A Conversation With Tom Steyer, the Liberal Billionaire Bankrolling Trump’s Impeachment
For many progressives, it’s obvious that President Trump deserves to be impeached. From his campaign’s collaboration with Russia to his admitted obstruction of justice in firing James Comey to his profiting from the office of the presidency to his ceaseless lying and attacks on the free press – the articles of impeachment almost write themselves.
But top Democrats in Washington see impeachment talk as a headache for the 2018 midterms, where the party’s focus is to persuade independent voters on issues like health care and pocketbook economics. In a recent Rolling Stone profile, House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi argued that the buzz about removing Trump benefits the GOP. That stance puts Pelosi at odds with one of the party’s richest backers, her “friend” and “former neighbor” Tom Steyer. The liberal San Francisco billionaire has invested $40 million in a grassroots campaign to build momentum for impeachment. “I wish he would spend the money pointing out the horror show that the tax bill is,” Pelosi said of Steyer.
Steyer, who made his fortune as a hedge-fund manager, built the Need to Impeach campaign as an offshoot of his group NextGen America, best known for climate advocacy. He says his impeachment initiative is not only essential for protecting the rule of law in America – it can also be a potent electoral force, activating millions of younger voters who usually sit out elections because they’ve lost faith in the Democratic Party.
Need to Impeach has gathered 5.4 million signatures supporting Trump’s ouster – primarily for violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution (by taking business funds from foreign governments) and obstructing justice in the Russia probe, among other offenses.
Rolling Stone reached out to Steyer to talk about the practicality of removing Trump (which would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to be successful), the risks of “normalizing” the president’s behavior, and whether Steyer himself has greater political ambitions.
Why do you think Democrats should embrace impeachment as a campaign issue?
We feel it’s important to stand up for the American democracy. It’s not much more complicated than that. We believe fighting against a reckless and lawless president is not something that will turn off voters. In fact, doing that kind of thing is the way that you build faith and trust. The way we see impeachment is: We are telling the truth about the most important political issue of the day. I know Nancy doesn’t believe that this is a good idea. But we believe what we are doing will inspire people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t, and that’s not just a vague hope. We have 5.4 million people who signed our petition. We communicate with them all the time. Over 60 percent of them don’t vote. They’re registered voters, but they don’t vote.
Do you know why?
They say because our Democratic leaders are not standing for anything. They’ve lost faith and trust in the party. Look at the Women’s March – the largest protest in history. Look at Indivisible. Look at the 2017 elections in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama. People are turning out to protect our democracy. To a very large extent this election will be a referendum on this president, this administration and their policies and behavior.
The concern is: “Are we going to energize Republicans?” – and I think that’s Nancy’s fear. Or are we going to energize Americans and Democrats and independents by doing what’s right?
Young people turn out at half the rate of other American citizens. They tell us every day that the reason they don’t turn out is they don’t believe in the system and they don’t trust the parties. It’s very hard for me to believe – as the father of four millennials – that the way to convince them that we are trustworthy, that we are moral, that we take things seriously and that we have their backs, is by burying the truth.
You feel that taking impeachment off the table is “burying the truth?” Help me understand that.
The first question is: Has this president met the criteria for impeachment? We think it’s unequivocal that he has. You can go on our website and hear a two-hour disquisition by constitutional scholars on that. But I’d just refer you to the fact that his personal company, owned by him, just took a $500 million loan from the Chinese government, which is absolutely forbidden under the Constitution. If you’re looking for a “smoking gun,” that one is belching smoke. He can say, “I didn’t fire Comey over Russia,” but he already said, “I fired him over the Russian thing.” We’re not wondering whether this guy has met the criteria for impeachment. It’s not even close.
And then the question is: Are these important things? Impeachment is a political act. I’m aware of that. For it to happen, this can’t be a partisan thing. We’re not choosing a president. We’re getting rid of a president, and the next president would be a conservative Republican from Indiana. But there’s something else going on here. We’re seeing the president break the law and diminish our democracy on a daily basis. I’m aware that people in the press like to preserve their quote-unquote objectivity. But he is attacking you guys on a daily basis. The whole concept of the free press – objectivity, the ability to report evenly – he attacks that on a daily basis.
In a recent interview you suggested not impeaching Trump is normalizing him. What do you mean?
Once you don’t speak up against lawlessness, lawlessness is permitted. So if you don’t say anything about the president taking a $500 million loan from the Chinese government – now you’re allowed to take $500 million from a foreign government. That’s something that’s specifically prohibited by the Constitution. His family is getting all these [foreign trademarks], and his son-in-law [Jared Kushner] is getting another $500 million loan from the government of Qatar. And you can’t [bring it up] two years later and say, “Now we’re opposed to this.”
It’s like being at a dinner party and somebody makes a racial slur and you speak up and say, “I think that’s really wrong, and you should take that back,” and everyone says, “Ooooh, you’re making a big fuss here.” Like, yeah, we’re making a big fuss – because something is wrong. Everyone’s acting as though it’s somehow impolite to stand up for American democracy.
Speaking to Pelosi, she’s an institutionalist – and seems to believe that checks and balances that are less heroic than impeachment can correct the course.
Can I address that, since you just threw kerosene onto the fire? The normal checks and balances are for the Senate Judiciary and the House Judiciary Committee to investigate the president’s behavior – that is not happening. So you can believe in checks and balances as much as you want, but that is not the real world.
Maybe I wasn’t clear, the idea is that Democrats, returning to power in the House, would have subpoena power. She pointed to how she dealt with George W. Bush – whom many wanted to impeach. She believes the decision to take impeachment off the table helped Democrats take the House in 2006, and paved a path to Obama and a deeper correction.
I remember 2006. What happened is that George W. Bush, he put us in two disastrous wars and we were headed toward the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression. So if the answer is that we need those three things to happen for a course correction, I’d prefer to move a little quicker. How about that? But I take your point. Maybe we can have, like, a nuclear war and then we get a real course correction.
Wow – that’s…sobering.
We’re trying to do what’s right. And 2006/2008 did not happen because George W. Bush didn’t get impeached, is what I’m saying. I should be a little bit more tempered: I take back that remark about nuclear war. The correction happened because the United States got screwed, and American citizens lost their houses and American citizens lost their lives – and, by the way, there was a terrible climate-related crisis, New Orleans, that the president fumbled. So that course correction was based on the suffering of American citizens. We’re trying to act expeditiously to avoid the suffering of American citizens.
OK, so say Democrats recapture the House and tee up the articles of impeachment. To play devil’s advocate – unless you’ve got a huge Senate majority (that Democrats seem very unlikely to enjoy), don’t you risk acquittal? Wouldn’t that “normalize” the things Trump has done even more?
If Republicans never, ever, ever break partisan ranks, regardless of what’s happened, impeachment can’t happen mathematically. I understand that. I’ve always felt that the only thing that would make them break ranks is the American people. Which is why we are not soliciting Nancy Pelosi, not soliciting senators – we’re going to the American people.
There’s two questions here: One is, is it realistic to ask for impeachment? And the second is, is it politically smart—
The question that I’m trying to zero in on is, is it politically possible to achieve a conviction on articles of impeachment?
The answer is: Only if the events make it possible and only if the American people insist on it. If you look at 1974 [when Nixon was forced to resign the presidency], Republicans flipped on the president because he turned out to be a liar – on tape. It was considered totally unacceptable by the American people for the American president to lie deliberately to them.
We’ve moved past that. According to the Washington Post, Trump’s lied more than 3,000 times. So we’ve moved past lying. I would have thought 500 million bucks from a foreign government, but you’re telling me you don’t see that as a smoking gun.
The only way this happens is if the American people insist it happens. And they only insist if there’s a smoking gun that they understand – and refuse to swallow. Some people…there is nothing other than getting indicted by Mr. Mueller that people are going to accept as a smoking gun. I understand it depends on events happening. And I know that unless Republicans decide it’s in their interest to impeach this president, it won’t happen.
There’s a separate question about what’s right – that I feel really strongly about. And there’s a third question about what is politically expedient in 2018. I will apologize for the sports analogy, but I’m with [storied former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden – which is, we play our game. We stand up for our values. We tell what we think is the truth, and that’s what motivates our team to go out and play. And I believe that is actually how elections are won, by talking to people about what they care about and motivating our team.
Are you just talking to people about impeachment?
We are organizing more people in the United States of America to go vote on November 6th than anybody else. And we have not missed Nancy’s point. We will of course be talking to them about how important it is to vote. We are absolutely all in on retaking the House. On health care and jobs and clean air and clean water – we should absolutely be telling the truth about those things. And we should be telling the truth about impeachment as well, because Americans can talk about more than one topic.
What I think has been the problem, is that we need to be close to the American people. I spend my time going around the country to hear what patriots have to say about losing our democracy. Some of our town halls, we get a whole bunch of vets – whether Vietnam Vets or Iraq vets or Afghanistan vets – who come out to say they’re worried about losing our democracy in the country that they fought for.
I’m intrigued with the way that you’re slicing and dicing this 5.4 million person list—
I want to make one last point. I have immense respect for Nancy Pelosi. Nancy has done a fantastic job, worked incredibly hard, is an incredibly brilliant politician. Honestly. She is my congressperson. I have voted for her over and over. We disagree on this. Doesn’t for a second make me not respect Nancy Pelosi – intellectually, personally and morally. I want to be on the record. I love her. For years I’ve said to people, “Which part of Nancy Pelosi do you not like? The brilliant politician or the really kind Italian grandma?” Because I like both of them a lot. But I disagree with her on this.
Last question: Impeachment is on the petition, but are you building toward something else with this enormous list? People have talked about you making a run for office.
The only other thing we’re building for is November 6th, 2018. I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen that day. And neither does Nancy and neither do you. And for sure, neither do the pollsters. I know that Nancy is working her ass off to try and do the right thing. And we are working our asses off to do the right thing. And where it ends up on Election Day, and what the world looks like on the 7th, I really don’t know.
The range of outcomes is extremely broad. Much broader than people really understand. Did I think I would be in this position, talking to a reporter for Rolling Stone about impeachment a year ago? No. Furthest thing from my mind. But the facts changed. We’re dealing with the truth and the facts – and that’s what we’re going to do on November 7th. Trying to figure out how to have the most positive impact. I will say this: We will be working toward justice in America on November 7th, 2018. How? I don’t know. But we will be. Because it won’t be over.
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