New York Democrat may not impeach president, but his rigorous oversight will be a thorn in his side
Jerrold Nadler remembers when he began to figure out that you’ve got to fight back when life seems unfair.
It was 1957. Nadler was 10. He was at home in Brooklyn watching Disney’s film production of the 1943 novel “Johnny Tremain,” a young apprentice of silversmith Paul Revere on the eve of the American Revolution.
In the movie’s climatic scene, colonial lawyer James Otis delivers a rallying speech to revolutionaries in a cramped wooden attic in Boston.
Otis was the colonial lawyer whose five-hour speech in 1761 decrying British “writs of assistance” would later become the foundation of the Fourth Amendment protecting Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.
At the end of his winding speech, the fictionalized Otis scans the room and leaves his comrades with a parting message: “We fight and die for a simple thing — only that a man can stand.”
“I still remember watching it,” said Nadler, whom aides and confidants claim has a photographic memory.
.. First elected to Congress in 1992, Nadler is poised to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January after the Democrat-controlled 116th Congress is sworn in.
Immigration, voting rights, and Justice Department oversight — read: Mueller investigation — are just three of the politically charged issues under the committee’s jurisdiction.
.. Nadler has likewise skirted around such questions, though he said he is eager to conduct oversight hearings on the Trump administration’s policies of
- separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border,
- increases in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes since the president took office, and
- voter suppression, not to mention
- Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
.. “The question of impeachment is down the road,” Nadler told Roll Call in a wide-ranging interview in which he cast doubts over whether Democrats would ever reach a point where they would seriously pursue impeaching Trump.
“As far as impeachment is concerned, we have to see what Mueller comes up with,” Nadler said. “I certainly wouldn’t predict it.”
.. Though he hails from one of the most liberal districts in the country, New York’s 10th, Nadler’s political demeanor more closely resembles the calculated coolness of party leaders than the pot-stirring of liberal firebrands such as California Rep. Maxine Waters, the presumed next House Financial Services chairwoman
.. Multiple former aides could not identify a single hobby of his that didn’t include reading or debating public policy with his friends.
.. “Hobbies? He doesn’t have any,” said Brett Heimov, Nadler’s former Washington chief of staff. “Reading books — that’s his hobby.”
.. the only yeshiva-educated member of Congress. He does not drink. The most alcohol Nadler will consume is on Jewish holidays: a sip or two of Manischewitz for the Kiddush ritual.
.. He has retained senior staff in Washington and field directors in his district at an astonishingly high rate. Nadler’s Washington director, John Doty, has been with him since the congressman’s first full term. Same with his scheduler, Janice Siegel.
“Twelve years, 20 years, they’ve stuck with him,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a longtime friend. “He’s always had good staff around him.”
.. Just about the only thing that has changed about Nadler since the 1990s is his weight.
In the early 2000s, the congressman peaked at a gargantuan 338 pounds. The butt of countless bodyweight jokes, even among his peers, during the Clinton impeachment trial, Nadler used to take the elevator up to the second floor of the Capitol for votes because he just couldn’t make it up a lone flight of stairs. He underwent a stomach-reduction surgery during Congress’ August recess in 2002 and eventually cut his weight roughly in half.
.. Since arriving in Washington in 1992 after a 15-year stint in the New York state Assembly in Albany representing liberal Manhattan, Nadler has lived out of a suitcase in a series of hotels whenever he’s in town for work. For the first few years, he stayed at the Howard Johnson’s near the George Washington University campus.
.. From the start, Nadler opposed the sweeping 1994 crime bill that originated in the Judiciary Committee over the “three strikes” statute for previously convicted felons.
After the GOP picked up 54 seats and a majority in the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution in the 1994 midterm elections, Nadler confronted Democratic leadership in a head-on clash to chip away at senior members’ monopoly of power at the committee and subcommittee level.
.. After the midterm trouncing, they agitated for a vote on a party rule that would bar Democratic chairs and ranking members from leading subcommittees, too. When Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt refused, Nadler collected the requisite 50 petition signatures to force a vote.
The caucus voted to adopt the new rule, infuriating some members, including former Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell of Michigan, who was forced to give up one of his subcommittee posts.
“There were a number of committee chairmen who wouldn’t talk to me for years after that,” Nadler recalled. The clash over the rule, still the party standard, is largely forgotten these days.
Nadler didn’t make waves on the national scene until four years later, though, in 1998 when he emerged as one of Clinton’s most outspoken defenders during the impeachment proceedings.
Nadler relished being a nettle for Republicans as they pursued allegations that Clinton had perjured himself when he told independent counsel Ken Starr in a deposition that he never had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The New York congressman was a frequent guest on CNN and other TV networks, on which he argued that Clinton may well have perjured himself — but that alone was not grounds for impeachment.
.. “An impeachable offense is an abuse of presidential power designed to or with the effect of undermining the structure or function of government, or undermining constitutional liberties,” he told the crowd of several hundred.
.. “The fact is, impeachment is not a criminal punishment,” Nadler told Roll Call. “There are crimes that you could commit that are not impeachable offenses and there are impeachable offenses that are not crimes. They’re different tests.”
.. During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Nadler believed a crucial function of the Judiciary Committee was to educate Americans about that distinction between crimes and impeachable offenses.
He pushed for, and secured, a Judiciary hearing in 1998 to answer what constitutes an impeachable offense, even though Democrats were in the minority.
.. “The purpose of the whole impeachment process is to protect the integrity of liberty and of the rule of law and of government, to protect against a person with aggrandized power or who destroys the separation of powers or something like that,” Nadler said.
.. “If you’re serious about removing a president from office, what you’re really doing is overturning the result of the last election,” Nadler said. “You don’t want to have a situation where you tear this country apart and for the next 30 years half the country’s saying ‘We won the election, you stole it.’”
.. And by bipartisan support for impeachment, Nadler does not mean winning over Republican lawmakers.
“I’m talking about the voters, people who voted for Trump,” he said. “Do you think that the case is so stark, that the offenses are so terrible and the proof so clear, that once you’ve laid it all out you will have convinced an appreciable fraction of the people who voted for Trump, who like him, that you had no choice?
.. He has already promised to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sessions’ firing.
.. Part of that probe will focus on “cooperation” between Russians and Americans, including, potentially, some members of Trump’s inner circle
.. Legislatively, one of his top priorities will be to strike a deal with the Republican president and Senate on immigration, an elusive feat for recent administrations.
The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.
The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
- When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
- tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
- went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through... But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller. But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone... Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it... Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign... Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.
Among the events of John McCain’s five-and-a-half years of imprisonment and torture in North Vietnam, probably the most heroic, and surely the most celebrated, was his refusal to accept an early release from his captors.
“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society,” McCain recalled in “Faith of My Fathers,” his 1999 memoir. “I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country.”
.. They strain to keep faith with America when the attorney general weaponizes the terror of children and the desperation of parents in order to pursue his vision of immigration policy.
.. They strain to keep faith when the president rains scorn on our closest allies at summits in Canada and Belgium, and follows each performance with epic displays of obsequiousness toward a North Korean mass murderer and a Russian assassin.
.. They strain to keep faith when the vice president publicly walks out of a football stadium because players bend a knee in silent protest of racial injustice just two months after the president loudly defended white nationalists at Charlottesville as “some very fine people.”
.. An American president who, in matters of both character and conviction, was low and vapid and mean-spirited and bottomlessly dishonorable — McCain’s opposite in every respect.
President Trump’s advisers and allies are increasingly worried that he has neither the staff nor the strategy to protect himself from a possible Democratic takeover of the House, which would empower the opposition party to shower the administration with subpoenas or even pursue impeachment charges
.. The president and some of his advisers have discussed possibly adding veteran defense attorney Abbe Lowell, who currently represents Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, to Trump’s personal legal team
..Trump announced Wednesday that
- Donald McGahn will depart as White House counsel this fall, once the Senate confirms Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Three of McGahn’s deputies —
- Greg Katsas,
- Uttam Dhillon and
- Makan Delrahim — have departed, and a fourth,
- Stefan Passantino, will have his last day Friday.
That leaves John Eisenberg, who handles national security, as the lone deputy counsel.
.. McGahn and other aides have invoked the prospect of impeachment to persuade the president not to take actions or behave in ways that they believe would hurt him, officials said... Trump has told confidants that some of his aides have highly competent lawyers such as Lowell, who represents Kushner, and William A. Burck, who represents McGahn as well as former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.“He wonders why he doesn’t have lawyers like that,” said one person who has discussed the matter with Trump.Another adviser said Trump remarked this year, “I need a lawyer like Abbe.”Giuliani said that he has not heard of Trump considering adding Lowell to the team but that he would be a great choice because of his thorough and aggressive style.
“This president might like that better,” Giuliani said. “If he thinks someone isn’t being tough enough, he has a tendency to go out to defend himself. And that’s not good.”
.. “I would think that the type of lawyer most able to handle the impeachment scenario would be someone from the appellate and Supreme Court bar — someone of the Ted Olson or Paul Clement or Andy Pincus level, someone who knows how to make the kind of arguments should it come to a vote in the Senate,” Corallo said.
.. Emmet Flood, a White House lawyer and McGahn ally who handles the special counsel’s Russia investigation, has long been considered a top prospect to replace McGahn.
.. Flood, often described as a lawyer’s lawyer, is in many ways the opposite of Trump and Giuliani, yet the president has told advisers he is impressed by Flood’s legal chops and hard-line positions defending the prerogatives of the White House.
.. White House aides, including deputy chief of staff Johnny DeStefano and political director Bill Stepien, have tried to ratchet down Trump’s expectations for the elections, saying that projections look grim in the House.
.. Another concern is that the White House, which already has struggled in attracting top-caliber talent to staff positions, could face an exodus if Democrats take over the House, because aides fear their mere proximity to the president could place them in legal limbo and possibly result in hefty lawyers’ fees.
“It stops good people from potentially serving because nobody wants to inherit a $400,000 legal bill,” said another Trump adviser.
.. the West Wing staff is barely equipped to handle basic crisis communications functions, such as distributing robust talking points to key surrogates, and question how the operation could handle an impeachment trial or other potential battles.
Trump sees the administration as having a singular focus — him — and therefore is less concerned with the institution of the presidency and not aware of the vast infrastructure often required to protect it, according to some of his allies.
.. Jack Quinn, who served as White House counsel under Clinton, said his office had at least 40 lawyers and as many as 60 during key times.
.. “I appreciate that Rudy Giuliani is doing a lot of the public speaking and perhaps some other things,” Quinn said. But, he added, “it’s a little bit of a mystery to me who is doing the outside legal work.”