Albin Lohr-Jones / Sipa via AP / Thanh Do / The Atlantic

The Democrat Who Could Lead Trump’s Impeachment Isn’t Sure It’s Warranted

If the House flips, Representative Jerry Nadler would head the committee that could try to oust the president. But he’ll have to be convinced first.

BROOKLYN—“Right now, I don’t want to talk about it,” Jerry Nadler told his curious, concerned constituent. “We don’t want to talk about it.”

The man positioned to lead the House of Representatives’ impeachment effort against President Donald Trump next year was holding court on a suffocating early August afternoon outside a Walgreens in the Brooklyn half of his New York City congressional district. This was a “Congress on Your Corner” event, and the 71-year-old Nadler—dressed sensibly for the heat in a light-blue button-up shirt without the suit jacket—was answering questions from a gaggle of local residents on whatever topics happened to be on their mind.

It was Robin Bady, a 67-year-old neighborhood resident, who asked about impeachment: What were the chances, she wondered, that it could happen if Democrats won back the House majority this fall?

It’s a question likely on the minds of millions of Americans at the moment, and more than just about anyone else in the country, Nadler is the person to ask. After a quarter century in Congress, the liberal stalwart is now the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee—the panel that would consider articles of impeachment—and if a blue wave does crest in November, he would become its chairman.

Nadler wasn’t dismissing Bady’s question—the fast-talking New Yorker will offer his two cents on pretty much any subject. But he was sharing the not-so-secret political strategy of the Democratic Party during the midterm campaign: Impeachment, though it looms over both Congress and the presidency, is a topic for others to discuss.

“It doesn’t serve the function of a Democratic House to talk about it,” Nadler said on that street corner in Brooklyn.

For nearly a year, the billionaire Tom Steyer and a small but growing group of progressive House Democrats have been making the case for impeaching Trump over a variety of alleged crimes and abuses of power, and Republicans are using the specter of a Democratic bid to oust the president as a way to spur Trump’s die-hard supporters to the polls. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released late last month, nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said Congress should begin impeachment proceedings following the conviction of the president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who implicated Trump in the violation of federal campaign-finance laws.

Like so many New York politicians, Nadler has a long history with Trump. But unlike top Democrats such as Chuck Schumer and the Clintons, the two were never chummy. In the 1980s and ’90s, he infuriated the real-estate developer by leading the opposition to the residential towers Trump built in Nadler’s district on the West Side of Manhattan. Nadler is as liberal as they come in Congress, and he has been unsparing in his criticism of Trump.*

But on impeachment, Nadler isn’t there—yet. The chairman in waiting isn’t convinced Trump has committed impeachable acts, and he’s skeptical that a partisan drive to remove the president from office is in the country’s best interest.
On that critical question, Nadler has lined up behind the Democratic congressional leadership, which views discussions of impeachment as entirely premature until it has both a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the power to act on it in the House.The party’s better argument, according to the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Schumer, is to accuse Republicans of sabotaging the health-care system and giving the bulk of a $1.5 trillion tax cut to their wealthy campaign donors, and to make a more generalized case that the GOP has a culture of corruption.

That’s a sensible-enough electoral strategy, and for the moment, the increasing support for impeachment among progressive activists and candidates has not reached a groundswell. But that could all change by the morning of November 7, if rank-and-file Democrats wake up to discover their party is suddenly vested with the power to confront a president it has decried as a threat to the constitutional order. The clamor for impeachment would grow substantially. And the man Democrats have positioned to deploy that weapon happens to be among the most reluctant to use it.

His current reticence notwithstanding, there is likely no Democrat currently serving in Congress who has talked more about impeachment or developed a more fully formed opinion about its intended purpose than Jerry Nadler. He first articulated his view under vastly different circumstances, and in defense of a Democratic president. But over the course of 20 years, it hasn’t changed much.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at Columbia and Fordham, Nadler won his first election to the House in 1992, after a decade representing Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the New York State Assembly. But it wasn’t until 1998 that he gained national attention, as one of former President Bill Clinton’s sharpest and most ardent defenders during the Republican Congress’s attempt to force him from office.

In December of that year, the GOP-led House voted largely along party lines to impeach Clinton on charges that he committed perjury and obstruction of justice while trying to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky, who at the time was a White House intern. Clinton became only the second president, after Andrew Johnson, to be impeached, though after a trial in the Senate, Republicans failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

Then a backbencher on the Judiciary Committee, Nadler helped lead the opposition among Democrats. In speeches on the House floor, during rallies outside the Capitol, and in appearances on cable news, Nadler assailed the Republican effort as akin to a “coup d’état.”

“The Republican leadership of the House,” he inveighed during one speech, “are trying to undo an election of the president of the United States against the will of the American people—something never before attempted in our history.”

As Nadler saw it, committing perjury to cover up a consensual sexual affair might have been a federal crime, but it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, which the Constitution defines as “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” “The Framers of the Constitution didn’t think Congress should be in the position of punishing crimes,” he said at the time, at an anti-impeachment rally in New York. “Impeachment was seen as the defense of the republic and of liberty against a president or other high official who would abuse the powers of his office to make himself a tyrant, to undermine the other branches of government, or to undermine constitutional liberty.”

Clinton’s alleged crime—lying about sex—didn’t come close to meeting that standard, Nadler said. “When the president would misuse his power to become a tyrant, to subvert constitutional liberties, that’s when a president ought to be impeached,” he said at another rally, in front of the Capitol. “But not for this.”

The passage of time and shifting political circumstances have a way of bending even the most hardened, principled positions—nowhere more so than in Congress. Standards are lowered, goalposts moved. But Nadler’s definition of what constitutes an impeachable offense sounds the same now as it did in 1998.

“Impeachment is a very heavy weapon, but it’s a political weapon and understood as such by the Framers of the Constitution,” Nadler told me recently. “Its proper use is to prevent aggrandizement of power, to prevent the destruction of liberty, to prevent the encroachment on congressional power, or on the judicial power, to prevent someone from becoming a tyrant. That’s its proper use.”

The question of how that view applies to the case against Trump is a trickier one for Nadler to answer. The possible crimes Mueller is investigating—whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to influence the 2016 election and whether the president obstructed justice to halt the FBI’s inquiry—are far more serious in his eyes than anything Clinton was accused of. Yet when I asked Nadler during one of two recent interviews whether he had seen evidence that Trump had committed impeachable offenses, the congressman let out a heavy sigh and replied carefully. “I don’t know,” he began. “I haven’t seen any information that is proof positive that he’s committed impeachable offenses. I’ve seen a lot of suggestive things.”

Nor is Nadler willing to commit that even if he does see “proof positive” evidence of impeachable acts—in other words, even if Mueller nails Trump dead to rights—that he’d want to pursue impeachment. While the House can impeach a president with a simple majority vote, the higher bar in the Senate means Democrats would need significant defections from Republicans to remove him from office. Nadler would not rule out an impeachment move even if a conviction in the Senate was unlikely. But, he said, it could not be a completely partisan effort; to move forward, Democrats should be confident that by the end of the process, they could convince at least some of the president’s supporters that impeachment was necessary. Without that support, Nadler told me, the effort would backfire. “You don’t want a situation where for the next 20 or 30 years, half the country is saying, ‘We won the election, you stole it,’” Nadler said. “You don’t want to tear the country apart.”

For now, Nadler is waiting for Mueller to issue a report, and he told me he hopes that by January, the special counsel has provided at least preliminary findings to Congress, if not his final conclusions.

What evidence would Nadler need to see, or what would the president have to do, for him to determine that impeachment was warranted? Here the congressman’s statements became less declarative and more elliptical, peppered with the rhetorical wiggle room that good politicians use to avoid being boxed in. “There are crimes you could commit that would not be impeachable,” Nadler said. “By the same token, there are impeachable offenses which aren’t crimes.”

Still, a couple of lines became clear in our conversations. “If you could prove that the president was personally involved in working with the Russians to influence the elections,” Nadler said, “that would be an impeachable offense. There are a lot of other things that might be.”

Pardons were another example. When I asked if there was a particular action Trump could take as president that Nadler would definitely call impeachable, he relayed a scene from the 1788 convention where Virginia ratified the Constitution. In discussing the unlimited presidential-pardon power, he explained, one delegate asked what would happen if a president engaged in a criminal conspiracy and then pardoned his co-conspirators. Nadler said: “And James Madison answered: ‘Well, that could never happen, because a president who did that would be instantly impeached.’

“They viewed the impeachment power as a limitation on the pardon power,” Nadler continued. “What that also means is if the president pardoned co-conspirators—if we concluded that he was in a conspiracy with various other people and the Russians to use foreign influence on the election, and in order to stop that investigation he issued pardons to his co-conspirators—well that, we are told, is impeachable.”

But then Nadler issued another caveat: “Whether we should impeach is another question.”

In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Donald Trump singled out three politicians for special derision. Two of them, the ex-senator and governor Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and the former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, have long since retired from public life. The third was Jerry Nadler, still relatively unknown outside of his public defense of Clinton, who tried to thwart the expansion of Trump’s real-estate empire in Manhattan.

The two had tangled years earlier over that Trump project in Nadler’s district: an enormous residential development known as Riverside South. At one point, Nadler succeeded in stripping federal dollars away from a key part of a compromise Trump had struck with local officials to get the project built; it had called for moving a portion of Manhattan’s West Side Highway to make room for a waterfront park and create better views for the apartments. Trump once told a reporter that Nadler needed to “lose 200 pounds”; Nadler replied through a spokesman by mocking the bankruptcy of one of Trump’s casinos. (In 2002, Nadler shed more than 60 pounds after undergoing stomach-reduction surgery.)

In his book, Trump called Nadler “one of the most egregious hacks in contemporary politics.” The citation is now a point of pride for Nadler, a bit of trivia he dishes out to constituents and reporters liable to forget his long history with the president.

The two men have only met once since Trump became president, at a meeting of the New York and New Jersey congressional delegations about a year ago to discuss the Gateway Program, a major regional-infrastructure project. The president, Nadler recalled, “showed a little sense of humor. He said, ‘Gee, it’s good to see you, Jerry. I remember when we worked together on the West Side project.’”

Nadler laughed. “Yes, we worked together,” he said. “He was for it. I was against it.”

Nadler is now a far more powerful player in New York politics than he was back then. His district includes the World Trade Center, and after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he and other members of the city’s congressional delegation led the push for federal aid to Lower Manhattan and for health-care protections for first responders sickened by the toxic air around Ground Zero. Outside the door to Nadler’s district office near Greenwich Village is a framed copy of a local newspaper proclaiming him “The Godfather” across its front page—a reference to his clout as a powerbroker in the city, where his former aides and loyal allies now hold office at every level of the government.

His growing influence nationally within the House Democratic caucus became apparent in 2015, when the staunchly pro-Israel congressman, whose district has the largest Jewish population of any seat in Congress, announced his support for former President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement with a statement that stretched to 5,000 words. Schumer had come out in opposition to the deal, and many House Democrats were wavering. Nadler’s backing, said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, “played a significant role in the overwhelming majority of House Democrats ultimately supporting it.” The decision drew Nadler his first serious Democratic primary challenger in years, but he won reelection handily in 2016.

Last December, House Democrats met behind closed doors to decide whether Nadler or Representative Zoe Lofgren of California should succeed Representative John Conyers of Michigan as the party’s ranking member—and possible next chairman—on the Judiciary Committee. (Conyers resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.) Lofgren had long been a leading voice on immigration reform—another major issue in the committee’s jurisdiction—and had served as a staffer on the panel when it considered articles of impeachment against former President Richard Nixon.

Democratic lawmakers told me Nadler did not talk much about the prospect of impeachment during the internal caucus race. But after his allies asked for a message to deliver to undecided colleagues, Nadler’s staff created a pamphlet that referred to him as “the strongest member to lead a potential impeachment.” Nadler also had two years more seniority on the committee than Lofgren; he ultimately won a decisive victory in the caucus vote.

Around the same time, Representative Al Green of Texas forced the first of two votes on the House floor on articles of impeachment he’d introduced against Trump. While the votes were technically procedural in nature—whether to table a debate on the resolution—they offered the first glimpse of the level of support for impeachment within the Democratic caucus. Nadler voted along with most of the party leadership and about two-thirds of the caucus to table a discussion—against impeachment, in effect. But among the 66 House Democrats who voted for a debate in January were some of the biggest supporters of Nadler’s bid to lead the Judiciary Committee, including Representative Maxine Waters of California, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and Jeffries.

Waters, an early and outspoken advocate of impeachment who has become one of Trump’s favorite congressional targets, told me she was “comfortable with [Nadler] and the way he would handle it.”

And though the test votes made clear that plenty of House Democrats believe the case for impeachment has already been made, lawmakers have largely acceded to pleas from the party leadership to focus on other topics during the campaign. “If we take our eyes off the prize in a very fluid political environment, we may not even have the opportunity to govern in the majority,” Jeffries said.

Democrats who have called for impeachment also say they see the wisdom in Nadler’s deliberative, legalistic approach to the fraught topic. “We have to distinguish impeachment as a visceral, emotional response to outrageous conduct from impeachment as the serious constitutional remedy that it is,” said Raskin, who was a constitutional-law professor before entering politics. “Nadler has kept his powder dry all along about impeachment as emotional rhetoric, precisely because he takes the legal process so seriously.”

Nadler hasn’t found much common cause on policy with Republicans over the years; he’s a Democrat more likely to oppose bipartisan bills from the left—as he did, for example, in opposing the Patriot Act in 2001—than to bend far to the middle in search of a deal. But Republicans who have worked closely with Nadler describe him as intellectually honest and one of Congress’s most formidable debaters. “He’s smart, he’s committed, he’s quick on his feet, and of course he’s wrong on most policy issues that I believe in. But I like him,” said Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, a longtime colleague on the Judiciary Committee.

Representative Peter King of New York said Nadler is a liberal partisan who generally fights fair and stays away from “histrionics.” “If there has to be a partisan Democrat conducting any type of emotional investigation, I would trust Jerry,” King, a Republican, told me. “He’s going to be a hard guy to use as a foil.”

Should Democrats control the House come January, Nadler’s biggest challenge may be warding off calls for an immediate impeachment push from the party base—particularly if Mueller implicates the president in wrongdoing but does not present a clear-cut case for his removal from office.

As Nadler sees it, his committee will be busy enough as it is, conducting oversight on topics Republicans have ignored and, in all likelihood, swamping the White House and Cabinet departments with subpoenas. During our interview, he ticked off a dozen different hearings he would hold right off the bat on subjects ranging from the Trump administration’s handling of immigration and border policy, to voter suppression, to threats against freedom of the press, to ongoing Russian interference in elections, to the president’s alleged violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. “All of these are threats,” he told me, “all of these are things we ought to be holding hearings about and maybe fashioning legislative remedies.”

If and when Mueller issues his report—assuming it does not come out in the next several weeks—Nadler would certainly hold hearings. But ambiguity over what would come of those hearings has drawn the ire of activists; they see the congressional Democratic leadership as being overly cautious on the question of impeachment, too buttoned-up to embrace the one remedy that, they argue, was designed by the Framers with this moment in mind. Chief among those critics is Steyer, the California environmentalist who has spent millions building support to oust Trump with television ads and a petition drive through his group, Need to Impeach.

Steyer argues that the Washington Democrats who oppose an impeachment debate are increasingly out of step with the party’s voters. And recent polling seems to back him up. According to the Washington Post/ABC survey, 75 percent of Democrats and nearly half of independent voters don’t need to read the Mueller report before making up their mind. They want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings immediately.

Steyer, a longtime deep-pocketed donor to Democratic candidates and causes, defied requests from party leaders, including Pelosi, not to wage his campaign. “How much more does Congress need to see?” he asks in the most recent ad. “The Washington establishment doesn’t have the courage to act, but the American people do.”

Steyer told me he has only spoken to Nadler once or twice, praising him as a “very smart guy” who has “had a distinguished career.” He quickly added that he’d taken note of Nadler’s vote against debating Green’s impeachment resolution.

It didn’t sound like Steyer viewed him as much of an ally in his fight. When I read to him Nadler’s standard for pursuing impeachment—to prevent the aggrandizement of power, the destruction of liberty, tyranny—Steyer erupted in mock triumph. “So he’s for impeaching the president,” he replied. “Thank you. That’s great! He’s just defined it. Can you fax that to me, Russell, because that’s fantastic.”

“You just defined what the president is doing,” Steyer said.

We were speaking on an afternoon when the walls seemed to be closing in on Trump. The first reports of Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea were coming in. The president seemed newly vulnerable, and Steyer was especially confident. “I’m not trying to be snotty, but I really, really mean this: Events are happening,” he insisted. “Events are happening.”

A couple of hours later, Cohen formally entered his guilty plea and in the process told a federal court in Manhattan that Trump, as a candidate in 2016, had directed him to arrange illegal payments to two women with whom he had had affairs, in violation of federal campaign-finance laws. The president of the United States was now, according to legal experts, an unindicted co-conspirator in a crime.

I wanted to know if this moved the needle for Nadler.

He had told me before the Cohen plea that in the Clinton case, a crime covering up “a private sexual offense” did not constitute an impeachable offense. Trump, too, was trying to cover up a private, consensual affair. But this was worse, Nadler said in a follow-up call: “It’s different than perjury about a private sexual offense because it does involve the integrity of the elections in the United States,” he said.

Trump, he said, “was getting more and more desperate. It seems to be obstruction of justice in plain sight, on an ongoing basis.”

But was it impeachable? The president’s would-be congressional prosecutor still wasn’t ready to say. “That’s a different question,” Nadler replied, circumspect as ever. “And I’m not going to answer that, because I don’t know yet.”

* A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from activist Tom Steyer to Representative Jerry Nadler. We regret the error.