Cory Booker on Why the Democrats Haven’t Stopped Barrett

The senator from New Jersey talks about Donald Trump, race, and the Supreme Court—and says he thinks he’s “taking up space” in the president’s head.

Cory Booker
Booker says he has "given up on the on the odyssey of trying to understand what motivates this president of the United States to say what he says." (Getty / The Atlantic)

The night after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Democrats gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court, repeating the rallying call “No confirmation until inauguration!” That had zero effect on Senate Republicans, who pledged their support for Donald Trump’s choice even before the president announced it would be Amy Coney Barrett.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is among those struggling with what to do. As a senator very much connected to the younger, more activist wing of the Democratic Party, he wanted to push back. As a member of the Judiciary Committee and an institutionalist, his instinct was to take part in the confirmation hearings rather than staging a stunt protest.

I spoke with Booker on Thursday afternoon, hours after he participated in a boycott of the committee hearing advancing Barrett’s nomination to the Senate floor. He talked about the Democrats’ failure to stop Barrett’s likely confirmation, what should happen with ending the filibuster and potentially expanding the Supreme Court after she is seated, and how, as the election approaches, he’s interpreting the closing argument from Trump, who for some reason keeps claiming that Booker is part of a plot to move Black people into the suburbs.

What follows is a transcript of our conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: The Democratic senators refused to show up for the Judiciary Committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. The vote happened anyway. So why should anyone care that you and your colleagues did that?

Cory Booker: I believe in the ideals of not being complicit in injustice. I think that noncooperation and boycott are very powerful tools within democracy. And I think this was a very important moment to have a unified group of Democratic senators on the committee, which does have a variety in perspective and even thought. I think it’s very important that we took this stand today—if anything, not to be participatory in a process that really has no legitimacy to it.

Dovere: There’s a striking contrast to Democrats complaining about the process—but doing a lot of that complaining while participating in the process, sitting at the hearing. Why not do something which blew things up even more?

Booker: In every day of the hearings, I tried to drive the point home with examples of why this was not normal. That was a refrain in my opening statement, in fact. But I, for one, really believe that it was important for us to elicit things from the nominee that further expose the challenges of having her be on the court. So I thought it was important that people heard her perspective on race, for example; how much she has thought about and read about an issue is so central to jurisprudence. Race has dominated many of the Supreme Court’s most known decisions for the entire history of our country. And so to have no one even bring up a question about race, I think would have been a disservice to America, and a failure in many ways to get her on the record on those important issues and others.

Dovere: Do you believe Barrett is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, if not for the timing of the nomination and confirmation vote, much like when Ruth Bader Ginsburg got 96 votes in her confirmation in the Senate?

Booker: I cannot divorce her qualifications from a process that is so deeply illegitimate. And I think that what is important in this moment is that no one should qualify for the Supreme Court in the way that she has qualified for it. We have a president who has outsourced the selection process to right-wing organizations. We have Senate Republicans who were committing to vote for her before she was even named. They were surrendering their obligation to advise and consent. They gave over their consent before it was even named, further delegitimizing the process. And then there’ll be other things that I’ve made clear: We’re in the midst of an ongoing election. No president has ever done this before; that illegitimates the process. And then we are at a time of great strain in America. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and economic decline that is similar to that of a recession. Amidst all of this, what I think of her as an individual is not relevant. What is relevant is the process, and how illegitimate it is, and how she is qualified for the court in a way that is an offense to the very idea of how someone should ultimately qualify to sit for a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land.

Dovere: You’ve been warning that the Senate will be permanently damaged by this kind of break. We’ve been hearing that kind of warning about a bunch of things for years now. Isn’t the Senate already damaged so much already, and will probably get more damaged?

Booker: I think that the Senate is severely wounded, and the injuries continue to mount. But I don’t think that the body is dead. I don’t think that hope is dead. I think that we can find a way to heal and repair. And I think that that is going to be the call of the Senate after this horrible injury that’s going to happen as a result of the vote we will be taking in a matter of days. And so I can’t give up on this body. I can’t give up on its capacity to rise to the call of the country right now—which is to address the challenges our nation is facing, to come together and do big things, do great things again. And so I’ve not given up. I do not think that the injury and the wounds, as deep as they are, are fatal, or that we still can’t call it a pathway to redemption or a pathway to resurrection.

Dovere: You’ve struggled with the question of getting rid of the filibuster yourself. Can you make the argument to a Democratic voter that if the Democrats win the majority, they shouldn’t get rid of the filibuster?

Booker: I don’t think I can effectively make that argument of why we should preserve the filibuster at this moment in history, days before we see a decision being made that could so hurt voting rights and health care and LGBTQ rights and women’s access to reproductive care and abortion care. What I would rather do is just make a commitment that after this election’s over, should we be in the majority, I will hopefully be a part of leading an effort to find a way to right these wrongs and to balance the scales of justice, so to speak.

Dovere: If Barrett is confirmed and Biden wins, and Democrats take the majority in the Senate, wouldn’t expanding the Supreme Court be a necessary step to preserve whatever policy you pass in the years ahead? Obamacare, for example, was passed in 2010 and already almost struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012.

Booker: There is an obligation that we have to take up a way to right these wrongs. You can’t have one rule for Merrick Garland that you commit to—and then change the rules, break your word for Amy Coney Barrett. And there are deeper issues at stake. This will be the first time in history that we have five Supreme Court justices, all of the conservative belt, who were appointed by presidents that did not win the majority of the vote and who are appointed by Senates where Republicans didn’t represent the majority of voters, either. We have to think of ways in which to right this wrong. I think it’s going to be a very important debate and discussion about what are the ways to restore legitimacy to the judiciary branch.

Dovere: President Trump keeps saying and tweeting that you’re going to be in charge of some program to move Black people into the suburbs. Are you?

Booker: I think it’s best to answer that as just “no.”

Dovere: Do you know what he is talking about?

Booker: I have, for years now, given up on the on the odyssey of trying to understand what motivates this president of the United States to say what he says. I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to understand the motivations for the chaos that comes out of his mouth. I do know that there are dark forces at sway, in the sense that he seems to consistently try to appeal to people’s fear, try to call to the lesser angels of our nature. That he is often demeaning and degrading and dehumanizing other Americans. And so I know that for me, I’d rather much rather focus on the people he hurts, the people that he is trying to manipulate, and be a force of protection—rather than get involved with what I think there’ll be arguments for in the annals of history about what motivates him to lead in such a dark way.

Dovere: Why do you think you’re on his mind so much?

Booker: This last month has been particularly strange, that in tweets and rallies somehow he’s been much more focused on me. Obviously, I’m taking up space in his head. And I hope that’s a sign that I’m being an effective advocate for things that are just right, as he is trying to so often push things that are wrong.

Dovere: Is it racist?

Booker: It could be more that he’s using me in a way to try to scare people, or thinking that somehow the only male African-American Democrat in the Senate is a great foil to try to scare suburbanites, which is rank racism. So I’m not sure what it is. I know he responded to the way I talked about him in the Supreme Court hearings, but I don’t know what it is—whether it is rank racism, or that he feels somehow injured by my advocacy.

Dovere: You ran for president hoping for a number of different things than what Biden has proposed. How much should people who want more progressive policy, or a different approach to issues of race, think that any of that would now be part of a Biden administration, if there is one?

Booker: Joe Biden’s pathway to the presidency should give people a lot of confidence that he will grapple with these issues and be a president that makes significant strides in them. Clearly his campaign was deeply shaped by the largest mass protests in our country’s history. Unequivocally. It came soon after he clinched the nomination in a decisive manner with a significant outpouring of African American support. I think you could add to that the decisions he has made so far: He has promoted the first-ever African American female as a vice-presidential nominee of a major party; he has consistently spoken with increasing eloquence about the need for diversity, for inclusion, and the need to address systematic racism.

Dovere: Biden said a few months ago, in a comment that got him in trouble, “you ain’t Black” if you’re supporting Trump. But Trump does have some Black support, even if it’s just a few percentage points. What would you say to the Black people who are voting for Trump?

Booker: The lesson I learned from campaigning for city council was I could knock on 10 doors, and my staff would yell at me because the one person that wasn’t voting for me, I would spend 30 minutes trying to convince them. As opposed to continuing to knock on doors and get people that were maybe not going to go out and vote, to get them out to vote for me. My focus really is not the people who are supporting Donald Trump, regardless of race. My focus is on those Americans who don’t understand the urgency in this election and might not vote in the first place. We need to have a record turnout—for people who care about issues of racial justice, for people who care about issues of civil rights and voting rights, for people who care about economic justice and environmental justice. You can’t complain about it if you haven’t voted. It is the fundamental foundation of our ability to deal with those issues. And so I’m saving my energy, not for Trump supporters who have already made up their mind, but for those people who are inclined to vote for Biden but we’re still not confident are going to vote.