WASHINGTON — It was a high-profile hearing with a financial bigwig whose firm had wronged millions of consumers, a made-for-You Tube moment, as Senator Elizabeth Warren made him squirm from her perch on the Senate Banking Committee.
Then the Massachusetts Democrat made a surprising move. She met with reporters.
In what would have been routine for most of her colleagues, she took questions in the hallway outside the hearing room where she’d just been grilling former Equifax CEO Richard Smith. For Warren it was an exceedingly rare event. So rare, in fact, that her office had to announce it was happening by e-mail first. CNBC carried the informal press conference live .
Those few minutes in the hallway earlier this month are part of a subtle but noteworthy shift in strategy for the liberal firebrand.
After giving most of the media the cold shoulder since she arrived in the Senate five years ago, Warren is warming up to the press.
Until now, the high-powered lawmaker has bucked a tradition of open dialogue in Senate hallways, nearly always refusing to speak in extemporary interviews. She surrounds herself with aides, or talks on her cellphone, and barrels past the waiting gaggles. These days, it’s rare for a reporter to even try a question as she speed-walks on by.
Even when Warren does grant interviews, she can sometimes seem unnatural, sticking relentlessly to prepared talking points. The effect is oddly stiff for a populist leader whose powerful speaking style and aura of authenticity are some of her biggest selling points.
Now political observers and reporters alike have noticed a thaw — of sorts.
“She’s increased her presence. She’s raised her profile,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston. “I feel like she’s gotten back to more like she was when she first ran [for Senate], and that’s the best version of Elizabeth Warren.”
Sunday brought another example of Warren being more open with the media. The former law professor appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in a pre-taped segment to describe how she was aggressively pursued around a desk by a senior faculty member early in her academic career. Of the 21 women in the Senate approached by NBC, Warren was one of four who agreed to share their experiences with the network.
Warren also has joined in the age-old Washington ritual of breaking bread with the media, participating in several off-the-record dinners and meetings with reporters, according to people familiar with the events. It’s an apparent recognition that she needs to add more dimension to her public image, beyond the fiery floor speeches and committee-room smack-downs that have made her a Democratic superstar.
“She is taking a higher profile publicly because a lot of the issues that she’s fought for her whole life are under attack now with this administration,” said Doug Rubin, Warren’s top campaign adviser during her 2012 race.
That’s the explanation Warren herself gives. “Donald Trump attacks working people every day and I fight back in every possible way that I can, including a lot more quotes for the press. It’s the urgency of the moment,” Warren told the Globe.
She did not agree she’s had a strained relationship with the press. “Not really,” she replied when asked about it.
Many reporters would beg to differ. “What does @realDonaldTrump have in common with @SenWarren? A disdain for the working press. Senator Warren, why won’t you talk to reporters?” tweeted Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times, in February.
Warren is up for reelection next November, so it makes political sense that she would attempt to defuse tensions with the reporters who will cover her, observers say, even though she’s favored to win and has amassed a daunting $12.84 million in her campaign war chest.
Many trace Warren’s standoffish relations with the press to her bruising 2012 race against then-incumbent Scott Brown. Warren was dogged for months by the controversy surrounding her claims to Native American ancestry, and she struggled to handle reporters’ aggressive questions about why she was listed as a minority by Harvard Law School. She also made other gaffes with national reporters — such as claiming responsibility for inspiring the Occupy Wall Street movement in a Daily Beast story. The experiences taught her she needed to have a more cautious relationship with the press, she later said.
“The old way of talking with the press — long conversations and lively discussions — was gone,” Warren wrote in her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” about the Daily Beast story, which she said accurately quoted her while noting that she misspoke. “The game had changed.”
She recalled people urging her not to let campaign consultants change her. “But like it or not, I had to change . . . because I started to understand the cost of a stupid mistake. I wasn’t going to change who I was or what I was fighting for, but I was in a different boxing ring now.”
Now, it seems, Warren is learning to change again.
It’s not just in Washington. Warren is engaging more with Massachusetts reporters, too, holding media availabilities after nearly every one of her public appearances in the Bay State this year, where reporters can ask anything they like — a total of 42 this year, according to her office.
“It’s going to be a spirited race,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, referring to her 2018 reelection bid. “Republicans are going to put money into it because the president despises her, and even if he can’t defeat her he certainly wants to bloody her. She’s aware of that and she’s gearing up.”
Not incidentally, getting more comfortable in the media glare and creating a more positive relationship with the national press corps could serve her well if she decides to aim higher.
“Senator Warren is clearly running for president,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising, a Republican opposition research super PAC that has targeted Warren hard.
“Warren’s aversion to engaging with the press in unscripted, unfiltered settings has become the stuff of lore,” he continued. But voters are now getting more of their information about national candidates from social and digital media, not political TV ads, said Reed, who served as communications director for Warren’s 2012 GOP opponent, Brown.
“That she’s now taking a different tone and different posture is not surprising if she wants to run in 2020.”
But Democratic strategists see a more immediate factor at play in Warren’s new media engagement: Trump.
“The world has, I think, changed,” and Warren finds herself in a position where she needs to be not just a workhorse on the financial issues at the center of her brand, but to speak out as a “thought leader in the party,” said Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic operative. He said it always puzzled him that the smart, quick-footed Warren was so standoffish with the press. “She needs to have a good relationship with the press, to be able to amplify that to a wider audience beyond Massachusetts, and beyond [liberal] activists.”
An earlier version of this story misstated how much cash Elizabeth Warren has amassed in her campaign war chest. She has $12.84 million.Victoria McGrane
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