Q&A: The Congresswoman Who Won’t Be There

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Representative Katherine Clark, left, accompanied by Representative Elijah Cummings, right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, January 12, 2017, to discuss President-elect Donald Trump's conflicts of interest and ethical issues. 

Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark was the first woman and second member of the U.S. House of Representatives to announce that she would not attend the swearing in of the 45th president of United States. (Luis Gutierrez of Chicago was the first House member to say he wouldn’t go.) Clark says she did not want to participate in what she believed was the “normalization” of a man who revels in pitting groups of Americans against each other.

Trump’s attack on John Lewis only solidified her decision. Lewis is one of Clark’s most esteemed colleagues, and she has documented this 21st century Lewis-and-Clark partnership on social media: She has posted photos of herself with Lewis visiting Harvard's Wadsworth House in her Cambridge district on her Twitter profile, and another of her with Lewis and other House members on Facebook during the June House sit-in to protest inaction on gun control.

Whatever blowback has been directed against Clark, who has represented the liberal suburbs north and west of Boston since 2013, has not damaged her standing.  She has been criticized for failing to rise above partisan politics and for potentially jeopardizing Massachusetts’s interests. Most other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation—all of them Democrats—will attend the inauguration; only one other Massachusetts congressman, Michael Capuano, whose district includes most of Boston and about half of Cambridge has joined the boycott. But since Clark announced she wasn’t going, nearly 70 other Democratic House members have also decided to stay away.

Clarke will spend Inauguration Day in her district before she heads back to Washington to attend the Women’s March. A progressive who’s already making her mark in Congress, she scored a key committee assignment on the House Appropriations Committee, where she sits on the Labor, Transportation and Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee. From this perch, she’ll be able to monitor the tenures (if they’re confirmed) of such Trump nominees as Andrew Puzder, Ben Carson, and Elaine Chao.

Recently, she has spoken out about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and has proposed the Presidential Accountability Act, which would prohibit the president and vice president from “engaging in government business when they stand to gain profit”—a legislative Hail Mary in a Republican Congress that appears poised to follow Trump’s lead.

Clark spoke to The American Prospect earlier this week about the apprehensions that Trump has instilled in her constituents and herself. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The American Prospect: Hillary Clinton is going to the Inauguration, as is Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who did not support Trump. What purpose does a one-time boycott serve?

Katherine Clark: For me, it was a personal decision based on the conversations with the hundreds of constituents who I have met with over the last few months. What I heard over and over were stories of fear, from a college student fears that she has put her family in danger by applying for citizenship in the DACA program; from a married lesbian couple from my district who are afraid to travel with their children out of state for fear of what might happen to them and comments that might be made to them; from a Muslim woman doctor who was moved to tears by the hateful comments that she has received since the election and fear for her family over a proposed Muslim registry. 

Their stories are the reasons that I am not going to the inaugural. I made a personal decision that I did not want my constituents and any Americans to tune into the inaugural and see my presence there as some sort of tacit approval.

I did not come to this decision lightly. It is not out of disrespect for the office of president or a peaceful transition of power: I am doing nothing to try and disrupt that. It was more about not remaining silent about my concerns over where we are headed and trying to tell people about the threat that I believe our next president presents to our democracy.

Trump’s remarks about Lewis came during the run-up to the inauguration and the weekend of Martin Luther King celebrations: What does controversy say about where the country is headed?

Donald Trump’s comments about Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement in this country and whom everyone in the House of Representatives refers to as the “conscience of Congress,” is representative of the exact reason that I am not going to the Inauguration. What I watched in Trump’s campaign was a campaign that was based on division: hateful and bigoted rhetoric, whether that was proposing religious tests for Americans; mass deportations; attacking a Gold Star family; mocking a disabled reporter; or bragging about sexually assaulting women.

What I hoped was that when he addressed America on Election Night and said that he would be a president for all Americans, that we would watch him transition to the role of president. What we have seen instead is a continuation of those politics of division. The attacks on John Lewis just are reaffirming that this president is going to try and set policy by Twitter and that he is willing to attack any detractor or critic whether it is the media, or a member of Congress, or a private citizen.

You sit on the Appropriations Committee in a Republican Congress. Are you concerned that your boycott decision may have a negative impact on your district?

I am not. What would affect my district negatively would be remaining silent. I felt that if I did not stand up for my district and my constituents and their fears and anxieties and for our Constitution and the fundamentals of our democracy, that would not be upholding my oath of office.

I have always been able to work in a bipartisan manner and find those issues that we can agree on and get legislation done. As a junior member of the minority party, I have been able to pass seven bills in my first term. I am proud of that, and that was done with Republican help.

But this is unprecedented. We have not had a president-elect who when he takes the oath of office will be in in violation of the Constitution. When we talk about respect for the office of the president, that also means that Donald Trump has to show that respect. His refusal to put American jobs ahead of his own job and his refusal to divest from his businesses and comply with the constitutional requirements of his office is a dangerous precedent for him to be setting. He is the only modern president who has not voluntarily divested of his business interests. 

That, coupled with his refusal to criticize Russia, to show some outrage over the interference in our election, really makes you wonder whose team he is playing on.

You introduced legislation that proposes to extend conflict-of-interest prohibitions to the president and the vice president. What sort of response have you had from your fellow lawmakers?

People understand no matter what your political ideology, whether you voted for Trump or if you didn’t, Americans are not going to stand for corruption. Donald Trump has placed himself in a position where he is subject to that charge, subject to violating the Emoluments Clause the minute he takes office. He has trouble because no elected official is supposed to hold a lease for publicly owned property as he does with the lease for his hotel in Washington.

This all could have been resolved if he was willing to do what every other president from Johnson through Obama has done, which is voluntarily make sure that these conflict of interest are resolved. He has done the opposite.

What has been the response from your Republican colleagues?

They have been quiet.

Does that surprise you?

I am not surprised. They find themselves in a difficult situation. Some of them don’t see a problem. The Republicans need to be careful. They now have a unified Republican government, and they also have a great responsibility to make sure that that is answerable to and accountable to the American people. When Donald Trump will not give up his businesses to become the leader of the free world, that should be as troubling to any Republican and any independent as it is to any Democrat.

There is real concern about the Russian interference; there is concern that somehow Russia saw the Republican nominee as the one to support who would be friendlier to Russia.

We will see how these issues play out as we go forward. But there is a growing wariness from members of the Republican Party in the House about how this president is going to affect the standing of the United States, and how Trump is going to be accountable to those who voted for him.

You plan to attend the Women’s March. Are you concerned that harnessing all the discontent against Trump into one massive protest dilutes from the core messages that women want to send?

I’m not. Women’s issues cover [all sorts of issues], from making sure that we have clean air and clean water to making sure that we are abiding by our Bill of Rights and the Constitution and that we have educational access.

Women are [also] concerned with this presidency in a very particular way. Women saw a candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women; who calls for women who seek abortions to be somehow punished; and who is eager to shutdown dissent and free speech.

Women are very concerned about where their rights are going. The two top priorities that we are hearing about are the repeal of the ACA, which has really given women equal access to health care for the first time; and the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Have you gotten any pushback from people who say, Let’s give Donald Trump a chance and let’s see what he does?

I have and, let me tell you, I hope they’re right. I hope that I am Chicken Little. But you know, my grandmother used to say when people show you who they are, you have to believe them.

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