LAS VEGAS — Harry Reid found a priceless piece of memorabilia recently while sorting through 34 years of congressional papers. It’s a picture of Reid with Donald J. Trump, inside the real-estate developer’s Manhattan home, both men smiling.
He’s pretty sure it’s from 1992, when the future Democratic leader was running his first Senate reelection bid and when the prospective Republican presidential nominee was happy to help Democrats. Reid appreciated Trump’s generosity.
“He was doing a fundraiser for me, so what would you think I’d think of him? Nice to go to his beautiful home, with gold gilding around the ceiling, and a beautiful woman there with him. It was a nice event. I had no thoughts. He wasn’t much of a big shot then, neither was I,” Reid recalled Tuesday in an interview here.
When he heads to the third and final presidential debate Wednesday at the University of Nevada’s Las Vegas’s campus, Reid will be in the same room as Trump for the first time since that 1992 fundraiser. He acknowledged Tuesday that he likely talked with Trump a few times over the years.
“Maybe we’ve talked, you know, maybe I was hustling money for Democrats. I don’t remember, but yes, I’ve probably talked to him,” he conceded.
Roughly 24 years after that New York fundraiser, it’s impossible to think of Reid and Trump ever being cordial to one another, let alone offering each other political support. Reid has used his daily Senate floor speeches to excoriate Trump — as a “racist” and “con artist” and “human leech” — and at times Trump has returned the verbal punches, mocking Reid’s grizzly New Year’s Day 2015 injury that left him blind in his right eye.
Already considering retirement, Reid, 76, says that injury made another campaign impossible. He walks with a cane for support and he has no depth perception.
But his world-famous mouth is still delivering insults at a nearly Trump-like pace, directing most of them at the man who once raised money for him. Reid has usually been good reader of people, possessing an intuitive sense of who he can work with and who’s stringing him along. Yet over the years when Trump was a reliable donor to Senate Democrats, Reid saw no signs of a future Republican presidential candidate who would propose a border wall, call Mexicans rapists and criminals, insult women and be accused of sexually predatory behavior.
“No, I don’t think that anybody that knew him then did either,” Reid said, a few minutes before formally opening a new traffic tower at McCarran International Airport that was funded largely through Reid’s earmarking prowess.
For almost a year Reid has been touting Trump’s candidacy as one and the same with the Republican Party, asserting that he arrived at this view after Republicans had already begun down the path that their nominee is now torching.
“They created Trump,” he said.
He noted that Republicans first floated the falsehood that President Obama was born in Kenya, that it was some in the GOP who hold the same strident views on illegal immigration (“He picked up on that”); and that Trump’s skepticism of climate change first came from conservatives.
“It’s just who they are and they have created who he is,” he said.
On this count, however, Reid is carving out territory that some leading Democrats are avoiding. As Trump locked up the nomination, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic operatives in her Brooklyn headquarters made a decision to try to isolate Trump as a unique political species that moderate and even conservative Republicans should recoil from. That strategy was epitomized by President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention a few days after the GOP finished up in Cleveland. Indeed, many Republican officials and thought leaders reject Trump’s candidacy.
“What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative,” Obama said.
Isolating Trump helps Clinton’s own campaign in its bid to win more states on the electoral battlefield. But it’s left some Democrats grumbling that such a strategy enables Republicans to create space between Trump and themselves to court swing voters.
Reid expressed optimism about this week’s moves by Brooklyn to expand the targets into traditionally red states like Arizona as her super PAC invested in ads in Senate races. But he made clear that he would exert maximum effort to hang Trump around these Republicans, particularly Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican nominee to succeed the Nevada senator.
“A mini-Trump, a Trumpite,” Reid called Heck.
In fact, after the release of a 2005 video in which Trump was caught talking about unwanted advances toward women, Heck rescinded his Trump endorsement. At a debate Friday night with Catherine Cortez Masto, the former state attorney general and Reid’s chosen successor, Heck said his wife had suffered from domestic abuse in a prior relationship, making the issue very personal for him.
Heck’s campaign is trying to turn Reid into a Democratic version of Trump, releasing videos of many intemperate statements Reid has made in hopes that Masto will suffer. Brian Baluta, Heck’s spokesman, said Reid’s speeches against the GOP congressman went too far, “including attacking Joe Heck from the Senate floor, which I think is pretty outrageous”.
“I didn’t go far enough,” Reid said Tuesday.
Heading into political twilight, the former boxer is clearly relishing what is essentially his last campaign through attacks on Trump, Heck and conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch.
“I’m kind of an unusual politician,” Reid said.
In four years in the House and 30 years in the Senate, Reid has only been to one state dinner, as a favor to a son that spent time in Argentina and got to meet that nation’s president. He’s been to a single congressional picnic at the White House so another son could come along with his girlfriend (it seemed to impress her; they got married and have four children).
“I don’t do social stuff,” he explained.
Instead, political brawling is Reid’s life.
In his retirement, Reid has decided that he’s not going to write a book, having already authored three previous tomes: “Boy that first sentence is always so hard, and that’s what I’ve found in writing. It’s not something that is easy.”
Instead, he hopes to record an oral history of his tenure, marked by eight years as majority leader and four as minority leader. He hopes others will listen to it and others can go read his papers, all of which are being meticulously kept at the University of Nevada’s Reno campus.
“I’m not throwing anything away,” he said.
Not even that picture with Donald Trump.