Feinstein Walking a Tightrope on Trump

California’s octogenarian senator is trying to strike balance between working with the president and securing reelection

Sen. Dianne Feinstein / Getty Images
April 4, 2018

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), who is facing a spirited challenge from the left in her effort to secure a full fifth term in the Senate, is attempting to walk a political tightrope on President Donald Trump.

Feinstein recently gave an interview to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle in which she fully displayed her triangulation between securing reelection in a state Trump lost by over 30 points and building support for her legislative agenda, one that needs Republican acquiescence.

The interview took place as the editorial board weighs which candidate to endorse for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate ahead of the June 5 primary. Feinstein, who has held the seat since 1992, is being challenged by Kevin de León, the president pro tempore of the California State Senate. De León, a 51-year-old former community organizer from Los Angeles, is campaigning as a political outsider and has extolled his support for a $15 minimum wage, single-payer health care, and protecting illegal immigrants.

Throughout the interview, Feinstein reiterated her opposition to the president and questioned his fitness for office.

"I do not believe he is a good president. I do not believe he is fit to be president," Feinstein said. "I do not believe that we have the stability in the executive office that we need to have."

"I think there’s an erratic behavior there that is deeply concerning," she added.

When pressed, however, the senator said she remained open to working with the president and congressional Republicans.

"I don’t have a choice if I want him to sign something that I’m doing like assault weapons," Feinstein said. "There’s nothing I can really do about it until either a house changes [to a Democratic majority] or there’s a constitutional crisis."

The editorial board asked if Feinstein still believed Trump could "learn and change" and "be a good president." The question was a follow-up to comments Feinstein made in August where she expressed optimism Trump could "be a good president," remarks that triggered backlash and rebuke from progressives.

Feinstein dodged the question, choosing instead to pontificate that such matters were trivial as long as Democrats were out of the majority in Congress.

"What difference does it make what I hope or don’t hope? I mean, it is what it is," Feinstein said. "The ability to do something about it is small because we [Democrats] don’t control either one of the houses."

"That’s just a fact of life," she added.

The 84-year-old Feinstein did express disappointment that Congress and the president have failed to address gun control and the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an executive order designed to provide legal protections to illegal immigrants brought to America as children. Trump repealed the executive order last September and put the onus Congress to produce a permanent solution for DACA recipients.

The race between Feinstein and de León has exposed fault lines in California's Democratic base. Feinstein, an establishment Democrat from San Francisco, has faced criticism from the left for being too affiliated with the status quo. De León is viewed as a fresh face who can help the Democratic Party bridge the divide between the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Since entering the race, de León has sparred with Feinstein over policy issues like single-payer health care—which de León supports and Feinstein doesn't—and how to adequately respond to Trump.  Geography, age, and identity have also been factors in the race. Not only is de León a generation younger than Feinstein, but he's a Hispanic Democrat from Los Angeles, an area that has been unrepresented atop California politics in recent years.

In February, Feinstein failed to garner the endorsement of the California Democratic Party in her reelection bid. At the state party convention, Feinstein received only 37 percent of the delegates attending, while de León, who has trailed Feinstein in name recognition and fundraising, took 54 percent. Since neither candidate was able to reach the 60 percent threshold, the convention withheld a formal endorsement.  

At the end of the interview, Feinstein responded to criticism from some further-left Democrats that she hasn't been tough enough on Trump. Her response implied she saw herself above not only the president's behavior, but also above that of those who would respond in kind, as her opponent might.

"I’m not a name-caller. I don’t call people names. All people want to hear, it appears, are epithets," she said. "My job is to get legislation passed or get problems solved or find money to help solve those problems."