National news was the hot topic at the Pilgrim Senior Center on Monday morning, as seniors chatted over coffee and donut holes with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Subjects ranged from Republican attempts to undercut social security money to help fund the most recent tax break spearheaded by the Trump Administration and awarded by Congressional lawmakers, environmental anxiety and other ongoing national storylines, including illegal immigration, the upcoming election and prescription drug prices.
Whitehouse spoke candidly about what he perceives to be a Republican-led effort to pay for corporate and affluent American tax breaks on the backs of social security and Medicare cuts. He said that Republican leadership in Congress has not stepped up to the plate to challenge these “hard to defend” policy moves because they are afraid to agitate Trump.
“I think they’re both scared of the president,” Whitehouse said of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. “If you’re a Republican, to cross Donald Trump is to put an end to your political career.”
Whitehouse said that Democrats have the opportunity to seize back “80 to 100” seats in the House of Representatives currently held by Republicans, but only if the Democrats capitalize on a flurry of grassroots campaigns that have cropped up around the nation.
Whitehouse also said that he doesn’t believe the Democratic Party needs to have an overarching unifying message to win back seats, rather they need to rely on good candidates who are able to generate excitement in their individual districts.
“I’m not a big believer in there being some grand Democratic national message right now,” Whitehouse said. “As long as we win, then we can figure that out…Until then we’re just spinning our wheels.”
The topic switched gears to the summit that was held on Monday, as Whitehouse was speaking to the seniors, between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Trump in Helsinki, Finland. Whitehouse said that the summit “scared him to death” and that he believed Putin was responsible for murders of political foes. He said that Trump cozying up to Putin while decrying long-held allies, such as Great Britain, as adversaries was “departed from the facts.”
“I find it hard to believe that we will out-negotiate Putin,” Whitehouse said. “[Trump] is loaded with conflicts of interest…I want someone else in that room.”
Whitehouse said he found it interesting that the only issue that Trump has faced blowback on from Republican members of Congress has been trade tariffs with China, which Whitehouse said was evidence that the Trump administration has no definitive plane in regards to how they are navigating foreign relations.
“I think they’re just free-wheeling it on trade tariffs,” Whitehouse said. “The Chinese have a long tradition of saving face, which means not being bullied or pushed around. They’re super smart, and they’ve probably thought of angles that our administration hasn’t even considered…So I think they’re going into these decisions unprepared and it’s going to hurt a lot of our people.”
On the subject of hurting people, Whitehouse spoke about climate change and how the Trump administration has taken huge bounds backwards for preserving the environment from future damage. He called Scott Pruitt – the former head of the EPA who resigned among a formidable mountain of controversy – as a “rat” who was hard at work for the companies causing the most pollution.
Whitehouse said that, while Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, also has strong ties to the fossil fuel industry, he believes that he doesn’t have the same lack of basic values that Pruitt had, to which Whitehouse claimed, “This was a guy [Pruitt] who could not tell the truth to save his own life.”
“I’m always an optimist,” Whitehouse said of Wheeler taking over the EPA. “This is a place where there is a room for a little bit of optimism…And I hope so because if not, look out.”
Whitehouse said Rhode Island was at great risk of rising coastal waters completely submerging parts of the state, and that “Warwick Neck would become Warwick Neck Island” in the event that the ocean was to rise 7-8 feet, as climate projections indicate will happen within 30-50 years.
On the situation which has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents due to a crackdown on illegal immigration, Whitehouse told a personal story about when he was separated from his parents to undergo a tonsillectomy procedure when he was four years old.
He said the entire situation was positive, the doctors were incredibly nice and the procedure went perfectly, but that it still remains the singular memory he has retained of being four years old. He asked the audience to imagine the trauma it would leave on a child to be separated in a situation where they are afraid, being yelled at or made fun of, as was shown to be the case with these detainments through countless media reports.
“It was such a botch, it’s humiliating to the country,” Whitehouse said. “There ought to be hell to pay for this.”
The last topic was the Supreme Court, where Whitehouse found an issue with Republicans preventing former President Barrack Obama from appointing a centrist judge to the vacant seat so that Trump could appoint a Republican conservative instead. Now, Whitehouse said, the Republican lawmakers are trying to rush another appointee through the process so they can get another pick favorable to their ideology to the highest court in the nation.
“If there is one thing we should all be able to believe in as Americans, it’s that when you walk up those courthouse steps, you have a fair chance,” Whitehouse said, saying that it seems Republicans are trying to stack the court in their favor. “The whole process smells.”