Tom Steyer Takes on Donald Trump and Richard Nixon

A stroll through impeachment history with the long-shot candidate

Jason Henry / The New York Times ​/ Redux

YORBA LINDA, Calif.— What catches Tom Steyer’s eye in the Oval Office are the shelves of carved birds. “Are they wood or porcelain?” he asks. Turns out they’re porcelain. He likes wood ones. Has a bunch at home.

Steyer has never been in the actual Oval Office. We’re in a model, built to scale, in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, to record the latest episode of the Radio Atlantic podcast. He’s never been here before, either. It’s an apt place for him to be on this particular day. Steyer built his national political profile on a quest to impeach Trump: In October 2017, he launched Need to Impeach, a political group that ultimately garnered 8 million supporters before he shifted his focus to running for president—he declared his candidacy in July. Today, as we stroll through the Nixon Library, the House of Representatives is voting to impeach Donald Trump.

In the library is a video display of the farewell address Nixon gave from the East Room of the White House before walking out onto the South Lawn and into the helicopter that carried him away. Steyer starts talking to the TV.

Nixon: “… because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

Steyer: “Baloney, baloney. You self-pitying person.”

Nixon: “And so, we leave with high hopes, in good spirit.”

Steyer: “‘In good spirit’? Then why are you crying? Disingenuous to the last.”

Nixon: “… and with deep humility …”

Steyer: “Nope, not that either.”

Nixon: “… and with very much gratefulness in our hearts.”

Steyer: “Nope. Zero for four.”

At least Nixon let his aides testify, Steyer says, as he looks at the exhibit about the famous 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes. “They didn’t know this existed until they had the hearings.” In the current impeachment process, because Trump has not let his aides testify, “you don’t know” what such testimony would have revealed. “What you know is there is no cooperation.”

“This president has not allowed anyone from his administration, even former members of administration, to testify. In fact, there's been a deliberate attempt to hide the truth,” he said later, adding that some Republican members of the House and Senate have said they’re not interested in a fair process here. “No one said that in 1974. In fact, you know, famously, the Republicans shifted. Now, did they shift because the public shifted? Actually, the public move on [Trump] has been very comparable to what happened in 1974. But the Republican reaction has been completely different.”

In the library, we watch Nixon’s “Checkers” speech from 1952, the first time he really got in trouble for corruption, and the first time he fought back. Steyer says he’s never seen the video of the speech before, but he knows it well enough from reading about it to recite the line about Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican” coat and the “little cocker-spaniel dog.” Was Nixon ever good? I ask him. A whole section of the museum is devoted to his early life—law school, the Navy. No, Steyer says. Look at the red-baiting he did when he first got to Washington. Look at how he prolonged the Vietnam War.

Steyer says that there’s something similarly wrong with the current president’s ethical core. He says there’s an irony to the way Republicans try to defend the president by arguing that he shouldn’t be impeached for just behaving like himself, for being the person people knew they were voting for.

“That’s unconsciously ironic, because obviously it’s extremely corrupt. And that is how he does things. And they’re right [to say that’s how he is]. It’s just not a defense to say, ‘But he's always corrupt. That's how he does stuff.’ It's like, yeah, exactly my point. They agree with me,” he says. “If you’re a criminal, that is how you do business, which is my point. That is exactly what he was doing. This is not a question of him thinking he's going to break the rules. This is not him thinking, I’m going to go ahead and break the rules. This is wrong. This is him thinking, There are no rules. I do what I want.”

The millions Steyer has spent on advertising have boosted him just high enough to participate in the recent Democratic debates. He says his plan is to keep spending in order to keep clearing the thresholds for the next debate. Many Democrats wish he would end his campaign and put his money instead into other causes he’s funded. (They were wishing this even before Mike Bloomberg—who’s worth 50 times as much as Steyer and has already spent more in a month than Steyer has pledged to spend on his entire campaign—got into the race. But Steyer says he needs to stay in the race to keep telling voters the truth; this is, he says, why he got into the race in the first place: “I was worried that no one was leveling with the people in the United States.”

We walk past the statues of Nixon and Mao greeting each other next to Air Force One, and the famous photo of Nixon with Elvis. (“Did you know Elvis was doing drugs in the bathroom right before?” Steyer asks.) Maybe the Nixon Museum shouldn’t even exist, Steyer says.“I don’t look at it as a monument to Nixon’s success—I look at it as a museum to the past.”

High up on the wall of the lobby, in big letters, is a quote from Bill Clinton, from Nixon’s funeral, in 1994—four years before Clinton’s own impeachment, in 1998: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything but his entire life and career come to a close.”

“Okay,” Steyer says. “Not today. Today is the day that Trump is getting impeached. That’s a day of judgment on something specific. President Clinton wasn’t president until 20 years after. Twenty years from now, will I say something different? That’s not what today’s about.”

Steyer probably won’t say something different 20 years from now.

If Steyer is elected, he might find himself in a position to pardon Trump. When I asked him if he would, he declined to answer directly—he doesn’t like hypotheticals, he said.

What about being in the Oval Office? I tried to get him to sit behind the desk in the model, but he wouldn’t. Can he imagine himself sitting in the real one?

“Yes,” Steyer says. “You can’t do it if you can’t imagine it.”