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Tom Steyer Opens Up About His Would-Be Assassin, the Midterms, His 2020 Plans and More

A conversation with the billionaire Democratic donor still leading the independent charge for Trump’s impeachment

Tom Steyer stands behind the stage before entering to speak at a news conference in Washington, Jan. 8, 2018

Tom Steyer stands behind the stage before entering to speak at a news conference in Washington, Jan. 8, 2018. Steyer announced he will spend $30 million to get young voters to the polls in this year's midterm elections.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/Shutterstock

Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire who has gotten more than 6 million Americans to sign a petition calling for the impeachment of President Trump, was a target of the alleged MAGABomber, Cesar Sayoc. Last Friday, postal authorities intercepted an improvised explosive device mailed to Steyer, similar to those sent to more than a dozen prominent Trump critics.

Far from taking the presidential high road, Trump blasted Steyer on Twitter on Sunday after seeing the Democrat interviewed on CNN. “He comes off as a crazed & stumbling lunatic,” Trump tweeted, “who should be running out of money pretty soon.”

Steyer has also been attacked by the increasingly Trumpy GOP establishment. House leader Kevin McCarthy targeted Steyer among a trio of center-left billionaires with Jewish heritage. In a dog-whistling tweet pinned to the top of his feed, McCarthy wrote: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” McCarthy posted the tweet after Soros received a mail bomb. He deleted it 17 hours later.

Rolling Stone reached out to Steyer earlier this week to ask him about being targeted for violence. We also spoke to him about his work to shape the outcome of the 2018 election through massive grassroots organizing efforts. And we pressed him on his presidential ambitions, which Trump also highlighted: “As bad as their field is,” Trump wrote, “if he is running for President, the Dems will eat him alive!”

Why do you think you were a bomb target?
We are running the largest grassroots organization in the United States. We did manage to get 6.1-plus-million people to sign a petition to impeach the president that apparently this guy idolizes [Laughs.] So I think we’re a natural target.

Do you think the president’s rhetoric plays a role in activating guys like Sayoc?
It’s part of it, obviously. He’s been very inflammatory in his rhetoric. Very irresponsible. He has been stirring up people’s emotions. But I think it’s much more than that. He’s lawless. He regularly — literally daily — breaks the laws of the United States and goes against the Constitution. And if you look broadly at the behavior of the Republican party, there’s a win-at-all-costs lawlessness to their behavior that gives implicit license to other people to behave the same.

Trump came after you this weekend, Tweeting that you come off as “a crazed & stumbling lunatic who should be running out of money pretty soon.”
Whenever he insults someone, he’s always talking about himself. Literally. Go back and look at all of his insults. Every single one applies to him.

Is getting under the president’s skin good for your mission?
Of course. He said that because I was telling the truth about him on CNN. It was a specific response to my calling him out. Look, it’s shockingly irresponsible that this president sees this spate of political violence not as something important — not as something where he has an obligation to speak to the American people about ending bigotry, and prejudice and violence — but instead he’s trying to figure out what the right political response is. And going after people on the other side. I just think that’s sad! That shows a mindset that does not include his most important responsibility, which is keeping Americans safe. If you look at times when Americans have been attacked while he’s been president, his response has been to go absent without leave.

You also got hit by House majority leader McCarthy, who tweeted, then deleted, a message saying you and George Soros and Michael Bloomberg are trying to buy the election. Do you see anti-Semitism in that?
It’s inherently anti-Semitic. He recognized it because he took it down. If he weren’t ashamed of it, he would have left it up.

Tell me about your religious upbringing. I know your father was Jewish. Are you?
My father was Jewish. My mom was Episcopalian. I was pretty unreligious until I had kids and I started to go to church just to introduce them to the idea of the almighty. And the person who was the most affected by it was me. I feel very lucky to have God in my life. But I would never walk away from my Jewish identity. I view myself as a mutt and I think that’s very American.

I just learned your father was a Nuremberg prosecutor — which sort of blew my mind. Did you ever have any conversations with him about confronting Nazis?
I had a conversation with him when Albert Speer came out of Spandau prison [in 1966.] Albert Speer ran the war machine for Hitler. He was an architecture student — much more high-class than most of the Nazis. And when he came out he wrote a book, Inside the Third Reich. He got a lot of public acclaim for being quote-unquote “the good Nazi.” So I said to my father, “Did you interview Albert Speer?” And he said, “Yeah, I interviewed all the top guys, multiple times. Albert Speer had 12 million slaves working for him in munitions factories. There’s no such thing as a good Nazi.”

Does that history of confronting totalitarianism inform what you’re doing?
To some extent, but I see it as just  American. There’s been injustice from the very beginning of America. Slavery’s in the constitution. But Americans also push back against injustice. And I want to be part of that tradition.

How far does that go — Trump also tweeted about your presidential ambitions. The president seems to think you’re running.
[Laughs.]

Do you have an update to the answer you gave me a few months ago?
I don’t. I said wait until after November 6, and let’s see what happens.

Do you have the temperament to be president?
I have no idea what that means.

Well it means that, in your relationship with party leaders, you’re not exactly playing nice with others. The Atlantic wrote a recent profile of you — there was talk about you banging on tables. And high staff turnover. I’m curious how you see yourself. Are you cut from presidential timber?
I don’t know. I have no answer to your question, but I do have this: I think of myself as a very easy-going person. The only time that changes is when I’m confronted with what I think of as injustice. Then I’m not so easy-going.

We’re running an impeachment petition because we think it’s important to tell the truth and to stand up for the the American people and the Constitution. And everyone explains to us that it’s not politically smart. But what that means is that they’re not telling the truth and they’re not standing for the American people and the Constitution.

You’re using the impeachment petition to mobilize many younger and low-propensity voters. You’ve got 6 million petition signers?
I believe it’s somewhere close to 6,143,000, but who’s counting?

That’s bigger than the NRA, isn’t it?
I never chose the NRA as my measuring stick, but I’ve heard that. If you look at the poll numbers, you’ll see that almost 80 percent of Democrats are with us [on impeachment]. And more Americans agree with us than disagree with us. We’re not pushing something that’s some fringe idea in the United States. Six million is many more than we ever expected. What we’re pushing for is a president who obeys the law and puts the American people first. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.

You guys slice and dice the demographics. How do you think this group is likely to play in the midterms?
Thirty-eight percent of them voted in past midterm elections. And we’ve set a goal to double that. And in the special elections they voted at about 80 percent.

So you took 38-percent voters and turned them into 80-percent voters?
This is a heightened time. People, in general, will turn out more. But we’re sending them multiple emails about voting. We’ll have mailed over a-million-and-a-half handwritten postcards from people on our list to other people on our list, asking them to please vote.

You brought up special elections. Is there a particular race you’d point to where your voters had an impact?
In Conor Lamb’s [PA-18] district. Lots of people helped win that. But clearly our people in Conor Lamb’s district voted. The difference between their normal rate and 80 percent was more than his margin of victory.

What does that mean for November?
We’re talking about millions of extra voters. We’re talking about 4 million who’ve signed our petition who don’t normally vote. And we’re talking about a movement of at least a third. You’re talking about a change of at least 2 million voters.

Young people notoriously sit out midterms. You’ve got a lot of young people on your list. What’s your strategy to activate them?
We believe in voter-to-voter contact. We believe in people talking to people. We’re trying to enable conversations between voters. We have something like 700 paid staff, 7,000 volunteers. We’re on 421 college campuses. I don’t want to focus [too much] on colleges. Most people 18-to-35 don’t go to a residential college.

Are you focused on the Senate, too, or mostly the House?
We’re focused on something like 63 swing districts, focused on the people who are registered in those districts. But the great thing about organizing at the grassroots level is we are organized in places there will be contested House races, contested Senate races, contested gubernatorial races, contested state legislature races. The goal is to get people to participate all over the ballot and to be in places where all of the ballot is in play.

Do you have any favorite races/favorite candidates?
Andrew Gillum. We don’t normally endorse people in primaries. But we did in Florida. We endorsed Gillum when he was fourth out of five, and had five-percent share, according to polls. We felt he was outstanding. We see someone who is clearly opposed to injustice. Who is willing to step up and talk to people about what matters. Who doesn’t shy away.

We’re in a crisis. I really think that. I don’t think we can continue to talk out of both sides of our mouths. And Andrew Gillum is very straightforward. If you listen to him take on the NRA, he’s talked very openly about the criminal justice system. Health care, education, pollution, climate, impeachment. He’s doing exactly what we think needs to be done at this point.

We’re very close to the bone. I don’t think people have caught on to how close we are.

What do you mean by that?
At our town hall in Newark several days ago, two people stood up to say that if the Affordable Care Act had been repealed, they would not have been present because they would have been dead. We’re not talking about PolySci 203. This was life and death. In Oklahoma they cut taxes on taking oil and gas out of the ground from seven-point-five percent to two percent. In a quarter of the schools, they now have a four-day school week. When I say close to the bone, it’s close to the bone when they say your kid’s only going to school four days a week.

Did something change last weekend? It feels as though something has come unhinged. As someone who was literally part of a mass assassination attempt, where does that leave you this week?
As you said, I was already pounding tables. [Laughs.] Do I think that the administration handled this in a way that exposed their lack of empathy? Their deep lack of commitment to justice? Their deep lack of commitment to equity across our society? Of course they did.

No one is talking about it in my mind nearly enough. There is a guy in Kentucky who tried to walk into an African American church, and when he couldn’t get in, he went and shot two African Americans in a store. There’s something going on here, and we’ve been trying to call this out. At least since October 20, 2017, when we started the petition drive officially. But if you’re asking me, Do I have the right temperament? If you’re not willing to oppose that, what are you willing to oppose?

We can have a great society. I object to this because we can do so much more. There’s such a positive future for this country and the American people. And to squander that and oppose that is offensive. To try to lead us in the exact wrong way is offensive because there is so much greatness in this country. That has got to be the message. That there is a vision that is entirely positive. Where we go back. We’re not the leader of the free world [anymore]. Absolutely not. That in itself is a travesty. We need to go back to having a positive vision of accomplishment and prosperity and justice together. And that’s well within our grasp.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the time frame in which Majority Leader McCarthy deleted his tweet about Tom Steyer, George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. The tweet was deleted before the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, not after. We regret the error.

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