House Democrats are rallying behind Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler as he faces growing pressure from the left flank to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Driving the campaign is billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who is spearheading a $40 million campaign to push key House Democratic chairs investigating Trump and his administration to begin holding impeachment hearings.
Steyer’s Need to Impeach PAC held a town hall in Nadler’s Manhattan district Tuesday evening, and the group is running a 30-second television ad powered by a six-figure digital buy encouraging Nadler’s constituents to press him to back immediate impeachment.
Nadler is also facing rumblings of a primary challenge after skating to reelection last year in one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley last year was a wake-up call for Democrats, and Steyer himself has left the door open to wading into Democratic primaries.
When asked about Steyer’s efforts targeting Nadler, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a fellow New York Democrat and Judiciary Committee member who also has found himself under scrutiny from the left, quipped: “Tom who?”
It’s a sign that even as Steyer’s involvement is causing some headaches for Democrats, lawmakers are rallying behind Nadler and dismissing demands among the Democratic base to go after Trump sooner rather than later.
Democrats are particularly frustrated that Steyer refuses to rule out backing challengers in next year’s House primaries less than two months after Democrats took the majority in the first place. In addition to Nadler, Steyer’s initial targets include Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — and the billionaire has vowed to take his campaign to rank-and-file Democrats’ districts, too.
“We should not be spending money now defending incumbents in primaries. It’s stupid,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member who has backed impeaching Trump and frequently skewers the president on Twitter. “I fully support the chairman, and to do a primary challenge against him is stupid.”
Nadler’s office declined to comment on the record for this story, but his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee — who uniformly backed the chairman’s reluctance to hold impeachment hearings until more evidence against the president emerges — remain in lockstep behind him as they dismiss the growing pressure campaign as irrelevant and counterproductive.
“His district, mostly the West Side of New York — there’s not hardly a more liberal place in New York,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the Judiciary panel. “Tom Steyer can run some ads, but it doesn’t compare to what people in the delis would say to Jerry in the West Side of New York.”
Privately, Democrats — and their Republican counterparts — on Capitol Hill believe the committee eventually will hold impeachment proceedings against Trump. Those hearings would begin only when Democrats feel that they are on solid ground, based on facts and evidence that emerges, to do so.
But that’s not enough for Steyer. In an interview before his town hall on Tuesday night, Steyer said his effort is simply giving voice to the tens of thousands of Nadler’s constituents who signed his petition indicating their support for impeaching the president.
“He needs to know where they stand. This isn’t about me for one second,” Steyer said. “There is a split here between the elected officials inside the Beltway, and American citizens. We need these hearings to bring the truth to the American people.”
“They voted for Congressman Nadler because they want some action,” he added. “That’s why they turned out.”
When pressed about using his PAC’s resources to back challengers to Nadler or other House Democrats, Steyer wouldn’t rule it out.
“I’m assuming all of these Democrats are going to listen to their constituents and go, ‘Oh my gosh, we really need to get this show on the road,’” he said.
In multiple interviews, however, the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members pushed back on Steyer and revealed a united front in favor of Nadler’s strategy on impeachment.
“It’s a lot easier to govern from the outside than it is from the inside,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a former police detective who praised Nadler’s “strategic and methodical” approach.
“Everybody’s frustrated,” Demings said of Steyer’s efforts. “But frustration alone is never enough to lead any type of hearing or investigation.”
Still, Nadler is taking concrete steps to placate his left flank, lawmakers say.
He’s vowed to continue pressing now-former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about his brief supervision of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, even threatening to subpoena him for a deposition. Earlier this month, Nadler hired Norm Eisen, a former White House attorney in the Obama administration, and Barry Berke, a criminal defense lawyer specializing in white-collar crimes, as legal consultants for the committee. Both have openly mused about Trump’s alleged crimes, including obstruction of justice. And later this month, Nadler is expected to spearhead a legislative effort to reverse the president’s use of a national emergency declaration to build a border wall.
“They know abuse of power, they know obstruction of justice,” Cohen said of Eisen and Berke. “You can’t say that Chairman Nadler is not proceeding in the right direction and doing it in any way but a scholarly, diligent method — and that’s what we need to be successful.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who counts Steyer as a constituent of her San Francisco district, said the billionaire’s efforts are a “waste of time and money” and suggested that Steyer should focus his efforts on defeating Republicans rather than undermining Democrats.
“The fact is, you are by definition as an advocate dissatisfied, relentless and persistent. Whatever the electeds are doing is a compromise, it’s not the purity of what we want,” Pelosi said in an interview recently. “I understand that, but they have to also understand that if you’re going to succeed on the path that you’re on, you have to do it right.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are giddy at the prospect that Democrats are grappling with an insurgency within their own party. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Nadler is already bowing to the pressure from donors like Steyer, citing the Eisen and Berke hirings as evidence.
“Tom Steyer was trying to impeach the president in November 2016 — I mean, let’s get a break here,” Collins said in an interview. “It’s sad that you’re taking a chairman who has just taken over the committee for the first time in eight years, and you’re forcing him to do stuff that he knows is not practical at this point. I think it’s affecting a lot of our committee. It’s just sad.”
Yet those close to Nadler on the committee say he’s not worried about the pressure campaign and doesn’t believe a credible primary challenger could emerge. But Democrats who have been down this road before warned that Steyer’s efforts could backfire.
Julian Epstein, who served as chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s Democrats during the fight to impeach President Bill linton, said if Nadler bends to pressure from Steyer, he risks mirroring Republicans’ unsuccessful playbook when they tried — and failed — to oust Clinton from office 20 years ago.
“You don’t get to impeachment by politicizing it and trying to strong-arm potential allies,” Epstein said. “That will only misserve the goal of impeachment by branding it as liberal billionaires’ pet project rather than a constitutional undertaking driven by facts and law.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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