Hawkings

A Senator Out of His Shell, and Under Trump’s Skin

Connecticut’s Blumenthal at the center of opposition to president

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal makes his way through the Senate subway in the Capitol after a meeting of Senate Democrats on May 10. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Of the 157 tweets President Donald Trump has sent in the last month alone, just six have singled out individuals for ridicule. And half of those have been directed at Richard Blumenthal.

The senior senator from Connecticut, who’s made reticence and prudence the guideposts of his first four decades in political life, is projecting a very different sort of persona these days. While presenting himself in public as quietly as ever, he’s become one of president’s most incisive Democratic antagonists on an array of topics.

And the trenchant, if soft-spoken, rhetoric from the senator, whom Trump has taken to demeaning as “Richie” — the two have long been connected through the world of big-money New York real estate — has clearly gotten under the president’s skin as much as anything else said on Capitol Hill this spring.

At the administration’s start, Blumenthal was particularly derisive of several prominent nominees and then took a lead in stoking congressional antagonism to both of Trump’s efforts to restrict travelers from certain Muslim-majority nations.

This winter, the senator caused significant discomfort for Trump by recounting a conversation in which Neil Gorsuch, then a freshly minted Supreme Court nominee, labeled the president’s regular criticisms of the federal judiciary as “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

‘A looming constitutional crisis’

But Blumenthal’s profile has never been as prominent as in the past week, after he declared that the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director has created “a looming constitutional crisis that is deadly serious” and “may well produce impeachment proceedings, although we’re very far from that possibility.”

In response, Trump unleashed a trio of vitriolic tweets — using the same line of attack, at Blumenthal’s biggest political blemish, that he’d taken in a similar Twitter fusillade after the senator recounted his talk with Gorsuch.

“Watching Senator Richard Blumenthal speak of Comey is a joke,” Trump wrote. “‘Richie’ devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For … years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there. When … caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness...and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts.”

The president’s online temper tantrum includes plenty of exaggeration but a core of truth. During his initial campaign for the Senate, in 2010, Blumenthal conceded he had sometimes misrepresented his military record — declaring he had served “in Vietnam” when he had spent six years entirely stateside in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Blumenthal apologized, saying he had always meant to say he served “in the Vietnam era,” and went on to win by 12 points against Linda McMahon, the pro wrestling impresario who’s now in charge of the Small Business Administration. (Although Blumenthal has voted against most of Trump’s Cabinet-level picks, he was among the 28 Democrats voting to confirm his vanquished opponent.)

Diversion tactics?

Nursing a tall paper cup of coffee in the basement of the Capitol the morning after Trump’s most recent diatribe, Blumenthal brushed aside the attacks as an ineffective attempt to distract his attention or deflect him from his hardened interest in investigating Russian interference in last year’s election, the possibility that Trump campaign officials colluded in that effort, and efforts by the president and others at the White House to slow or sidetrack such inquiries — especially by ousting the top law enforcement official on the case.

Blumenthal is pressing for the naming of a special prosecutor at the Justice Department with broad authority to lead the Russia investigation without much interference from superiors. But, on the assumption that won’t happen, he’s drafting legislation to mandate the appointment of an independent counsel, to be chosen by a panel of judges and subject to their supervision without the threat of dismissal by the president or any of his appointees.

The only other Democrats who have been singled out for online opprobrium by Trump in the past month have been “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” for acting “so indignant” about Comey’s dismissal, and a pair of japes aimed at Georgia special congressional election candidate Jon Ossoff.

Trump’s earlier Twitter pokes at Blumenthal alleged the senator had misrepresented his behind-closed-doors conversation with Gorsuch. But at his confirmation, the judge confirmed the senator had recounted it correctly.

The president and the senator have significant commonalities in their biographies. Each is a 70-year-old-native of the outer boroughs (Blumenthal was born in Brooklyn, Trump in Queens) whose birth at the start of the Baby Boom made them eligible for the draft at the height of the war in in the 1960s. But each obtained a series of deferments while attending college — although after graduating, Blumenthal joined the reserves while Trump got a final deferment when a doctor diagnosed bone spurs in his heels.

Perhaps more importantly, both are central figures in families that have amassed enormous fortunes in the world of prestige Manhattan real estate. For many years, Trump’s principal competitors included enterprises controlled by Peter Malkin, whose daughter Cynthia has been married to Blumenthal for 35 years. (Her riches have made him one of the dozen richest members of Congress every year since his arrival, with a minimum net worth of $67 million as he cruised to re-election last year.)

The future president and the future senator’s father-in-law were even antagonists in one of the premier New York property battles of recent vintage, over the convoluted ownership structure for the Empire State Building, with ended in 2002 with Trump claiming to have wrested a $15 million profit mainly at Malkin’s expense.

Different career tracks

But in many ways their backstories could not be more different. While Trump is the first of the 45 president to make that job his very first in public service, Blumenthal is the epitome of the career politician with the golden resume:

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, where he was chairman of the Crimson, Blumenthal started a journalism career in the London bureau of The Washington Post but a year later, went to work in the urban affairs office of the Nixon White House, where he became tennis buddies with future Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

After editing the law journal at Yale and clerkships for both a prominent appeals court judge and Justice Harry A. Blackmun, he took a senior staff job for one of his Senate predecessors, Abraham Ribicoff, who arranged for Blumenthal, at age 31, to become the U.S. attorney for Connecticut during the Carter administration.

He went to the state legislature in 1984 and got elected state attorney general in 1990. And there he remained, earning the backhanded compliment appellation “the perennial golden boy of New England politics” because he seemed ideally positioned to run for something bigger but passed on a series of possibilities. (All the while, he was routinely known as “Dick” in the state, but never “Richie.”)

His ambition did not exceed his caution for a full two decades, until Christopher J. Dodd retired. And during his first term in the Senate, he was decidedly a background player, developing a reliably progressive voting record while focusing his Judiciary Committee work on the sort of consumer protection measures that were his calling card as attorney general, and using his Armed Services Committee perch to promote weapons systems made in Connecticut.

Only since securing his second term last fall, with 63 percent while Trump garnered just 41 percent in the state, has Blumenthal moved to positioning himself at the center of the most combustible conflict at the Capitol.

“Now is the time for me to call it as I see it, as they say,” Blumenthal said the other morning in reiterating his concerns about Trump’s presidency. “I cannot be put off by what he might say about me.”

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