Gillibrand goads Trump with speech in front of New York hotel

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Kirsten Gillibrand

The location of Kirsten Gillibrand’s announcement was part of the senator’s efforts to carve out room in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary. | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

2020 Elections

The New York senator criticized the president in front of Trump International Hotel, painting herself as the most anti-Trump 2020 candidate.

NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand wants to be the most anti-Trump candidate running for president in 2020, and she took her campaign to one of Donald Trump’s gilded front doors to prove the point.

The New York Democrat, who formally launched her campaign last week, stood outside the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan on Sunday to rail against the president for “tearing apart the moral fabric of our country” and to tell voters that she’s compiled the most anti-Trump record, “more than anyone else in the Senate.”

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The location was part of Gillibrand’s efforts to carve out room in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary by painting the biggest possible contrast with Trump. But it could also have a more immediate side effect: a tweet or some sort of other reaction from the impulsive president, a massive potential boon for a campaign that has yet to gain traction in polling of the presidential contest.

Pointing to the Trump hotel, Gillibrand told the crowd of several hundred: “Look up at that tower — a shrine to greed, division and vanity. And now look around you. The greater strength, by far, is ours. The power lies within us.”

“The people of this country deserve a president who is worthy of your bravery, a president who not only sets an example, but follows yours,” Gillibrand continued. “Your bravery inspires me every day, and that is why I’m running for president of the United States.”

Gillibrand, who has campaigned across the country since mid-January, when she launched an exploratory committee, has struggled to break out of the sprawling pack of 17 candidates, which includes five other senators. She has barely registered in national and early state polling, hovering at or below 1 percent.

Gillibrand has also faced criticism over the handling of a sexual harassment claim in her Senate office, when a former staffer resigned in protest over the office’s handling of her claim, which POLITICO first reported earlier this month.

Gillibrand has defended her office’s response, saying that the complaints were “fully investigated,” but when presented with reporting of additional allegations of workplace misconduct by the accused aide, Gillibrand’s office opened a new investigation and dismissed him.

“She’s clearly not breaking through, and she needs to do something” to change that, said Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. And “frankly, getting the president’s attention usually goes viral.”

Taking on Trump more directly might provoke just that. That kind of attention, whether from the president or from national Republican groups, served as rocket fuel for a number of Democratic candidates in the recent midterm elections, said Dan Sena, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Candidates like New York’s Antonio Delgado and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger were “unfairly attacked during their races and it elevated their campaigns nationally” and led to “enormous grassroots support,” said Sena, who added the same could happen for Gillibrand. “Getting Trump to say something, to tweet something, you can begin to see what a general election match up looks like and moves [Gillibrand] in the electorate and raises a ton of support and money.”

Gillibrand skewered the president in her speech Sunday, calling Trump a “coward” who “puts his name in bold on every building,” and “he does all of this because he wants you to believe he is strong. He is not,” she said, greeted by cheers. Gillibrand also called for the full release of the recently completed report by special counsel Robert Mueller: “The Mueller report must be made public. All of it. Nobody in this country, not even the president, is above the law or immune from accountability.”

But Gillibrand also said that she’s “not running for president because of who I’m fighting against,” but “I’m running for president because of who I’m running for.” She reiterated themes that first appeared in her announcement video — “brave wins” — and worked to turn the page on the first two months of her presidential campaign.

“We deserve a president who is brave, a president who inspires us to stand for something greater than ourselves,” she said. “We don’t build walls, we build bridges because our unity of purpose lifts us higher than any tower.”

The senator was joined on stage by activists, including DREAMers, anti-gun violence advocates and victims of sexual assault. It was a line-up reminiscent of the Women’s March, a movement that Gillibrand has tapped into for her presidential campaign.

“She cannot be knocked down, guys. Not in front of Trump plaza or anywhere else,” said actress Connie Britton, who befriended Gillibrand in college and studied abroad with her in China and introduced her on Sunday. “This bravery comes from her unwavering core of integrity.”

Gillibrand retold much of her own political history, starting with grandmother, Peggy Noonan, a fixture in upstate New York politics, who taught her “that being brave doesn’t only mean standing up for yourself, it means standing up for other people who need you,” she said.

She charted her own path through politics, from winning in a “red, red, red district that nobody thought I could win,” to her work passing a health benefits law for 9/11 first responders and trying to reform how the military handles sexual assault and harassment.

“Find me any unsolvable problem, and I’ll point to the greed and corruption standing in the way,” Gillibrand said, adding that she won’t accept corporate PAC money, federal lobbyists money and no individual super PAC. She also said she would advocate for publicly funded elections.

On policy, Gillibrand sounded progressive notes that she’s talked about frequently on the campaign trail, from a national paid family leave program to the Green New Deal, calling it “this generation’s moonshot” and promising to tax the use of carbon.

“We can’t afford not to achieve this,” Gillibrand said. “And we don’t have more time to waste.”

To observers, it appeared that Gillibrand’s choice of location for her speech meant she wasn’t waiting to try and change the campaign.

“If you want to get a reaction, go to somebody’s home turf,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant. “It’s a smart gesture that could help her get on the map.”

But even among the New Yorkers that rallied with Gillibrand on Sunday, several said it was still too early to commit to one candidate.

“There’s just so many talented people running,” said Michele Chivu, a 46-year-old New Yorker who attended the speech. She said she “felt strongly” about Gillibrand, but she ticked off several other female Democrats, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as other compelling options. “I’m excited about all of the women,” she said. “We need a woman at the top of the ticket.”

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