In the White House Cabinet Room last week, President Trump convened a meeting with legislators about gun regulation. Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator and a Democrat, was sitting on Trump’s left, and when he suggested to her that such a bill “add what you have,” Feinstein looked surprised, and delighted. Since 2004, her signature issue has been reviving her original 1994 assault weapons ban.
Is that what Trump intends? How could this figure into Feinstein’s prospects for election to her fifth term in the Senate? The state’s Democratic Party recently chose not to endorse her or her chief primary rival, a reflection of a party divided between moderates and progressives. Here’s her reaction to that, and to whether she thinks Trump could be the president to carry gun reform across the finish line.
You sat in that meeting with the president. What do you understand to be the gun law changes he’s supporting?
I think the most important thing was what I saw as an open mind to listen, and some receptivity to certain ideas. He said, I think we should take the guns away before a court order, or before the process. And I think it was a bit difficult to sort out, but I [have] hope.
We’re 4% of the population and 40% of the arms in the world, and when you have military weapons that are used to go out and kill large numbers of people, that’s a whole different thing, and I felt he had some positive response to this. He even to some extent rebuffed the [National Rifle Assn.]: I don’t need the NRA, you [legislators] need the NRA, whatever it was.
And I thought, let’s see if this lasted. So I looked for tweets the next morning, I didn’t find any. The day went by. [Last Thursday] night I gather he met with the NRA and [Friday] I guess there’s equivocation, although that’s not well defined. I’m hopeful there isn’t.
I don’t know how one can be proud of a nation where schools in five or six years have had 200 shootings in them. That’s the number since Sandy Hook, and 400 children — some as young as 6 and 7 — and adults killed or wounded. I thought after Sandy Hook that this would change it, that people would look at those faces of the 6- and 7-year-olds and say, my God, what’s happened to this country? We’ve got to stop it. But it didn’t happen.
Why didn’t it happen?
I don’t know. But now my understanding is that the Internet says that there are 300,000 teenagers that have signed up to march in the [pro-gun control] march back here. Now, if the culture is changing and teenagers are going to stand up and say, we don’t want schools like this — I think that’s very profound.
I’ve found a colleague’s body dead from an assassination, I became mayor as a product of assassination, and I’ve seen what guns do.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein
And I think young people hopefully will launch a movement that we’ve never seen in this country, which is marching and talking and holding rallies and convincing and becoming a political force for safety in the American elementary, middle and high schools.
We’ve already seen things that have never happened, like Walmart saying they’ll only sell guns to individuals age 21 and up. Dick’s Sporting Goods will not sell assault weapons again and will no longer sell high-capacity magazines to anyone under 21. And you have Delta, United, Hertz and MetLife saying they will end partnerships to give NRA members preferred rates.
But I think the National Rifle Assn. has been so effective in going up against [politicians] and putting lots of money into races that it’s really a very intimidating factor for a lot of people.
I have seen shotgun victims, I’ve walked into robberies, I’ve found a colleague’s body dead from an assassination, I became mayor as a product of assassination, and I’ve seen what guns do. Other countries aren’t like this. They just aren’t.
In that context, let me ask about President Trump: It seems that going up against the NRA would require a Nixon-to-China president who has said in the past that he is an NRA supporter. Do you have faith that he could be that Nixon-to-China president?
Not at this time, I don’t. I mean, my eyes opened wide when I heard his openness and his support of certain things, sitting there in the room. And I handed him a letter, which he left on the table, outlining the strength of the assault weapons bill, and I gave it to Vice President Pence, who promised me that he would hand it to the president. I have no idea whether he read it or not. But I had the distinct impression that he had an open mind.
We’re seeing millennials and Gen-Xers outvoting baby boomers. They did in 2016. So the Democratic electorate is changing. Certainly in California it’s moving to the left. You saw that here with your non-endorsement by the state Democratic Party.
Let me just say I never expected to be endorsed. What we tried to do was prevent an endorsement of my [principal] opponent and I think we succeeded there. But I never expected to be endorsed. And my strength, if I have a strength, is in the general population. I think there’s a certain amount of pragmatism in the general electorate. They listen. I think they want people who can solve problems. I think I’ve shown that I can do that.
I think the outstanding issue is healthcare. I am for a public option. I am for decreasing Medicare to [cover] 50-year-olds. The problem with the public option is it costs way up in the trillions. Bernie [Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont] had 12 new taxes and it only got halfway through what it cost. Plus the fact, it’s the government running medicine. But I think having a public option for people to compete to with the private sector is really a strong advance.
California seems to be in the crosshairs for this administration. The president at one point said if he would withdraw ICE, California would turn into a crime nest. How do you think the president looks at California?
I hesitate to speculate. I don’t know how he looks at California. But I tell you this: We’re the sixth-largest economy on Earth, we’ve got the biggest ports, the largest consumer market in America, all of high tech. We’ve got some of the best educational institutions in the world, the biggest university system — I mean, it’s a powerhouse.
California is going to be fine. And the president has to understand what he’s taking on. He’s not taking on a tiny state. He’s taking on a state that’s as big as a country and bigger than most countries. So I think he ought to be more considerate of the impact of his words.
And I think it’s pretty stupid to say, I’m going to have law-abiding people picked up. We welcome the gangbangers going — we make no case for the gangbangers — but people who have lived here for 20, 30 years, have children who are American citizens, who work and support themselves, own their homes, pay their taxes, should not be a priority for deportation. They should be the last resort.
I believe you’ve heard complaints from the Central Valley and elsewhere that they can’t find folks to do the work that needs to be done?
There is no question. We’re the biggest agricultural producer in America. All of the employment comes from the undocumented. I have tried with bills to provide a way to create a blue card for agricultural workers which would enable them to legally continue to work agriculture, and if they worked agriculture for five years, they would get a green card, which then would then enable them on a path to citizenship.
What message do the Democrats have for voters in 2018 beyond simply saying, We are not Donald Trump and we are not his policies?
We have what we are. We’re a thinking people, a problem-solving people. Some would say that would make us a progressive people. And we care. We have a great state. We have some problems, some really big ones: water, climate change. Whether we can sustain the state. Housing for people. We’ve got a huge homeless issue, I think they have over 40,000 homeless in L.A .and 7,000 in San Francisco and Oakland. [The figure for Los Angeles city and county is more than 57,000.] We need to find ways to house people in an expensive environment much more cheaply, but safely and soundly.
What’s in the works in the Senate about Russian meddling in elections?
We’re about to introduce a bill on collusion. I think that what the Russians are doing has got to be stopped. So we’ve written a bill that will hold people responsible if they monkey around with the Internet to divide people, to mess with elections, that kind of thing.
This is civilly right now. It’s a work in progress, still.