You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

John Fetterman Speaks: I Haven’t Changed a Lick

In an exclusive interview, the junior Pennsylvania Democratic senator talks about Israel and the border—and insists that he’s the same politician as when he was elected.

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
Senator John Fetterman

All life evolves, even that of U.S. senators. John Fetterman is no exception, even if the junior senator from Pennsylvania insists he hasn’t changed a lick. “I’m not a progressive, I’m just a Democrat,” Fetterman said during an exclusive interview with The New Republic on Wednesday.

Some might beg to differ. In the past, he tweeted, “My dude, I’m a progressive Democrat.” He backed Bernie Sanders enthusiastically in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, saying of Sanders, “We stand together as the most progressive candidates in our respective races.” Many progressives expressed excitement in 2022 after he beat a more establishment-friendly Democrat in the primary and then flipped a Senate seat that Republicans had long held—even after suffering a near-fatal stroke a few months before.

But in recent months, that enthusiasm has given way to frustration and even anger from the left because of his outspoken support for Israel amid its overwhelming assault on Gaza after Hamas killed 1,200 people on October 7. He earned even more ire when he called for more restrictions on immigration as Republicans hope to close off people’s means to enter the United States legally in exchange for funding for Ukraine.

And on Thursday, in a speech to a Jewish organization, he referenced charges of white genocide against South Africa, which has brought genocide charges against Israel before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, by saying that “maybe South Africa maybe ought to sit this one out when it comes to criticizing the behavior of other nations.”

Fetterman later clarified his remarks Friday in a statement to The Independent. “The entirety of my point was this: South Africa should instead focus on the spiraling humanitarian crises on its own continent—like Sudan, where more than 7 million people have been displaced with widespread atrocities,” he said.

Fetterman’s policy positions make some of his campaign supporters feel like he pulled a bait and switch. “As soon as he gets money from AIPAC, what does he do? He switches and says he’s never been a progressive,” said Tiana, one of a half-dozen protesters gathered outside Fetterman’s Senate office Monday.

Fetterman has received $244,100 from pro-Israel groups, but AIPAC has not contributed to the senator’s election campaigns, according to a review of OpenSecrets data from the last four years.

Tiana said she traveled from Washington, D.C., to volunteer for Fetterman’s Senate campaign in Pennsylvania but has since left the Democratic Party over President Joe Biden’s unconditional support for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

Fetterman bristles at the notion that he’s somehow sold out progressives, insisting instead that he is the same person. “I vote on bedrock Democratic principles, and I’m not gonna leave my party,” Fetterman said.

Still, his recent pronouncements on Israel and the border have been surprising, to say the least. On Wednesday, The New Republic sat down with the senator for an exclusive interview about the evolution that he says has not occurred.

He still uses the smartphone that he has used since suffering a stroke two years ago that dictates his speech and displays his words across a screen. In our interview, he pulled a phone from the right-side pocket of his black polyester gym shorts, opened a dictation app, and nodded for me to start speaking. Text of my speech cascaded down Fetterman’s screen in awkward stop-and-go intervals.

You … said you will never sell … out the Dreamers. Is relief for Dreamers … a condition of your support … for a potential border deal?

“I did say that,” Fetterman replied to the first part of the question. “Of course.…” There was a pause, and then he replied to the second part. “I can’t and would never vote against their interests,” said Fetterman of Dreamers. “How can we penalize children who were brought here and now are living their best lives? They’re making incredible contributions, and I’m married to one of them.”

Gisele Barreto’s family emigrated illegally from Brazil when she was a 7-year-old, landing in New York City, where she grew up poor. In 2004, Barreto got her green card. She became a citizen five years later, shortly after marrying Fetterman, then the mayor of his hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

If he was trying to sound conciliatory on immigration, he was unapologetic on Israel. Asked if the Senate should put conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel, Fetterman didn’t waffle. “No, none,” he said. Images of the remaining Hamas hostages taken on October 7 hang along a wall in the front office of his Senate suite. On the wall opposite are images of Hamas hostages released. A steady stream of cease-fire advocates visit Fetterman’s office each day to demand that he do better. Staffers log their concerns and, in lieu of offering their agreement, instead give them tiny bottles of cold water from a mini-fridge on the floor and candy made in Hershey and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

“Standing with Israel and thinking that we should have a secure border, I don’t know why either one of them is controversial,” said Fetterman, who has indicated that he would support a bipartisan proposal backed by the White House to permanently restrict legal immigration to unlock Republican support in the Senate for Ukrainian military funding. “Ukraine is my priority—and Israel,” Fetterman told me back in December, a foreign policy position from which he has not budged.

This much has to be admitted, though. As upset as his old progressive allies may be, his stances aren’t hurting him at home. In fact, the opposite is true. A Quinnipiac poll of 600 Pennsylvania voters published January 10 showed that 26 percent of those surveyed said Fetterman’s support for Israel’s military offensive in Palestine improved their view of him, while only 14 percent said it made them see him more negatively (over half said it had no impact on their view). On immigration, the numbers were even more starkly in his favor, as 35 percent said his new harder line improved their view of him and just 9 percent said it made them think less favorably of him.

Pennsylvania is a swing state, up for grabs by either party in November’s election. It has a significant Jewish population and a very popular Jewish governor in Josh Shapiro. But unlike Shapiro and Casey, who enjoy high approval numbers, Fetterman has struggled to get his own approval above 50 percent. The Quinnipiac poll had him at 45 percent.

But was Fetterman really as progressive as his detractors on the left now claim? As lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2022, Fetterman argued against lifting Title 42, the controversial pandemic-era authority that allowed federal agents to expel migrants from the country as public health threats. That same year, Fetterman told Jewish Insider that he’s “not really a progressive” on the issue of Israel. “Our campaign is based on core Democratic values and principles, and always has been, and there is no daylight between myself and these kinds of unwavering commitments to Israel’s security,” he said.

Democratic activist Brett Goldman noted at the time that Fetterman had “never come out and said that he’s not a supporter of Israel,” despite the public perception that Fetterman would eventually align with progressives if elected to the Senate. “That may not be true, but that’s what the perception is,” said Goldman, a remark that presaged the progressive disillusionment with Fetterman today.

“Last question,” I said. “OK, fine,” he replied, nodding his consent, then fixing his unblinking eyes on his smartphone screen. Speaking slowly, I watched my question cascade down his screen, not all at once, but again in broken intervals.

Beyond … border security what … specifically is your ideal migrant policy package … relating to migrant rights? Or even just at a … high level?

Fetterman paused for a five-count, staring up the East Grand Stairs of the Senate, giving me a hard side-eye, before taking a deep breath and speaking in a slow, careful cadence. “Look,” he said, “ideally we honor where America has historically been with immigration. Ideally we would protect Dreamers and give them a franchise. They need to be citizens.” Excitedly I pointed back at his phone for a follow-up.

Then … what is your message … for your Republican colleagues who see … no distinction between …?”

Fetterman stopped reading, slid his phone into the kangaroo pouch of his black cotton hoodie. “I’ve been told that they’re not going to be put in harm’s way, but if the border talks did put them in harm’s way, I can never and would never vote against their interest,” he said.

“To be clear,” he continued. “I’m not calling for deporting hundreds of thousands or millions of people, or that kind of thing. That’s not who we are. We have to secure our border, but I want every immigrant to have their own American dream. OK?”

“Got it,” I exhaled loudly, realizing only then I’d been holding my breath, hanging on his every syllable. “Thank you, Senator.” Fetterman offered me an awkward handshake before abruptly shuffling away toward the entrance of the Senate chamber. “Yeah, thanks,” he muttered as he walked by me.

This was new. Fetterman had finally declared his alignment with promises Gisele made to migrant communities (and Latino press) on the campaign trail, that her husband John would fight for them. “I know what it’s like to live in limbo,” Gisele told me while John recovered from his stroke in September 2022. “John has seen my journey, my family’s journey as immigrants to this country.”

All senators evolve, even John Fetterman, but has he actually moved rightward on Israel and border security? Or is this who he was all along, just no one bothered to ask for the details? Fetterman arrived in the Senate with a reputation for being a straight shooter, a no-bullshit small-town guy from a steel town with a foul mouth, a migrant wife, a closet full of gym clothes.

Has Fetterman sold out the progressive supporters who elected him? Or did his supporters simply ignore the early warning signs that Fetterman was never going to join the Squad when he got to the Senate? Both can be true, but the evidence suggests that Fetterman’s positions on Israel and border security have been consistent all along, he’s just finally being asked to articulate them.

The bad news for Fetterman’s haters is that now they’re stuck with him for another five years. Meanwhile, the junior senator from Pennsylvania now has the rest of his freshman term in the Senate to navigate the tricky path of “evolving” without being seen as betraying core values that got him elected in the first place.