The billionaire Tom Steyer spent years as a hedge-fund investor, but for the past decade, he’s devoted his life to activism—first focused on the environment, and since 2017, as the leading promoter of impeaching President Donald Trump. Need to Impeach, the San Francisco–based group he founded, is now the largest organization in politics outside of the Republican and Democratic Parties, with a list of 8 million people who have signed an online petition to impeach the president and have been harnessed to make phone calls, send emails, and show up at events to further the cause.
In the month since the release of the redacted Mueller report, and with the Trump administration refusing to comply with subpoenas, the calls for impeachment are growing. This week, more House Democrats—and, notably, one Republican—publicly announced their openness to impeachment proceedings. Steyer was there first. He is an old friend, donor, and constituent of Nancy Pelosi, but his relationship with the House speaker broke down long ago over this issue: She says she thinks Democrats should focus on government reform and job creation, and has often pointed out that she didn’t impeach George W. Bush over the events leading up to the Iraq War during her first run as speaker.
Steyer has put $80 million of his own money into Need to Impeach, and says he’s ready to do even more (new TV ads began circulating just last week). Need to Impeach reports that roughly 30,000 new people sign the petition on the group’s website every day. Steyer was in Washington, D.C., this week to speak at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference. A few hours after Trump stormed out of an infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and other Democrats, I sat down with Steyer to talk about where he believes the impeachment fight stands. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: You’ve been organizing and advertising around impeachment for a year and a half. The issue reached more of a turning point this week among House Democrats, but Pelosi doesn’t seem to be budging.
Steyer: We have won the argument. Period. It’s impossible to ignore. We said for a year and a half that he obstructed justice and that he’s corrupt. It turns out that he obstructed justice and that he’s corrupt. And we’ve said that it’s urgent to get him out because his behavior will deteriorate, and if you normalize this behavior—corruption and a complete absence of oversight—you have made him a king, and you’ve made every president a king from here on out. If you do nothing, you’re actually not doing nothing. You’re setting the precedent.
Dovere: The logical breakdown here seems to be how Democrats argue that Trump is unfit for the presidency and is violating the Constitution, but also that he should not be impeached. What do you make of that?
Steyer: To me, there’s a deep question here. This is a crisis. We have a lawless president who is—and I hope you quote me—spitting on the Constitution and the U.S. Congress. And the question is, Are you going to do anything about it? That’s the only question. There’s no question about what he’s doing. We said it a year and a half ago. We won the argument.
Dovere: If Democrats go ahead with impeachment and the end result is that Trump is reelected in 2020, wouldn’t that be the worst outcome for you?
Steyer: That’s not a fair question. How did that work? What happened to make that happen? You can’t say, “Tell me what happens—it’s 2020 and a meteor has hit Earth.” How did that happen?
Dovere: The argument is that Democrats will get consumed by talking about Trump, and it would drown out talk about health care, jobs, and other policies.
Steyer: One of the things we’ve been saying is, “Just do it.” Get it over with this year, and you have all next year to talk about health care and all that stuff.
Dovere: The argument coming out of the Democratic leadership in the House is that they won the majority by not talking about Trump, and instead talking about health care and all those other issues.
Steyer: People have got to stop saying that, because it’s not true. In 2018, everyone says it was about health care. The reason people turned out is he tried to take away health care. It was about him. He was one vote away in the Senate from repealing the Affordable Care Act. Really, we didn’t talk about health care in 2014? Oh, I guess we didn’t talk about education in 2014. Maybe we didn’t talk about abortion rights in 2014? No. The fact was, there was a president who was threatening every single one of those things. If abortion is a big issue in 2020, which I expect it will be, is it because women all of a sudden decided, “We need control of our own bodies”? Or was it because someone’s trying to take it away? So what is this nonsense, it wasn’t about Trump?
Dovere: Another argument is that it would mean two years of Washington freezing on anything else, with the president—as he did this week—refusing to even talk with Democrats if they keep investigating him.
Steyer: I don’t think people in Washington see this the way I see this. You guys think this is about this parochial, partisan issue, about a president whose policies we don’t like. That’s not true. This is a fundamental attack on the United States, which, if we actually solve, will be the first step to repairing this country. Because this country is deeply divided, and we can’t seem to do anything, and this town has system failure. We’re not doing anything on immigration or gun violence or health care or climate—you name the major topic that Americans say is their No. 1 priority. There’s a deep threat to the United States of America that if we come together and solve, it’ll be the first step to solving health care. It’ll be the first step to dealing with gun violence.
It’s not about just Trump. Look, there’s something wrong here. The political system seems unable to address a very obvious attack on itself.
What we’re saying is, if in fact we can come together and do a simple thing and recognize that a deeply corrupt president should be thrown out of office—and replaced with a Republican—then we’ve taken the first step toward the idea that we actually have a government that can function.
Dovere: Have you actually read the Mueller report yourself?
Steyer: I read it. For just this reason, because I knew I’d be asked—I sat down the weekend it came out. Easter weekend. I sat there in a hotel room and read it for a day. My father was a lawyer. It reminded me of my father very, very much.
Dovere: You have helped make the idea of impeachment mainstream. But do you think you’ve done anything to move the process forward in Washington?
Steyer: [House Ways and Means Chairman] Richard Neal was taking forever to ask for Trump’s tax returns. I think we sent him 96,000 emails. We were in his district going door-to-door. We had billboards. Did he know that? We know he knew it because his office called us, saying, “Look, we understand your point. Here’s what we’re going to do.” He wasn’t responding to us. He was responding to his constituents.
Dovere: After laying the groundwork for a presidential run of your own, you announced in January you wouldn’t run. Do you ever regret not being in the race?
Steyer: I said at the time I think [Need to Impeach] is the most consequential thing I can do. We’ll see. This is a fast-moving thing. Stuff happened today. Stuff happened yesterday. Stuff happened the day before.
Dovere: Is that just the usual political answer—not quite closing the door, but not really being serious about running?
Steyer: I don’t know the difference between those two things.
Dovere: How quickly does impeachment need to happen?
Steyer: I think fast. I can’t imagine this happening next year—it’s an election year. Because you’re asking the Republicans to shoot their candidate when they’re not going to have another candidate. This is a chance for them to restore themselves, for them to restore their integrity.
Dovere: But you know that the conventional-wisdom political calculation is that Republicans would almost certainly get destroyed in next year’s elections if Trump was impeached.
Steyer: They have a problem in that they have a deeply corrupt, antidemocratic president who should get thrown out on his ass. Yeah, that’s a problem. I can’t make that go away.
Dovere: You’re an old friend and donor of Nancy Pelosi. What would happen if you picked up your phone right now and called her?
Steyer: She wouldn’t answer. That’s easy. Come on. Give me a tough one. Please.