Profile: U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Our junior senator wants everyone to wake up.
Whitehouse was sworn into office on January 3, 2007, and, in the decade since, he has undoubtedly made his biggest mark on a single issue: climate change. He has participated in climate marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. He has helped organize a fourteen-hour talk-a-thon about climate change on the Senate floor. He has traveled to more than a dozen states — including Utah, Iowa, Georgia, Texas and West Virginia — to learn about the local effects of climate change. He has written and co-written op-eds on the issue for the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Forbes, and USA Today. And, most famously, he has delivered more than 175 speeches on the subject on the Senate floor.
Some speeches quote scripture, others praise corporations that have taken active roles in acknowledging and addressing the problem, others describe how climate change affects public health. But every one is presented under the heading “Time to Wake Up,” which reinforces the role that Whitehouse has created for himself as the guy trying to shake everyone else out of their stupor: the Warner-in-Chief. Is it grandstanding? Is he carving a place in the annals of history? Is he a voice of sanity and reason in a chamber that has lost its grasp of both? This, of course, depends on your views of an issue that Whitehouse calls “unbelievably important to Rhode Island.” But one thing is certain: Nobody in the Senate is making as much noise about this. “He’s in a league of his own,” said Connecticut U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal in 2014.
But Whitehouse’s tenure in D.C. hasn’t been as one-dimensional as it may first seem. His office is quick to tout the fact that he helped author legislation that brings the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and RIPTA $1.3 billion in funding over a five-year span. He’s chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Cybersecurity Task Force and frequently peppers his remarks with reminders of how much more the U.S. should be doing to prepare for cyber attacks. He was a sponsor and co-author, along with three other senators (including Republicans Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte), of a bill to combat the opioid crisis, which President Barack Obama later signed into law in 2016. He was also a founding member of the Senate’s bipartisan Oceans Caucus, which vowed in its charter to “enable further dialogue regarding coastal area and ocean policy” and has since helped usher the passage of various treaties regarding the management of fishing resources and the prevention of illegal “pirate” fishing. All the while, he has become a resource for other senators who don’t have his depth of legal training. “He has perhaps the best legal mind in the Senate,” says Democratic Ohio U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. “He not only has a good grasp of complicated legal issues, he has a way of explaining them to those of us in the caucus that are not lawyers and to those voters from Cranston and Warwick who are not lawyers.”
After six years of watching him work, Rhode Islanders seemed to approve heartily of the job he was doing on their behalf; in the 2012 election, voters chose him over Republican challenger Barry Hinckley by a 124,812-vote margin. By this time, a second signature issue was taking shape for Whitehouse. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court cast a fateful five-to-four vote in favor of effectively removing any limits on the amount of money that corporations and other organizations could donate to political campaigns. To say that the Citizens United decision does not sit well with Whitehouse would be a significant understatement. In his February book, Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy, he calls it an “extreme…rare kind of error-plagued and mischief-riddled legal monstrosity,” and spends an entire chapter describing its toxic effect on our political landscape.
“Since the Court took the fateful step of forbidding any limits on corporate spending,” he writes, “nothing now prevents corporate polluters under investigation by the Department of Justice from arranging unlimited ads supporting a more sympathetic presidential candidate who’ll tell his attorney general to go easy. Nothing prevents financial services companies from spending their vast wealth to defeat members of Congress who are tired of the way business is done on Wall Street and dare to become a thorn in Wall Street’s side. Nothing prevents big defense contractors from overwhelming candidates who might dare question a multibillion-dollar weapons program that they build.”
The book has a dystopian mood and horror-story vocabulary. According to Whitehouse (and co-author Melanie Wachtell Stinnett), in today’s America, corporate forces are “infiltrating everywhere, their tentacles constantly creeping and grasping”; political campaigns are “now run by new and alien organizations, super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, bizarre creatures unknown to our politics until recently”; and, on the airwaves, on screens and in print, “a vast corporate enterprise is busy constructing and marketing a pro-corporate ‘alternate reality.’” For a blunt, boiled-down summary, you might look to a sentence from the book’s introduction: “Regular people are no longer in the driver’s seat of American democracy.”
Had Hillary Clinton won the election, one can imagine Whitehouse spending the next few years pressing forward with his advocacy on his bread-and-butter issues: climate, cybersecurity, winnowing down corporate money in politics, protecting oceans, securing federal funds for Rhode Island interests. But then November 8, 2016, happened, and a brash, crass, seventy-year-old businessman and reality-TV star with no government experience won 304 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 227. His name is Donald J. Trump.
Whitehouse didn’t sleep on the night of the 2016 presidential election. “I’d go to bed, I’d lie down, but I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I’d get up, I’d go outside, I’d walk around, look up at the sky, come back in, read a little bit.” He says the question on his mind was, “How could this happen in our country?” Once the election results were confirmed, his office released a statement reporting that he was “stunned and disappointed.”
But the bewilderment didn’t last long. Two days after the election, Whitehouse published an open letter to Trump via the Huffington Post that states at the outset, “I want you to know that America expects better of you as president than what it saw in the campaign you ran.”
The letter goes on to remind Trump of the diversity of the country, of the full-page New York Times ad he once purchased to warn about the dangers of climate change and of the “dark impulses you have stirred that Latino and African-American friends recognize.” But it places the most emphasis on the effect of the campaign on women and girls, many of who had expressed concerns to Whitehouse. “You may not have intended it, but you came across as an ogre to them in this campaign,” he writes. “You frightened them. You frighten them now. This is real. You have a lot of damage to repair.”
More letters followed. In February, Whitehouse and four other senators signed a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general requesting an investigation of whether President Trump violated the Domestic Emoluments Clause via the events and paid membership at his posh, private Mar-A-Lago club in Florida. The next month, he and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting evidence to back Trump’s Twitter claim that President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. (DOJ later confirmed that no such evidence exists.) In June, he and three others, including two Republicans, sent a letter to both the White House and the FBI requesting information about the status of the security clearance of White House adviser (and Donald Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, after reports of significant gaps in Kushner’s previously submitted paperwork relating to meetings with Russian representatives and officials during the 2016 campaign season.
Whitehouse shows his opposition in other ways as well. During the early-February confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee and Alabama U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, Whitehouse — who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee — made news when he remarked that, “The opening days of this administration have been a gong show, but a gong show with a nuclear button.”
In May, when it was reported that Trump had asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Whitehouse issued a statement that read, in part, “With each passing day, we have more and more evidence that the president is willing to undermine the rule of law and threaten our national security and the integrity of our government.”
In June, Whitehouse tweeted “I think Trump’s unaware of others having a moral compass that tells them they have to do their job. That’s not part of his life experience.”
Following news of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2016 Paris Climate Accord: “Trump is betraying the country, in the service of Breitbart fake news, the shameless fossil fuel industry, and the Koch brothers’ climate denial operation.”
Then in August, after the president’s infamous statement that “both sides” were to blame for violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia: “The Greatest Generation fought, bled and died to defeat the Nazi flag that flew in Charlottesville this weekend. Instead of flatly condemning these monsters of the past, the president equivocated and blows dog whistles to the bigots of the alt-right.”
According to the political data-crunching website, FiveThirtyEight, Whitehouse has a “Trump score” — based on how frequently senators vote for or against the president’s preferred positions — of 22.4 percent, which puts him left of the center of the Democratic caucus.
But all of Whitehouse’s criticism did not inoculate him from the raw emotion that crackled throughout the electorate after the election. In late January, just days after inauguration, Whitehouse held a town hall-style event at Nathaniel Bishop Middle School, on the East Side of Providence. Though it was initially scheduled to take place in the school cafeteria, the event was soon moved to an auditorium due to the size of the crowds; then, due to additional raucous crowds clamoring to be let in, it was moved yet again outdoors to the front steps of the school, where Whitehouse spoke to the crowd with a megaphone. At this point, the cabinet confirmations were still underway, and the crowd pressed him for how he would vote — showering him with cheers for each promised “No” vote and jeers for anything less. Video of the protest was uploaded online, then picked up by MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” where the host played the clip and asked, “How do you think he’s going to vote on the rest of the Trump cabinet nominees?” According to one New York Times article, the video “quickly circulated among Democratic senators” as, in the words of the former Democratic aide quoted in the article, “eye-opening” evidence that the “base is not going to let them off the hook.”
When we met for our sit-down a few months later, I asked Whitehouse whether he regretted any of the seven “Yes” votes he had cast for Trump cabinet members, including approving Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, General John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security and General James Mattis at the Department of Defense.
This voting record placed him outside of the group of high-profile senators — including Cory Booker of New Jersey, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — who were so staunch in their opposition to Trump nominees that Politico dubbed them the “Hell-No Caucus.”
But Whitehouse said he didn’t have any regrets, explaining that, for all of the drama that the president causes, he believes that there are important things that need to get done, especially in the areas of U.S. safety and security. “So I’m prepared to work with them there,” he says, before adding, “When they start trying to corrupt the Department of Justice, when they start trying to interfere with the rule of law, when they turn our public safety organizations like the EPA over to the polluters and say ‘Have at them,’ that’s where I go into ‘Hell no. Over my dead body.’ ”
For all of his animosity towards and resistance of Donald Trump, Whitehouse has a striking amount of sympathy for what he sees as one of the main reasons Trump was elected. In fact, he says that one of Trump’s central campaign messages — that Washington is broken, that it has forgotten everyday Americans, and that this situation desperately needs fixing — isn’t so different from the one he presents in Captured. Trump succeeded, Whitehouse says, by offering the “strongest outsider, disruptive, you’ve-been-screwed, I’m-going-to-fix-it message.” Since his inauguration, however, “He either doesn’t know how to implement…what he campaigned on, or was running a scam and had no intention of doing any of that stuff.”
In fact, Whitehouse has worked with a well-known colleague to highlight the exact extent to which Trump’s post-campaign actions stray from his stump speeches. In July, his office, in tandem with the office of Elizabeth Warren, published a report titled “President Trump’s Drain the Swamp Report Card,” in which the verdict was stated succinctly: “President Trump’s grade on his first Drain the Swamp Report Card is a big F. His Administration and Transition Team have been filled with over 190 lobbyists and corporate insiders, betraying his promise to ‘drain the swamp.’ His insider-drive policies are a boon for special interests — but will hurt millions of ordinary Americans.”
Whitehouse is in a strong position heading into the 2018 election. He fended off his last Republican challenger in 2012 by nearly 30 percentage points. He has more than $2 million in campaign cash on hand. And, in deep-blue Rhode Island, where major offices can often seem Democratic by default, he has yet to gain a viable Democratic primary challenger to give him a fight before he faces a Republican on the ballot next November.
But this is a new era in American politics and, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s there are no sure bets. Perhaps with that in mind, the first Republican to jump into the 2018 campaign for Whitehouse’s seat was a little-known thirty-seven-year-old, second-term state representative and fourth-generation funeral director from Coventry named Bobby Nardolillo. While Nardolillo says he doesn’t agree with the president on everything, he hasn’t been shy about voicing his support. At his campaign kickoff event in May, the “Make Commercial Fishing Great Again” signs decorating the Coventry VFW hall put an Ocean State spin on a familiar Trump slogan. (Nardolillo says that burdensome regulations are hurting local fishermen.) Four months into the president’s tenure, Nardolillo told WPRI that he gave him an “A-” on his performance.
And, in the early stages of his campaign, Nardolillo has even shown a bit of the president’s no-holds-barred social media style, at one point retweeting a supporter who encouraged voters to “send Sheldon Outhouse packing!!!” But with a paltry fundraising haul, a slim resume and unpolished speaking style, Nardolillo represents an extreme long-shot.