Ayanna Pressley wants to get back to the issues, although ignoring the president isn’t easy
WASHINGTON — In the foyer of Representative Ayanna Pressley’s Capitol Hill office, interns answered constantly ringing phones Wednesday as calls flowed in from around the country.
Behind a closed door in her personal office, Pressley was taking a break from the chaos, drinking a Gatorade and spending a few moments with her husband.
All week, Pressley said, she’s been battling a headache — a real one.
It’s no wonder.
For the fourth day in a row, President Trump was launching vicious personal attacks on the Massachusetts Democrat and three fellow first-term lawmakers.
Pressley acknowledged that trying to ignore his insults is a bit like trying not to look at a car wreck.
“The entire country is emotionally rubbernecking every day,” she said. “You have to pay attention to a certain extent because it’s through these Twitter storms that he unleashes vitriol and venom and hateful policies.”
After all the controversy — the tweets and the news conferences and bitter House debate — it’s easy to forget how this all started. But Pressley remembers, and as far as she is concerned, it all could have been easily avoided.
“I quite honestly feel that it’s much ado about nothing,” she said.
She was referring to the House vote three weeks ago in which the four lawmakers known as “the Squad” — Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota —were the only House Democrats to oppose a bill to provide funding to address the humanitarian crisis at the border.
Since even before they were elected, the four have drawn attention and controversy for their progressive stances on issues and use of social media to cultivate massive followings. Their votes on the border bill angered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called them out in remarks to a New York Times columnist.
Then Trump waded into the controversy by telling the four representatives, three of whom were born in the United States and all of whom are US citizens, that if they do not like this country they could leave.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done,” he tweeted. “These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”
But as far as Pressley is concerned, the fact that she and her three colleagues decided to vote against the bill shouldn’t be cause for outcry from her own party, which led to the criticism from Trump.
“I think what people have to appreciate is that this is a deliberative body,” she said. “We are a large Democratic caucus. This is the first time in a long time that we’ve been in the majority and this is the most representative class in the history of Congress — in ideology, in race and ethnicity, in gender, in lived experience.”
She continued: “When you have that diversity of perspective, opinion, and thought around the table, it means you are going to do exactly what people would expect you to do in a deliberative legislative body and that is to debate.”
Pressley said that also sometimes means different tactics on how to act on those values.
“This is the most representative Democratic caucus in the history of Congress, we are building new muscle and I think we are still figuring out how to flex that muscle,” she said.
Pressley said she and the three others voted against the border bill because they did not believe it included enough language to specify how the money would be used.
“I won’t pretend it isn’t hurtful, I won’t pretend it doesn’t even endanger people’s lives, but what I’m most focused on are hateful, racist policies that are threatening the preservation of families, people’s peace of mind,” she said.
As she spoke, the phone in the foyer continued to ring. Her office got more than 100 calls during the news conference the Squad held on Monday to rebuke the president’s remarks.
Pressley said she has received death threats (on this issue, but also just in general). But she has also received support from her district. She said she consulted with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and also immigrant advocates before taking her border vote.
“Ultimately I don’t work for Washington. I work with Washington but I answer to my district, and this is a representative democracy so there is nothing radical about my keeping the promises that I made to the people who sent me here,” she said.
Her district includes parts of Boston, Cambridge, and Milton as well as all of Chelsea, Everett, Randolph, and Somerville.
About half the district is white, a quarter is black, and a quarter latino. A third of all residents were born outside the United States, according to the latest census data.
Pelosi, meanwhile, is focused on keeping the party unified in the face of Republicans in Congress who want to take back the House majority in 2020. And she believes that a fractured party could help Trump win reelection.
“You have to give him credit, he’s a great distractor and that’s what this is about,” Pelosi told reporters Wednesday about the controversy over Trump’s remarks.
Indeed, at a rally in Greenville, N.C. Wednesday night, Trump again targeted the four Democratic lawmakers.
“So these congresswomen, their comments are helping to fuel the rise of a dangerous militant hard left,” Trump said. “And tonight I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists, who are constantly trying to tear our country down. They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, hey if they don’t like it let ‘em leave, let ‘em leave, let ‘em leave.”
Earlier in the day, Pressley said she is eager for this all to be over. She wants to work on things she came here to do such as reduce gun violence, build more affordable housing, and make sure everyone has health care and good public transportation. But she said there is at least one silver lining — her party is united by Trump’s comments.
“We are centering ourselves on who the real enemy is,” she said on Wednesday. “That’s the best thing that can come out of this.”