Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is about to do something wholly out of character: pay the Trump administration a compliment, sort of. It’s a late morning at the end of March, and Nadler is sipping Diet Coke from a paper cup in his spacious office in Washington, D.C., slouched so deeply into his chair that he seems to be submerging into the books and manila folders stacked atop his desk.
“It’s a very intelligent press strategy,” he says, jabbing a finger onto his desk, where a pocket-size copy of the Constitution peeks out of his business-card holder. He’s talking about Attorney General William Barr’s March 24th letter outlining the “principal conclusions” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr’s letter claimed that not only did Mueller find no evidence of conspiracy by the Trump campaign, but in Barr’s view, Trump also did not obstruct justice — in part because there was no underlying crime to cover up.
“What that letter is is a press release,” Nadler tells me in his thick Brooklyn accent. “It’s the only thing out there for a few days or weeks or whatever, and the president can claim vindication, when the report may be very different, for all we know.”
Nadler, who stands five feet four and prefers sweater vests and impossibly high-waisted trousers, could reasonably pass for a judge or a law professor, and the ease with which he dismantles Barr’s no-obstruction argument suggests he missed his true calling in the courtroom. “For example — and just to be very obvious about it — I am suspected of committing the crime of bank robbery,” he tells me. “I know I didn’t do it. But I decide, in order to avoid being convicted for this crime I never committed, to perjure myself in front of the grand jury, bribe witnesses, et cetera. I’ve committed crimes even though there’s no underlying crime.” Barr’s reasoning, he says, “is just wrong.”
Seeing Barr cover for the president has only deepened Nadler’s resolve that he and his committee must get their hands on the full Mueller report — without redactions — and share as much of it with the public as they can. (On Tuesday, Barr promised a redacted version would be released within the week.) “The whole point of the special counsel is to take this away from politics so that the public can depend on an independent assessment,” Nadler says. “And what did we get? A political guy doing the president’s job.”
Since retaking the majority, House Democrats have opened numerous fronts in their campaign to hold Trump accountable. The Ways and Means Committee has formally requested six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; Deutsche Bank, the president’s lender of choice, is cooperating with an inquiry by the Financial Services Committee; the Intelligence Committee has reopened its investigation into Russian interference in the election; and the Oversight Committee is probing the White House’s security-clearance process and whether Trump scuttled the FBI’s plan to move out of its headquarters across the street from his D.C. hotel (ostensibly to prevent a rival hotel from taking the space).
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler has a front-row seat to what he describes as the “borderline criminal and certainly anti-democratic” actions of the president. More than that, he is the lawmaker with the most power to check Trump’s lawlessness. The Judiciary Committee’s mandate, Nadler says, is safeguarding the norms and laws of this country; his portfolio of issues includes immigration, civil rights, criminal justice and much more. His committee also oversees the Justice Department, which means that if the complete Mueller report ever sees the light of day, it will be because of Nadler. He can subpoena documents, force government officials to testify before him (Mueller and Barr, for example) and drag the White House into court if necessary. And if Mueller’s report — or some other revelation involving Trump’s conduct — reveals clear evidence of impeachable offenses, it will be Nadler and his Judiciary Committee that introduce articles of impeachment.
Nadler likes to say he got into politics to “be a part of something big.” He got his wish, and now finds himself in the middle of countervailing forces. To his right is a Republican Party that is subservient to Trump and will do anything it can to shield him from scrutiny. To his left, a liberal base that believes Trump should have been impeached already. Earlier this year, California billionaire Tom Steyer held a town hall in Nadler’s district — which covers a large swath of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn — and spent $200,000 on ads meant to urge Nadler’s constituents to put pressure on him to impeach Trump. There’s been talk of a primary challenging Nadler, who turns 72 in June, as he seeks a 15th full term in Congress next year.
Nadler won’t rule out impeaching Trump, but says it remains a far-off possibility. He’s yet to see compelling enough evidence, and he witnessed firsthand the Clinton impeachment debacle. “Impeachment cannot be seen to be partisan,” he says. “You don’t want to tear your country apart. You don’t want half the country to be saying for the next 30 years, ‘We won the election, you stole it.’ ” But if anyone is suited for the role of guiding Democrats through this moment, it’s Nadler. He can quote by memory from the Federalist Papers or the Constitutional Convention. And he’s no stranger to Trump and his tactics; they clashed repeatedly during Nadler’s four decades in New York politics, and he was an early recipient of one of Trump’s belittling nicknames: “Fat Jerry.”
Nadler brushes off Trump’s insults. “Our job is to protect the rule of law, to protect the Constitution, to protect the process,” he says. “If the president wants to call me names, fine. I don’t care.” Steve Israel, the former New York congressman, says, “Trump is a Twitter brawler. Nadler is an intellectual brawler. If this is a battle of wits and intellect, Jerry wins.”
IN THE mid-1980s, Trump was working on a massive new commercial and residential project along the West Side of Manhattan. One day he summoned Nadler — then a state assemblyman representing the district where Trump wanted to build — to show off plans for the development. The two men were born a year apart, both in New York City, but they couldn’t have been more different. While Nadler spent his early years on a chicken farm in New Jersey, raised in a religious Jewish household, Trump lived a life of privilege as the son of a wealthy real-estate developer. Nadler arrived at Trump Tower to find the model of what Trump was calling Television City; it was set to house NBC and other studios. At the center of it was a 150-story building that, if completed, would be the tallest in America.
To Nadler, the centerpiece of Trump’s new project looked like “a huge phallic symbol,” but he kept that to himself. He asked Trump, “What’s the highest people live in New York?”
“Sixty-eight stories, at Trump Tower, and I live on the 68th floor,” he recalls Trump saying.
“And I suppose you’ll live on the 150th floor here?” Nadler said.
Yes, Trump replied. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s what this is about,’ ” Nadler says today. “ ‘He wants to be the tallest man in the world.’ ”
Nadler fiercely opposed Trump’s project because it would build over an old rail terminal he believed was vital to New York’s manufacturing sector, and he continued to fight Trump on a host of issues over the ensuing 30 years. “Everybody who worked for him — architects, engineers, lawyers — they all ended up hating him,” Nadler says. “You couldn’t trust him.”
Trump once called Nadler “one of the most egregious hacks in contemporary politics,” and recently told reporters that Nadler “has been fighting me for half of my life.”
Nadler first got into New York politics with a group of friends known as “the kids” or “those damn kids,” depending on the speaker. They came of age protesting the Vietnam War and working on Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. When they turned 21, Nadler says, seven of them ran for district-leader seats around Manhattan — and all seven won. “We had a healthy skepticism of all local politicians, including the most progressive ones,” he says.
He came to Congress in 1992, and has carved out a reputation as a liberal stalwart with votes against Bill Clinton’s three-strikes crime bill, the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. He clashed with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the decision to allow New Yorkers to return to Lower Manhattan days after the September 11th attacks despite potential health problems due to air quality. “I get sick today when I hear Giuliani referred to as America’s mayor,” Nadler says. “He ought to be indicted for what he did.” (Giuliani says Nadler misremembers what happened and that Nadler’s accusation “indicates how his partisan emotion has run away with him.”)
Nadler had set his sights on the Judiciary chairmanship almost from the day he arrived in Washington, seeing his mix of nerdiness and political savvy — the “duality of Mr. Nadler,” as his closest aides put it — as ideal for the role. He did stints on all of the Judiciary subcommittees, mastering the different issues, winning new friends and doling out favors. “Legislating is a peculiar business,” says Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman who served on Judiciary with Nadler. “You’re working with a lot of strong-willed people. It requires you to understand how to take your strong convictions and get other people to be supportive of them, and he’s very good at that.”
By the time he took the chairmanship in January, Nadler had seen enough to believe Trump poses a greater threat to the rule of law than any president since the Civil War — a belief cemented when Trump fired then-AG Jeff Sessions for “disloyalty” the day after the midterms. “The future of constitutional government is at stake,” Nadler said during a CNN appearance. “We must go a long way to make sure that the president is a president, not a king.”
WHEN I first visit the offices of the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic staff in late March, the pace is frenetic. Within weeks of taking over, Democrats had interrogated Matthew Whitaker, the hapless acting attorney general who stepped in after Sessions. In early March, the Judiciary Committee sent out extensive document requests to 81 people and organizations in Trump’s orbit, from Donald Trump Jr. to Steve Bannon to Cambridge Analytica.
The next time I see Nadler, he’s presiding over a contentious hearing about whether to authorize a subpoena for the complete, unredacted Mueller report and all supporting evidence. Barr had suggested in yet another letter to Congress that there would be substantial redactions in whatever version of the report he handed over. Now, Nadler was ratcheting up the pressure on the Justice Department by teeing up subpoenas and a possible court battle. “They’re going to try to hide the report as much as possible,” he tells me. “They’re going to claim executive privilege, and we’ll have to challenge all that. And we’ll win eventually. We’ll get it all out.”
At a members-only briefing the day before, Nadler had urged his fellow Democrats not to engage with their Republican counterparts on the committee, who would undoubtedly use any rhetorical ploy they could to grind the proceedings to a halt or turn it into a partisan circus. Right on cue, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) accused Nadler of hypocrisy for his late-Nineties defense of Bill Clinton. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most bombastic defenders in Congress, called the subpoenas “the death rattle of the Democrats’ Russia collusion lie.” But the Democrats didn’t take the bait, and the committee voted along party lines to approve the subpoenas.
From there, Nadler hustled back to his office to be briefed about a crucial upcoming vote to renew the landmark Violence Against Women Act, a law that also falls in his jurisdiction. The NRA had launched a furious last-ditch effort to defeat the bill, and Nadler would spend most of that afternoon and evening on the House floor making sure it passed. “The Judiciary Committee jurisdiction is so wide,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who serves on the committee and co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We’ve got criminal justice, immigration, antitrust. He’s got to be a smart and nimble tactician, seeing the work of the committee on multiple levels. Jerry is pretty uniquely positioned to do that.”
Looming over all of this is the specter of impeachment. Sitting in his office one day, I ask Nadler what it would take for him to consider impeachment against Trump. He describes a three-part test. The first was that impeachable offenses — high crimes and misdemeanors — could be proved. That could include obstruction, he says, if that obstruction amounted to a gross misuse of presidential power that threatened the separation of powers, the functioning of government or the liberties of an individual. The second was that the impeachable acts were “serious.” Bill Clinton’s lies under oath about a sexual affair amounted to perjury but did not rise to that level, he says. Richard Nixon lying on his taxes was a crime but not an impeachable offense. “You’re not going to put the country through impeachment even if the president’s done a number of things that are in fact impeachable offenses if they’re not that important,” he says. “You gotta have a rule of reason; it’s gotta be real.”
And the third thing is that impeachment can’t be seen as purely partisan. “You shouldn’t do it,” he says, “unless you think that you have such strong proof of such terrible deeds that when they’re laid out in public to the American people, an appreciable fraction of the opposition voters will admit, ‘They had to do it.’
“Richard Nixon, for everything you could say about him, was not ignorant,” Nadler continues. “He knew what he was doing. With this president, how much is contempt and how much is ignorance, I don’t know, but he is vastly ignorant. We’ve never seen this before. My role as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee is to try to ensure that when this is all over, we have as robust a democratic system as we did before. Everything flows from that.”