Cortez Masto talks Trump, plutonium and 2020

By: - February 6, 2019 6:06 am
cortez masto being senatorial

A majority of Democrats have encouraged the Biden administration to rescind Title 42 after he pledged to reverse the Trump-era policy, but Cortez Masto and a handful of other moderate Democrats say reversing the rule would result in “a surge at the border.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto isn’t shy about sparring with her GOP colleagues or the Trump administration.

The state’s former attorney general and first-term senator is the chairwoman of the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That means she’ll be leading the charge to oust some of her Republican colleagues and usher in a new majority in 2020.

She’s also a vocal critic of President Trump and some of his top lieutenants, including former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. She’s now furious at Energy Secretary Rick Perry for a move to ship weapons-grade plutonium to Nevada without the state’s knowledge.

Cortez Masto sat down with Nevada Current in her Senate office in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, just a few hours before Trump’s State of the State address, and discussed her work to boost Democrats in 2020, as well as her frustration with the GOP-controlled Senate’s unwillingness to provide oversight of Trump and his administration.

This Q&A  has been edited and condensed:

Do you think there is room for compromise in the Senate on border security?

I always think there’s room for compromise, but it takes two people. And what I’ve seen from this administration is [President Trump] is not willing to compromise. And even when he claims that he wants to compromise, he changes the terms of the negotiation, so that’s always been our challenge. … I think right now, because of this situation, it requires us really as the first branch of government just to do our job, come together, pass legislation. If he decides he wants to veto it, then we’ll look to see if we have an override for that veto and just move on and be that true check and balance on this administration.

What’s it like working in the Senate right now in that atmosphere?

Frustrating from the leadership level, because it is the Republican leadership that has abdicated our role to this administration. … [T]he challenge we have is when you are in leadership as you well know in the Senate, you control the agenda. [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell has strictly controlled that agenda and abdicated a lot of the work that we do to the president, saying that we’re not going to put anything on the floor unless the president supports it, which is ridiculous. Basically, from my perspective then, why do we even have Article 1? Why do we even have a Congress? So that’s the most frustrating part to me is, we should be doing our job.

You’ve been critical of the Energy Department’s plutonium shipment to Nevada and wrote a letter to Secretary Perry. Have you heard back from him?

No. Actually I brought in the administrator and their attorneys from the test site, and asked them point blank these questions. And to their credit, they came in and they knew these were the discussions that I wanted to have. Now I wasn’t happy with their responses and was very clear that I thought that they breached the trust that we had built up over the years with the administrator and the folks that are out at the test site and that manage the test site, including working with those contractors. And I felt that their attorneys led them astray and literally played a sham on the federal court. … So that tells me that they were willing to basically lie to the state of Nevada. That usually starts at the very top and I blame Secretary Perry. I’ve had interactions with him, they have not been good. He tells me one thing and does another.

What’s next on that? What else can you do?

We have followed up with the congressional delegation, our letters and follow-up have demanded a classified briefing on when the shipment occurred [and] … demanded the opportunity to go out and see where that plutonium is being stored and how it’s being stored, we want to understand how it was shipped and how long it’s going to be in the state of Nevada and what’s it going to take to move it out of the state of Nevada.

You’re the new DSCC chair. It’s a notoriously sticky job. Why did you take it?

I was honored, quite honestly, not only that my colleagues in leadership thought enough of me to put me in this position, but also it gives me the opportunity to highlight Nevada and what we have done in Nevada and the beautiful diversity of Nevada, and how we can really look out for the interests of everyone and still succeed. … One thing I’ve learned here is that unless you control the agenda and you’re in the majority, you can’t focus on or fight for or at least bring to the floor of the Senate the issues that you care about. … I think we need to get back to a day where we are actually in regular order, bringing legislation forward, debating it, talking about it, and moving it forward. And with Democrats in control, I think that’s possible and I think we can do that.

How optimistic are you about Democrats’ chances in 2020?

Very. We’ve got a favorable map. Now, I’m not going to take anything for granted, but last cycle was tough, we mitigated our damages. It was tough, we lost four of my colleagues, but we picked up as you well know Nevada and Arizona, which was exciting. And this cycle around, the seats, we only have 12 of my colleagues up and the Republicans have 22. And we’re running in an era when there’s a lot of energy out there and enthusiasm, a lot of good recruiting, folks that are coming forward, along with a time when it’s a presidential election and Trump’s numbers are negative.

With the election of Jacky Rosen, you’re in the first delegation of women senators from Nevada. How important is that?

I think it’s important on a number of levels. One, you bring a different perspective to the seat at the table to talk about in discussions and representing all of the constituency. Women are half of this country and they need to be represented similarly. I also think it is good because it lets young women see other women in leadership knowing that wow, if she can do it, I can do it too. And that’s what this is about, right, it is opening that door even wider so that more women, more young girls, more people and more diversity comes through that door and we’re expanding that.

What’s your top legislative priority this Congress?

We are going to be focused on re-introducing some of the legislation that we had. But obviously for Nevada it is health care, it is jobs, it is making sure we’re doing everything we can to deal with certain issues that I know are topical right now in Nevada — affordable housing is the number one issue. We’ll be looking at a lot of those issues, continuing work that I’ve done in our rural communities, making sure our rural communities have a voice, making sure that the work I’ve done on reducing violence, whether it’s domestic violence, trafficking in our Indian country as well as in other areas is just as important. I think investment in innovation — Nevada is an innovation state, it’s fantastic, it’s exciting. We should be investing in that innovation.

Your Democratic colleagues in the House have subpoena power. What would your top oversight priority for them be?

Oh my goodness, I would never tell them that. Listen, I have incredible respect for my colleagues on the House side from the Nevada delegation. [Rep.] Dina Titus is in a leadership position, she knows what she’s doing and I have every faith in them that they’ll do the right thing.

Are there any administration officials or areas that you think haven’t gotten enough oversight by Republicans?

I can tell you from my perspective sitting here as a senator, absolutely. I have sat and watched as we’ve had nominees come through that are being appointed that have no business being in the positions they’re in. They have no experience, they have no background. And then we’ve seen what happens when they’re in there abusing … the jurisdiction of their offices. We saw it with [former Interior Secretary Ryan] Zinke. … We see it right now with [Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross, who was lying about his involvement with a question on the Census. There’s a litany of them. …  And I think that’s the challenge we have here is that because the Democrats are not in control, we are not able to push that oversight role that I truly believe that’s what Congress is here for.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.