The Strange Life of a Congressional Trump Basher, After Trump

Representative Eric Swalwell built a public profile criticizing the ex-president. He’s still figuring out what’s next.

A black-and-white photo of Representative Eric Swalwell of California
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Eric Swalwell is going through some stuff. A lot of people are—and not just those who, like him, have grown a scraggly pandemic beard under their mask. Like many members of Congress, Swalwell is still working through the anger and trauma caused by the attack on the Capitol. Like so many Americans, he’s learning to live in a post-Trump United States, a post-Trump politics. He’s still trying to find his footing. At work, he looks around and doesn’t know how to talk to some of his colleagues—like today, in a tunnel in the Capitol basement, when he passes a white guy with gray hair and an official member-of-Congress pin on his lapel.

“Hi,” the man says. Swalwell says “Hi” back before he catches himself, wondering if he might have just accidentally greeted one of his Republican colleagues who voted in January to overturn the election. It’s hard to tell with the face masks. It’s hard to keep track of which gray-haired white guys were insurrection-curious and which weren’t. “I don’t have the list fully memorized,” Swalwell jokes, bitterly. His staff has an informal rule against interacting with the office of any member who voted to overturn the election, even on basic congressional tasks such as signing on to group letters.

Democrats haven’t put a lot of effort into rebuilding relations with the Trumpiest parts of the congressional GOP. Where would they start? Swalwell was one of the impeachment managers—essentially prosecutors—who made an intense, emotional case for Republican senators to convict Donald Trump for his role in inciting the violence at the Capitol. Since December, Republicans have been attacking Swalwell over reports that a Chinese spy fundraised for his 2014 campaign. (Swalwell later learned that the FBI suspected the woman, and cut off contact with her.) Two weeks ago, nearly every House Republican backed a resolution from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to remove Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee. Swalwell claims, in a roundabout way, that he’s flattered that he matters so much to them. “They just bounce from grievance to grievance, cultural issue to cultural issue,” he told me. “I guess I’m probably somewhere between Dr. Seuss and, next week, ‘Why did they cancel Dunkaroos?’”

For years, Swalwell was an ambitious young man in a hurry. After breaking both of his thumbs, he transferred from the college where he had won a soccer scholarship to a better one. He got the local city council to create a student-liaison position, which he then filled as a senior. After law school, he headed home to California, where he worked as a prosecutor for a few years until he beat a 20-term incumbent in a congressional primary in 2012, at the age of 31. Two years after he arrived in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked him to head the Future Forum, a group for young members of Congress, and at the end of 2016 he was named to a minor role in Democratic leadership. By then, Trump had won the presidency, and Swalwell became a cable-news fixture, popping up to take shots at him. In 2019, Swalwell convinced himself that Americans wanted him to run for president, then pulled the plug on his campaign after 11 weeks. He filled his spare time by writing a book, and getting agitated and despondent about the news. Two weeks after the election, he turned 40.

Then the rioters arrived with their zip ties and fake-fur Viking helmets, and he wondered for a moment if he would see his wife and children again. Two weeks later, Swalwell was standing at Joe Biden’s inauguration, freshly picked by Pelosi to serve as an impeachment manager, speculating to me about what the chances of a conviction might be. Two weeks after that, he was staring right at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as he laid out his part of the impeachment case, processing his own trauma all the while. He spent weeks second-guessing his decision to leave the House floor when the rioters poured into the Capitol, feeling guilty for what seemed to him like a surrender. His first instinct when he heard the mob had been to seek advice from his friend Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, an Iraq War veteran who was showing members how to put on a gas mask. Gallego told Swalwell to grab a ballpoint pen to use as a weapon if necessary.

Now he’s a relatively young man in an institution built of marble and gerontocracy. He’s a five-term congressman in a safe district, but he has no clear path to higher office in California, and probably at least 15 years to wait until he has enough seniority to chair a committee and wield real power.

Swalwell is trying to adjust—not just to life after Trump, but to no longer being the fresh new face, to transitioning from mentee to mentor, to accepting a new rhythm in his personal and political life, to being what he likes to call “the oldest of the youngest.”

“My first couple years, you’re constantly wondering, Do I belong here?” he said. “For the senior members, a lot of times, you’re just the IT help desk—‘Hey, can you help me get on Instagram? Can you help me turn my phone off in this committee hearing?’ We turned a lot of phones off in our first couple years.”

In his early days on the Intelligence Committee, Swalwell often felt like the CIA briefers mistook him for an intern. Now he’s sitting in a 100-year-old black-leather armchair that he proudly snagged from congressional furniture storage—along with a matching one I’m sitting in on the other side of the room—to decorate the new office he recently received as a perk of his seniority. He’s talking about growing up in Congress, figuring out that there’s value in experience. “It’s maturity, and learning,” he says.

Swalwell isn’t under the illusion that politics is returning to the Eisenhower era. This is the first time since he won office that the White House, Senate, and House are all in Democratic hands. But that hasn’t cured his anxiety—the margins are so close that it’s like “we sunk a three at the buzzer and we’re in overtime,” he says. He wants to be part of the rebuilding of America and back up Biden, but he doesn’t quite know how. He’s been thinking that he should do something about white supremacy, but he doesn’t quite know what. He’s ready to come down from the high of prosecuting an impeachment on national television, to move on from feeling a little envious of how much more coverage his fellow impeachment managers were getting, and to settle in for the long haul.

At least that’s what he’s trying to get himself to believe.

“I’m 40,” he said. “I don’t feel [the] pressures of having to make big career decisions. I don’t.”

The group of House members Swalwell arrived with in 2012 hasn’t done a lot of sitting back and waiting. Of those sworn in alongside Swalwell, there are now five senators, two governors, one lieutenant governor, one former White House chief of staff, five former Senate candidates, three other former presidential candidates, the current and previous chairs of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, two former vice chairs of the Democratic National Committee, and one member, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, seen by many as the likely next speaker of the House. About 30 minutes after our interview, Swalwell called me to point this out.

Swalwell’s first cable-news appearance as a congressman came five days into his term, right into the fire with Sean Hannity, who used the segment to complain to Swalwell that reporters had publicized that the Fox News host had a gun license. (This was January 2013, a few weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre, when even Hannity was feeling a little anxious about being connected with gun rights.) Swalwell’s fellow panelist that night was the Republican Tom Cotton, then a representative from Arkansas and now a U.S. senator, who made a virtual appearance in New Hampshire the weekend after Biden’s inauguration, ramping up for a presidential run that is about as much of a secret as Garfield liking lasagna is.

The Capitol complex is simultaneously a bunch of office buildings full of people doing their jobs and a hive of political mini-celebrities. In just the walk from Swalwell’s office to the House floor and back as he cast a few votes, McCarthy walked by twice, side-eyeing him (the second time he removed his mask, under the presumption that no one was watching), and Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota saw Swalwell and joked, “Are you off yet?,” in reference to McCarthy’s failed resolution to boot him from the Intelligence Committee. Omar has been teasing Swalwell that Pelosi should announce that if Republicans remove Swalwell from the committee, Democrats will replace him with Omar. Putting a Black Muslim woman on the committee would really bother them, she jokes. Heading back into the Cannon Office Building, we saw Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, the youngest congressperson ever elected. On the day of the riot, Swalwell helped Cawthorn move his wheelchair down a ramp while they were being evacuated. Two and a half months later, with me, Swalwell stepped aside to let Cawthorn pass at a security checkpoint. Both kept their hellos to silent nods.

Swalwell makes a point of calling newer, younger members to offer tips: how to navigate having a personal life while in office; how to find a good apartment in D.C.; how to avoid getting caught leaving town by not walking down the Capitol’s outside steps after the last votes before the weekend. I ask him what his advice is about looking across the aisle to people he believes either encouraged or accepted domestic terrorism. “I don’t want to look at them,” he says. Other Democrats have described a similar conundrum: not knowing what to do with how disgusted and distraught they feel about the people serving alongside them. Swalwell mentions a video that Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado—his new, QAnon-friendly colleague who is eagerly striving to be an internet sensation—posted two days before the attack on the Capitol, making a big show of how she carries a gun on her hip and “will carry my Glock to Congress.” Swalwell gives the half-chortle of snarky disbelief that has become the most consistent sound Democrats make when talking about Republicans. “Well, when the mob came, she was nowhere to be found with her gun,” he says. “When it was real, she was pretty useless.”

Serving in Congress is about finding a niche to turn into a brand, and Swalwell’s hunt for a new niche led him to talking about tackling white supremacy. But even a little seniority doesn’t lay out an obvious path for how to turn aspiration into action. I ask if anything on the topic is coming up in one of his committees. Not really, his staff says. Swalwell tells me that he wants to start by making sure the new attorney general has more funding for investigations into white-supremacist groups, and that he wants to figure out, “community by community,” how to provide “resources to educate people about inclusiveness.” He has the same problem America has right now, the same issue everyone in Congress has: The problem is obvious, but what to do about it is not. Congress could hold some kind of hearings, Swalwell says: “There’s not a bill that can fix every problem, but this is a forum that can bring awareness to almost every problem.”

“Bring awareness” might seem like the goal of the lawsuit Swalwell filed in early March against Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama, seeking to hold them responsible in civil court for inciting some of the rioters. Swalwell insists that he’s up to something bigger, though. He says the lawsuit came from casting around for ideas of how to keep the fight against Trump going, then fortuitously connecting with lawyers who were having similar thoughts. “It is definitely more than a press release,” Swalwell’s attorney Phil Andonian told me. He compared it to the civil suit brought against O. J. Simpson after his criminal acquittal, though I noted that the plaintiffs never received anything close to the $33.5 million Simpson was ordered to pay. “Is this going to be the thing that breaks Donald Trump, finally, once and for all? Who knows,” Andonian said. “I guess I hope so to some degree. But we are hopeful about getting some kind of judgment or proclamation in a court of law.” Attorneys for the Trumps are trying to get the suit dismissed (liberal legal scholars believe that it will survive those challenges). If it moves forward, lawyers could be in the discovery phase, with access to internal communications and records, by the fall. It’s not a stunt to stay relevant, Swalwell says: “I don’t like to lose. And I wouldn’t intentionally do something to lose.”

Swalwell’s parents are lifelong Republicans. His brothers are Republicans too. When he started going on Fox News, part of the draw was that his family would see him. One of his aides has a theory, Swalwell says, that one reason Republicans go after him is they feel that he should be one of their own. When he was first running for Congress, he was seen as more of a centrist, and he dispatched his father to knock on Republican doors to vouch for him. Then came Trump, and Swalwell was tagged as more of a liberal. His parents kept voting for him, but they both voted for Trump in 2016 too.

Swalwell’s father told him that he didn’t vote for Trump in 2020. Although Swalwell isn’t sure he believes him, he’s decided it’s better for family peace not to push. He’s more confident that his mother has gotten off the Trump train. “Once the president sent a mob to kill her son and his colleagues, that might have been the impetus for her,” he jokes.

Some of the members of Congress whose time in Washington is measured in decades believe that the new progressives will settle down once they’ve been in office for a while. That, in so many words, is what Swalwell says he wants to do. He chuckles when I point this out to him, and says he has faith in the younger generation not to fade.“I ran on ‘New energy, new ideas’—that was our slogan,” he says. “To anyone who’s nervous about it, this place needs an injection like that.”

The career that Swalwell says he’s ready to settle in for, seems like that of Adam Schiff, his fellow congressman from California, who was also smarter and better on TV than most of his colleagues. Schiff was Swalwell’s age when he was first elected to Congress, in 2000, and he had to wait 18 years before he became Intelligence Committee chairman and had any real power on the Hill. After all that, I point out, Schiff spent the past few months trying to get himself appointed California attorney general—and it didn’t work.

Swalwell does his proper deferential duty and says he’d be honored to have a career like Schiff’s. He adds that 200 years from now, Americans will be studying what Schiff said as an impeachment manager in Trump’s first trial, last year. We’re standing in Swalwell’s office, where one of the walls features a John F. Kennedy quote: “The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.”

“The curtains have dropped on Act I,” Swalwell says. “I’m excited for Act II.”

That’s the kind of thing, though, that a politician says when he still isn’t sure what Act II is going to bring.