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.