Sen. Cory Booker on Wednesday night brought his trademark optimism to the national stage, insisting to voters that he can defeat President Donald Trump in 2020 without adopting the Republican’s tactics.
In his first opportunity to connect with a wider swath of the Democratic electorate, Booker – who has lagged behind the more familiar frontrunners in most early polls – criticized Trump’s policies and personal attacks, pledging to lead with love, kindness and a relentless message of “unity” across the political divide.
Asked about Robert Mueller’s investigation, LGBTQ rights, faith and the increasingly tense debate over the decision in Chicago not to charge actor Jussie Smollett in connection with accusations that he falsely reported a hate crime against himself, Booker vowed not to “surrender to cynicism” and committed to defeating Trump at the ballot box.
Booker pumps the brakes on impeachment talk
Democratic leadership in Washington, along with the party’s primary contenders out on the campaign trail, have been hesitant to consider any attempt to impeach Trump.
Booker is no exception.
Asked on Wednesday to describe the circumstances under which he might back an effort to remove the President, the senator punted the question to Robert Mueller – or rather, the still unseen findings delivered by the special counsel last week after nearly two years of investigating Trump and his 2016 campaign.
“I understand the sense of urgency to get rid of him,” Booker said, “but I’m going to tell you this: I’m going to wait for the Mueller report to actually be released.”
The detailed results of the Mueller investigation remain under lock and key at Justice Department, nearly a week after they arrived. Attorney General William Barr has put out a summary – four pages that Booker described as a “Cliff’s Notes version” of the report – saying that the probe did not establish collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mueller did not offer a decisive conclusion on whether or not Trump had obstructed justice.
“I don’t need (Barr) to filter facts. I want to see it. We should see that report and make our decision based upon that,” Booker said before pivoting to the message most of his 2020 Democratic colleagues have been angling at for months.
“This is what I’m going to commit to you right now,” Booker told the audience. “We are going to have this nation, through the electoral process, send him packing from the White House.”
Booker slams Trump on white nationalism, while he carefully addresses Smollett
Booker’s answer to a question on Smollett, the actor who was accused of staging a hate crime against himself until charges were dropped against him, spoke volumes about his approach to 2020: He carefully and quickly addressed Smollett before castigating Trump.
“I don’t know all the details in the prosecutor’s decision. I know that’s going to come out,” Booker said when asked about Smollett.
The answer was vastly different than what he said shortly after the initial Smollett news broke earlier this year. “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching,” he tweeted at the time.
On Wednesday, after delivering his answer on Smollett, he pivoted toward Trump, saying the President is “complicit” in the rise of white supremacist violence because he fails “to condemn Nazis or even to talk about white supremacy as a problem in this country.”
“To cut funding to investigate these domestic terrorist groups, these white supremacist groups, is making us less safe,” Booker added.
The Department of Homeland Security, in 2017, cut grant money for some organizations to counter violent extremism – including nearly a dozen that the Obama administration considered worthy of receiving the funds.
Booker continued: “And for him to fail even to condemn Nazis or even to talk about white supremacy as a problem in this country, to me, that is being complicit in the violence that is happening, and I find that unacceptable and repugnant. I will be a president that faces the threats to this country, including violence coming from right-wing extremist groups.”
Booker on reparations: Take this more seriously
Booker expressed frustration on Wednesday that the debate in Democratic primary circles surrounding reparations, or compensation, in some form, for the descendants of slaves, has been “reduced to a box to check on a presidential list.”
“This is so much more of a serious conversation,” Booker said. “So do I support legislation that is race conscious about balancing the economic scales? Not only do I support it, but I have legislation that actually does it.”
He was talking about his bill to create so-called “baby bonds,” which would provide every child – at birth – with savings accounts that could by the time they reach adulthood be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Booker also said he supported HR 40, legislation known as the Reparations Study Act, which would empanel experts to – as it states – “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”
Other candidates, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro, have also said they would back HR 40, which was first introduced by former Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is now its lead sponsor, following Conyers’ departure from Congress.
Booker, in answer on crime, previews possible attacks against Democratic opponents
Booker made a politically relevant and possibly foreshadowing comment on Wednesday night when she slammed what he called “horrible crime bills” signed in the 1990s.
The most notable of those bills was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, a bill that former Vice President Joe Biden authored during his time as a senator from Delaware. Bernie Sanders, then a member of the House representing Vermont, voted for the bill, something he said he did because the law included the Violence Against Women Act. So, too, did Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was a House member from Washington State’s 4th District at the time.
“I passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill with other senators on both sides of the aisle,” Booker said in response to a question about communing or pardoning people charged for federal marijuana offenses. “The first time since those horrible crime bills back in the 1990s, passed this legislation working across the aisle to move forward.”
The comment is significant because Sanders and Inslee are currently Booker’s 2020 opponents and Biden could be shortly, as he is said to be eyeing an April announcement that he, too, is running for president.
The 1990s crime bill is set to be a key issue in the 2020 election, much like it was during the 2016 race, when liberals slammed Hillary Clinton for supporting the bill, which was signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton – who said he made mass incarceration worse during his time in office.
Booker makes guns personal
Booker took an issue that all Democrats talk about – guns – and made it personal on Wednesday night.
The African American senator did so by noting that the rate of black men killed in homicides far outpaces their share of the population and spoke about gun violence in Newark, a city that is central to his political rise.
“This is very personal to so many of us. Me, because I’m a black man, and black males are 6% of the nation’s population. But they make up the majority of homicide victims in this country,” he said. “I am tired of going to funerals where parents are burying their children.”
Booker also invoked Shahad Smith, a 28-year-old man who was killed in Newark in 2018, who Booker says he personally knew.
“I live in Newark, and my mayor is doing a great job in lowering crime, but there are shootings,” he said. “Shahad Smith was killed with an assault rifle on my block last year, on the top of the block where I live.”
Booker went on to pledge to take on the National Rifle Association and said he is “frustrated with politicians who all the best they can muster is to give thoughts and prayers.”
“Enough of that. Enough of that,” he said to applause.
Because this issue is nearly universal among Democrats, the ability to personalize guns could set Booker apart from the field.
Town hall official: Cory and Rosario
Both Booker and actress Rosario Dawson have been public about their relationship in recent weeks, but on Wednesday night, the New Jersey Democrat opened up about how he met the actress, describing her as an “incredible girlfriend.”
Booker said he first met Dawson at a political fundraiser for Ben Jealous, former NAACP leader who ran for governor of Maryland in 2018.
“I was trying to help him out, but she didn’t give me the time of day. So, we met again, and I had one of those really awkward experiences. I’m a United States senator, and I had to get up the courage to walk up to her and ask her for her phone number. And this doesn’t make me nervous, but that made me nervous,” the senator said
“She gave me the phone number,” he added.
He described Dawson as “simply amazing.”
“She is an incredible girlfriend,” Booker said. “I’m very lucky to be in a relationship with someone who is just so incredibly special, but more importantly has taught me so much in a very short period of time.”
When CNN’s Don Lemon asked about whether a White House wedding could be in the future, Booker demurred.
“Well, I want you to know that, let’s not get ahead of this,” he said.