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Jeanne Shaheen on Let Girls Learn, Trump's Comey Fiasco, and Why Men Should Pay for Maternity Care

The U.S. senator from New Hampshire is announcing legislation Thursday to continue the mission of Let Girls Learn.

By: Rebecca Nelson


Earlier this month, when it was reported that the Trump administration was ending a government program called "Let Girls Learn," Jeanne Shaheen was not happy. Shaheen, the senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire, has spent her life advocating for women and girls in the U.S. and abroad, first as governor of the state, and, since 2009, as a senator. (She's the first woman to serve in both offices.)

The White House later denied the program had been changed. But they declined to say whether it would remain in place in the future.

Shaheen, however, was already working on legislation that would put into law the mission of Let Girls Learn. On Thursday, she'll introduce the Keeping Girls in School Act, which would work to do just that, allocating $35 million to find innovative ways to help girls around the world get an education.

Shaheen talked to about her soon-to-be announced legislation, what it's like to be the sole woman on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, and whether Trump should be impeached over his dealings with former FBI director James Comey.

As you say in your legislation, young women face all sorts of obstacles to going to school: sexism, early motherhood, lack of proper sanitation. How would this bill chip away at those systemic barriers?

Young women more so than young men face challenges, particularly when they begin to get around puberty. And so what the bill does is — there are three aspects of it. It creates an adolescent girls challenge fund that is modeled on the Let Girls Learn effort that was initiated by Mrs. Obama. And what that would do is have the State Department, USAID, other federal agencies, enable them to work with private sector partners, with universities, with other organizations, to encourage adolescent girls to enroll and stay in school. The second would authorize U.S. assistance to address specific barriers that they face. You mentioned some of them: to try and discourage child marriages, for example, which is a cultural impediment that many girls face around the world. To address things like bathrooms in schools — private bathrooms — which is, again, one of the challenges that adolescent girls face. And then the third aspect of it is to require the development of a global strategy to empower adolescent girls. And this was something that was done in the last administration, and it encouraged taking a sort of “whole of government” approach to the issue. How could various agencies work with the State Department and USAID to integrate efforts that they're doing with efforts to keep adolescent girls in school?

You mentioned Let Girls Learn. This bill comes on the heels of reports that the Trump administration is not committed to that program. If Republicans in the White House could consider axing that, what gives you reason to believe that this bill could pass a Republican-controlled Congress?

I think there are a lot of Republicans who recognize that investment in adolescent girls and empowering them is good for our foreign policy. When they're educated, they tend to give back more to their communities, to rise out of poverty in a way that is good for their families and their communities and ultimately, their countries. I think that we need to keep laying down these markers, and pointing out what's important to our national security and what's important around the world.

I want to move to the news of the day. It was reported yesterday that in February, President Trump asked James Comey, then the director of the FBI, to close the bureau’s investigation into Michael Flynn. Today, some lawmakers are calling for Trump’s impeachment over this. Is this an impeachable offense?

Listen, I’m not gonna comment on what’s impeachable and what’s not impeachable. What we need is an independent investigation, and we need to get to the bottom of what happened in terms of the Russia investigation and how that is related to President Trump's firing of director Comey, and what was said. Certainly, I think the intelligence committees in both the House and the Senate should be going full speed ahead. They need to get any relevant documents. And if they're not forthcoming, they should subpoena them both from the FBI and the White House. And I think we need to make sure that the FBI has the resources and the leadership to continue its investigation. And the people of this country need to know what happened.

You said last week that you didn't think that there was enough information to tell whether Trump's firing of Comey had to do with this ongoing Russia investigation. With this latest news, do you believe that there is a link between that, that that's the reason Trump fired him?

It certainly appears that way. But again, that's why we need an investigation. One that is out in front and transparent, in the open, that the American people can see what's going on. We need to get answers to who in the Trump campaign was talking to the Russians throughout that campaign effort and what Donald Trump knew about any conversations that happened. We need to know what happened since President Trump took office — what he said to director Comey, whether in fact he asked him for a loyalty test, whether in fact he asked him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn. And we need to get the evidence.

Many have made comparisons to Watergate, to the Saturday Night Massacre. How Nixonian is this? Are we living through a second Watergate?

I think the question is, Are we in the midst of another constitutional crisis? I lived through Watergate. I remember very clearly the circumstances around Watergate. But this is another challenge. I’m not sure that labeling it as Watergate is helpful in terms of getting to the bottom of this investigation. And that's what we need to do. We need to ask the authorities that are responsible — the intelligence committees in the House and Senate, the FBI, the other members of the intelligence community — we need to get the information that they have. We need to pursue the leads. We need to get the financial information that we think is out there with respect to what connections there are, investments in the Trump empire, in Russia, what those connections might be.

In a meeting with the Russian foreign minister last week, Trump revealed highly classified information he was not permitted to share. Can Trump still be trusted with classified information?

I think the president's revealing — well, I think there are a number of troubling things about that meeting. First of all, that there was no American press let into the room, and TASS, the Russian news agency, was allowed to come in and take pictures. It's not clear to me what else they might have done. I think that's very troubling to the American people. That they would keep out members of our media and press, and let in the Russian media. I think it's very troubling that he might have revealed information that would allow, particularly our adversaries with sophisticated intelligence networks, to be able to use that information to backtrack and discover who the sources are. I think it's troubling in terms of the ongoing relationship with our allies and the intelligence sharing that we have enjoyed over the years, as well as the signal that it sends to America's own intelligence community about whether or not they can trust information that is provided to the administration.

Nancy Pelosi recently said that welcoming anti-abortion views into the Democratic Party was necessary to rebuild after Trump’s election. Do you think Democrats should welcome pro-life viewpoints into the fold, or is that an inherently anti-Democratic stance?

No. I think there are people in the Democratic Party who believe that women should have the ability to make their own decisions about their reproductive futures, and there are people who are totally opposed to abortion under any circumstances. But, you know, you don’t get excommunicated from the Democratic Party because you may personally be opposed to abortion.

In the debate over the GOP health-care bill, which passed the House earlier this month, several Republican members of Congress had suggested that someone who does not need maternity care — a man, a 70-year-old woman — should not have to pay for that coverage. What’s your response to that? Why should they pay for coverage for something they’ll never use?

I like to think of [Michigan] Sen. Stabenow’s response when — I think it was [Texas Sen.] John Cornyn who raised that, or maybe it was [former Arizona Sen.] Jon Kyl, who said that he didn't need maternity services. And she said, “No, but I bet your mother did.” 

The premise of insurance is to spread the risk. It's the premise of homeowner's insurance, of car insurance, and of health insurance. It's one reason why it's important to have insurance when you're healthy, so that when you get sick, you won't go sign up just when you get sick, because that increases the cost for everyone. This is a similar issue.

You're the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Was there ever a time that you felt that your colleagues on the committee didn't understand something that you did because they're all men?

Pretty much daily. No, I'm just being a little facetious there. But I do think that — I've spent a lot of time in my political life talking about why it matters to have women in the decision making, whether it's at the family table, whether it's in a board room, whether it's in the halls of Congress, whether it's in your community meeting. And it has to do with the fact that women's lives are different. You know? They're not better or worse than men's, but they are different and we bring that different perspective to whatever we do. And it's important to have that perspective at the table. 

In college, you successfully lobbied to end a campus curfew that applied to only women. In Washington, do you ever wish there was a curfew that applied only to men?

[Laughs.] I think everybody in Washington could use a curfew, to be honest.