Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) spotted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) passing a pack of journalists as he made his way to vote and couldn’t resist suggesting a topic of conversation for the group.
“Can you ask my colleague Senator Menendez when he comes back why hasn’t he resigned yet?” Fetterman asked the reporters.
Wearing basketball shorts, Hoka sneakers and a hoodie, Fetterman could almost be mistaken for an oversized heckler who had pushed his way into the Capitol complex to needle Menendez, who has clung to his job despite facing multiple federal indictments for bribery and other crimes.
But these days, Fetterman’s presence is not just flouting expectations of how a senator looks and acts.
The 6’8” freshman senator, who survived a stroke on the campaign trail and then checked himself in to a medical facility for depression treatment shortly after coming to Washington, has begun to take stands on policy that can make his colleagues and longtime political allies more uncomfortable than they were about his schlubby dress code. His public heckling of Menendez goes against the grain of the traditionally staid Senate, but even more consequential is his vocal embrace of Israel’s right to attack Hamas in a ground offensive in Gaza while many liberals back home demand a cease-fire.
Fetterman’s unconventional approach to being a senator has alienated some of his colleagues, some of whom have taken the rare step in the clubby Senate of publicly rebuking him, and some of his policy stances are leading to intense blowback at home.
He greets much of this criticism with the dismissive, profane “F— that” attitude that came across in one recent social media post, and he openly admits that his physical and mental health battles of the last 18 months have given him a new sense of freedom.
Criticism simply does not faze him, he said. He’s already been called a “vegetable” and worse. Crippling depression plunged him into darkness and alienated him from his own family.
“It’s that line from … the original Batman with Jack Nicholson whereas Joker he starts laughing and he’s like, ‘I’ve already been dead once,’” Fetterman said in an interview in his office last week. “That’s really what it is. It’s been freeing.”
This new, liberated Fetterman looks and talks like a completely different person than the Fetterman who first joined the Senate nearly a year ago. Then, he more often than not walked silently around the halls of the Capitol, looking deeply uncomfortable in a suit and almost startled whenever another senator or a reporter approached him.
“He really was in the shadows,” recalled Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who attended freshman orientation with Fetterman and was in awe of the campaign he had just run. “He didn’t mingle and he didn’t interact the way you do when you’re first getting started.”
The fiery candidate who had reveled in mocking his former rival Mehmet Oz for his penchant for “crudité” had all but disappeared. His communications director, Joe Calvello, who had worked for Fetterman since 2020, said he didn’t even recognize his boss, not understanding that his muted persona sprung from his deepening depression.
“I was like, ‘Who is this zombie?’” he said.
It’s jarring then, to see Fetterman now seeming to have fun, as he carves his own path in the Senate, trolling some of his colleagues and speaking uncomfortable truths.
“I just feel like I’m doing things that I feel like really need to be said,” Fetterman said. “I try to do it in a way that hopefully more people will notice it.”
It’s been exactly one year and a day since Fetterman stood on the debate stage in Harrisburg and struggled to answer the moderator’s questions. He spent the next week reading vicious comments and anonymous quotes in the press from nervous Democrats that all sent the same message: You’re not fit to serve.
Now, Fetterman’s health is markedly better as he recovers from an auditory processing disorder sparked by his stroke that made it difficult for him to understand people without the help of captions. He still uses captioning technology on his phone to help him process other people’s speech, but does not rely on it as much as he did several months ago. This allows him to engage in fluid conversation with more eye contact than before. During an interview with The Washington Post, he glanced at the screen of his iPhone at times but was also able to talk back and forth without looking at the transcription. For the depression, Fetterman attends therapy, takes medication, and goes on long walks.
He seeks out reporters instead of dodging them in the halls. Several weeks ago, he looked relaxed as he cracked jokes with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”
“Much to the despair of Fox News, I’m not a vegetable,” he said.
Still, Fetterman struggles with being separated from his wife and three kids, who still live in Braddock, Pa., the crumbling steel town he used to run as mayor. He lights up when he gets to make fun of his political foes, but becomes emotional when speaking of his family, saying it’s “awful” to be separated from them.
“Sitting in your apartment and like, I can’t really help them with their homework or that kind of thing, so, um … ” he trails off and fights back tears.
His social life in Washington is also severely lacking. Fetterman recently read excerpts of an upcoming biography of Sen. Mitt Romney, where the Utah Republican describes a lonely bachelor existence in Washington full of defrosted salmon-and-ketchup sandwiches and bingeing Netflix.
“I don’t eat salmon sandwiches with ketchup and I don’t have a recliner, but we both apparently just sit by ourselves in our apartments,” Fetterman said.
Most nights he generally ends up getting a Sweetgreen salad or Ethiopian food to eat solo back at his apartment in Navy Yard. He’s curious about the restaurants in his neighborhood but worries he’d look like a “creeper” if he showed up to them at a “table of one dressed in a hoodie and shorts.”
“It’s lonely sometimes after things are done here,” he said.
Each new senator faces the daunting task of crafting an identity and path for themselves when they get to Washington, and even the most rabble-rousing newcomer often finds their sharper edges sanded down by the genteel norms of the place.
But Fetterman seems uniquely determined not to change, finding the formality and schmooziness of the institution off-putting.
“I don’t really ever want to have power lunches at steak houses and all that kind of thing” he said. And in a town where people relish their titles, Fetterman insists his staff and even his interns just call him “John.”
That can make it hard to make allies. Many of his colleagues describe him as shy, and Fetterman often skips the weekly Democratic caucus lunch, where the party’s leaders plot their strategy and messaging and lawmakers catch up with each other. (Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), now an independent, was once quoted secondhand deriding these lunches as where “old dudes” eat Jell-O and talk about how great they are.)
“John Fetterman brings his own vibe to the Senate,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “There’s no one like him and it’s a good thing to shake this stuffy place up a little bit.”
One way he’s shaking things up is by so publicly fighting Menendez, who has not ruled out running for reelection. While most senators feel uncomfortable about Menendez’s presence in the chamber while he faces such serious charges, Fetterman is the only one who’s taken that sentiment so public — buttonholing Menendez in the hallways, raising objections to his presence at classified briefings, and starting a movement to expel him from the body altogether. (No senator has been expelled since the Civil War.) This week, he put forward a resolution that would strip Menendez of his committees and ability to attend classified briefings.
“He has his opportunity to defend those choices but he should not have the right to remain in [the Senate],” Fetterman said, making fun of the “sleazy” senator’s habit of keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in his home for what Menendez called emergencies. “We don’t need his vote. [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy can nominate that plant on the shelf that can vote for D.” (Menendez has denied the allegations against him and declined to comment for this story.)
The heckling, on top of his norm-exploding dress code, has angered some of his colleagues, who see it as degrading the institution and a sign of disrespect.
“It’s hard to take that kind of behavior seriously in a place that’s considered the most deliberative body and the statesman of the legislative branch,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “I think those traditions matter. I think the reputation of the place matters.”
Asked if Fetterman’s campaign against Menendez had created some animosity against him among his fellow Democrats, Warren replied, “I’m still friendly with him, that’s all I know.”
It was the Pennsylvanian’s penchant for shorts that caused the most controversy, however, after Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) relaxed the unwritten rules around business suits for men in the Senate chamber in September.
The buttoned-up Senate reacted in horror to the change, with both Democrats and Republicans calling it disrespectful and privately fuming.
“It was somewhat distracting,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who added he personally was not upset. “It may have ruffled a few feathers.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) started a movement to officially codify the more formal version of the dress code in a resolution that he originally called “Show Our Respect to the Senate Resolution,” or SHORTS for short.
Fetterman, who lives in shorts, interpreted the acronym as a personal insult, and said he felt furious at Manchin for a while over it.
“At first I was really kind of angry [at him],” he said of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent in the 2024 election cycle. “And then I realized, well, he’s not going to be around much longer and I’m going to get his parking space.”
(The animosity is apparently one-sided. Manchin said he’s had “good conversations” with Fetterman when asked about the dress-code drama.)
The Senate unanimously approved the dress code, under a different name, and Fetterman addressed the controversy at the weekly Democratic caucus lunch, saying he had no objection to putting a suit on when he presides on the Senate floor. Now, when he votes in his sweats, he stands at the doorway to the Senate and makes a thumbs up or down gesture without actually walking onto the floor.
“The Senate is really a place that is really driven by tradition and conformity in a lot of ways,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who serves with Fetterman on the Agriculture and Banking committees. “There’s a uniform that people tend to wear. And I think it’s partly a uniform to say, ‘I belong here and no one should question that I belong here.’”
Another way Fetterman flouts the formality of the Senate is through his official Senate social media account, which is a haven of memes, jokes and profanity. Fetterman responded to the controversy about the Senate dress code with a photo of the actor Kevin James shrugging, and called Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) a “simp,” slang for submissive, in another meme featuring the “Friends” actor David Schwimmer.
— Senator John Fetterman (@SenFettermanPA) September 27, 2023
“I think memes are the most elegant and most direct kind of way to make a point,” he said.
When his colleague Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) suggested stripping money for Ukraine out of a proposed aid package that also includes funds for Israel, Fetterman tweeted, “F— that.”
“That was very specific,” Fetterman said. “It’s not that I just love to use profanity. I want to bring home the point.”
Yet he also seems to relish poking fun at Republicans on less consequential matters, occasionally sounding more like the host of a liberal podcast who loves riffing on Republicans’ absurdities than a United States senator. He gleefully brought up the Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert’s recent handsy date incident at a performance of Beetlejuice and made a risqué joke about the new House speaker.
“That’s the thing, MAGA loves a big Johnson you know?” he said of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). “And just when I think he couldn’t possibly be this crazy I’m like, he is. Congratulations!”
The behavior seems to defy the political reality other senators face, although Fetterman does not say definitively that he wants to run for reelection five years from now.
“He’s unique and the reality is, none of the rest of us could pull off being a Fetterman,” Welch said.
Fetterman is operating as the ultimate outsider senator, but in recent weeks has faced growing criticism from his supporters back home.
Fetterman, who came up in the more populist, Sen. Bernie Sanders-dominated wing of the Democratic Party, has recently angered some of his supporters by backing Israel in its war in Gaza following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. It’s led to protests outside his office featuring a giant “puppet” of Fetterman, blistering criticism and even a confrontation at a bar, where a labor attorney was roughly thrown out after questioning the senator’s position to his face. (The man was not thrown out by a member of Fetterman’s staff, his office said.) Some former Fetterman staffers published a letter saying they felt his stance was a “gutting betrayal.”
While Fetterman has also garnered praise from the center for his stance, the opposition to Israel’s war is only likely to grow as the death toll mounts in Gaza. More than 3,700 Palestinian children have died in the war so far, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. That’s more children dead than the toll of all the world’s conflicts combined last year, according to the charity Save the Children.
“When things happen like this … you have to make a choice and standing for a side and I’m always going to come [down] on the side of Israel,” Fetterman said, while his staffer and two interns pinned up flyers with the photos of Israeli hostages outside his door. “And I absolutely, absolutely grieve the lives of any innocent, whether it’s Gaza or Israel or whatever, of course. Only one group celebrates the death of civilians and that is Hamas.”
Fetterman has even criticized some Democrats on social media who blamed Israel for an attack on a hospital in Gaza that the Israel Defense Forces later pinned on an errant rocket from a radical Islamist group. He said he was “shocked that we even have members of our Congress that would take their word over Israel and American intelligence and our president.”
“They don’t start wars,” he said of Israel. “But they end them, I believe.”