hawley said in a tweet Wednesday. “So tomorrow I will introduce a motion to censure Schumer for his pathetic attempt at intimidation of #SupremeCourt.”
McConnell said Schumer had “doubled down” after his original comments, then “tripled down” after Roberts’ rebuke.
The Republican leader stressed that words matter.
“Less than three years ago, an unhinged and unstable left-wing activist attempted the mass murder of congressional Republicans at a basball field right across the river,” McConnell said. “A Senate leader attempting to threaten or incite violence on the steps of the Supreme Court could literally be a matter of deadly seriousness.”
McConnell also said Democrats’ threats to the judiciary are not new.
The Senate’s top Republican referred to an August brief filed in a Supreme Court gun rights case in which five Senate Democrats asserted: “The Supreme Court is not well … Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.’”
Those Democrats were Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds hearings and votes on presidential appointees to the federal bench.
McConnell said it’s not difficult to read between the lines of a court-packing scheme, likening such remarks to a mob protection racket.
“You would have expected it to end by saying, ‘That’s some nice judicial independence you’ve got over there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it,’” he said.