Maxine Waters will be the first to tell you she’s not running for president.
Yet the buzz surrounding the long-serving California Democrat has reached a fever pitch this year as she’s lobbed bomb after bomb at President Trump.
Waters is emerging as the president’s harshest congressional critic, enraging Trump’s conservative supporters and electrifying the Democrats’ liberal base, some of whom are pushing — only slightly tongue-in-cheek — for Waters to launch her own White House bid.
It is not, she says, going to happen.
“I said, jokingly, ‘If the millennials wanted me to do it, I’d do it,’” Waters told The Hill on Thursday. “But it’s a joke.”
That’s no indication, however, that Waters intends to relax her aggressive campaign against the president — an effort that’s featured a boycott of Trump’s inauguration ceremony, suggestions that his actions might merit impeachment, a near endless circuit of damning interviews on cable news and a long and growing list of invitations to visit Democratic districts across the country.
“I was absolutely appalled by what I learned about Trump during the campaign and the way that he conducted himself, the way that he treated women and the handicapped, and the way that he basically had an agenda that polarized our society,” Waters said, explaining the genesis of her campaign. “So out of that, I decided to speak up, and to speak out, and to let others know how I felt.
“I really did think there were others who were having the same discomfort with him that I was having,” she added. “And I thought that it was important for them to know that a member of Congress, an elected official, was feeling this way.”
Though Waters’s criticisms may have originated from the campaign, it wasn’t until January that she emerged as the face of the anti-Trump movement. That’s when the California lawmaker stepped up to a microphone following a classified briefing with then-FBI Director James Comey and suggested that Trump’s win was illegitimate.
“It's classified, and we can't tell you anything,” she said. “All I can tell you is the FBI director has no credibility.”
The terse denouncement — and the prickly delivery — quickly caught the attention of Democrats outraged by Comey’s pre-election decision to inform Congress that the FBI was renewing its investigation into then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE.
Elle magazine ran an article pronouncing that Waters “will read you now.” (It went viral.) And millennials, in particular, began to follow her campaign, christening her “Auntie Maxine” along the way.
It was not, Waters said, a response she expected.
“I’ve been speaking out and then the millennials adopted me. I didn’t have any idea that they were paying attention, or what I was saying was resonating with them,” she said.
“They started to call me ‘Auntie Maxine,’ and to tweet, and to go on Facebook and use the social media, not only to show that they were pleased that I was speaking truth to power, but they wanted to engage.”
Several months later, a Salon editor listed reasons Waters should make a presidential run. And this week, a conservative outlet highlighted an upcoming trip she’s taking to New Hampshire, suggesting Waters might be taking the hype seriously.
It’s a suggestion she quickly dismissed, saying her visit this weekend to the Granite State was prompted solely by an invitation from Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).
“I respond to the member's request … I have a lot more on the agenda,” she said. “I’m just responding. I have no presidential ambitions.”
In one sense, Waters is an unlikely figure to emerge as the face of the anti-Trump resistance. As the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, the 78-year-old liberal has focused much of her energy in recent years on the policy minutiae that came with defending former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief MORE’s Wall Street reform legacy from the Republicans trying to tear it down.
In another sense, though, she was the natural fit for the role: Waters is a staunch liberal with a fiery personality and is also a prominent female member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) amid a presidency under fire for its attitude toward women and minorities.
Trump has made few friends within the CBC, especially after he attacked Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in January as a man of “all talk, no action.” Lewis is a historic figure, a hero of the civil rights era who was nearly beaten to death protesting segregation, and Trump’s strike prompted most members of the CBC, including Waters, to boycott his inauguration.
“Maxine’s voice is a voice that needs to be heard,” Lewis told The Hill on Thursday, praising her persistence. “She speaks from the heart, from her soul, out of conviction, and she feels very strongly, like so many of us do, that there’s something there and we need to find out what happened and how it happened.”
Some Democrats have worried this year that the party is focusing too much energy on Trump, at the risk of drowning out the bread-and-butter economic issues that may resonate more strongly with voters at the polls in the midterm elections next year. But even Democrats from Trump country said there’s plenty of value in having a figure like Waters stirring the pot and keeping the pressure on the president — as long as the economic message isn’t overshadowed in the process.
“We have to push back … and I think that Maxine is good at it because she is so engaging, she has a bigger-than-life personality,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D), who represents a Minnesota district that voted for Trump by a 15-point margin.
“There’s value in letting those folks know that from our side of the aisle that people here are watching this. But it can’t be at the exclusion of coming up with real solutions.”
Not all the publicity surrounding Waters in recent years has been positive. She’s been dogged by a series of ethics scandals, including a high-profile case in 2009 in which she was accused of using her position on the Financial Services panel to enrich her husband. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, named her among the most corrupt members of Congress at the time.
That history hasn’t been overlooked by Republicans as Waters’s star rises during the Trump administration. The Republican National Committee blasted out an email on Thursday pronouncing that “one of Congress's most corrupt members is now one of the leaders of the Democrat Party.”
Waters, for her part, is well accustomed to the criticism from across the aisle. And she’s vowing to continue her anti-Trump campaign — predicting it will eventually help topple the president.
“I will continue to speak out,” she said, “and I do believe that this will lead to impeachment.”