Even after 26 years in the House, Congressman Jerry Nadler, incoming head of the House Judiciary Committee, was fired up when he spoke to Rolling Stone yesterday. After years in the political wilderness of minority status, Nadler will now have broad powers of investigation at his command. He has signaled he will be looking hard at the big questions: the firing of FBI director James Comey, Trump’s financial ties and possible conflicts of interest, Russia, obstruction of justice and more.
Nadler will need all his experience and moxie for the task. Politico is reporting that Donald Trump wants the GOP to install Tea Party leader Rep. Jim Jordan as the ranking member to spar with Nadler during the next session. But regardless of who he is mixing it up with, for much of the next two years, it’s almost certain Nadler will be at the center of contention with the president and his backers. The liberal stalwart, 71, representing Manhattan’s West Side and parts of Brooklyn, has previously said he doesn’t want to talk about impeachment: “It doesn’t serve the function of a Democratic House to talk about it.” But he was willing to talk about his drive to “hold Trump accountable,” whether the party will unify behind Nancy Pelosi, and the news that Amazon is coming to his hometown.
How do you see your role as head of the Judiciary Committee vis-à-vis the Trump administration?
I see my role as trying to protect the republic from an administration that has trampled on constitutional liberties, trampled on democratic norms. We have to protect the Constitution, we have to protect people’s democratic rights, we have to protect freedom of the press. That’s the goal, to shine a light on what’s going on. Oversight is incredibly important because the president had a Congress for two years that completely failed. It didn’t want to check the bounds of the administration, which is part of its constitutional duty. The president’s going to learn that we’re going to do our job and hold him accountable.
What line of inquiry do you think will be the most effective?
The first one is to protect the Mueller investigation, because that is fundamental to maintaining the integrity of our elections. And the administration has done everything it can to sabotage the investigation.
He’s called it a witch hunt, like, 82 times.
I think it’s 84.
OK, your count is undoubtedly better.
I don’t know, maybe you’re right, let’s call it 82. He’s called it a witch hunt 82 times. He has sought to intimidate all of the officials in the FBI and the Justice Department who were instrumental in starting it. His whole beef with [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions was that he didn’t recuse himself and he wouldn’t serve as Trump’s personal hatchet man. Now [acting Attorney General Matt] Whitaker’s only function, apparently, is to do that.
You’ve been in Congress many, many years — is this the most perilous time you’ve experienced for the republic?
It’s certainly the most perilous, yes. It’s certainly the most perilous time for our liberty and for the Constitution of America. The president, through a combination of ignorance, contempt and malevolence, has threatened everything. He’s threatened the First Amendment rights of reporters. He’s threatened everybody who gets in his way, and now with the appointment of Whitaker as the acting attorney general, you have someone who’s clearly unfit to run the [Mueller] investigation. The supervisor of the investigation says he prejudged the outcome. He announced in advance that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 election, which is absurd.
The New York Times publishes a many-thousand-word piece on the Trump Organization, going back to Frederick Trump and detailing a long history of fraud, and it doesn’t stick. Why?
In most administrations, at most times, if The New York Times or somebody published that kind of accusation with that kind of documentation against the president, you would have congressional hearings. You would have investigations to follow up. The Republicans in Congress have refused to hold the administration accountable in any way, and that’s going to change. So that’s the first reason. But the second reason is that with this administration there’s an outrage a day. The midterm election results should have been a huge multiday headline, but the next day Sessions was fired. The next day, Whitaker is appointed. Everything changes so fast you can’t keep track of all the outrage.
Do you see that as a strategy?
Yes, it’s a strategy. But I think it’s twofold. It’s partly a conscious strategy; I also think it’s that part of the president’s total indiscipline and disregard for everything. He gets mad at something, so he does something else. He doesn’t consider the consequences and doesn’t accept that what he’s doing may be unconstitutional or illegal or whatever. Another thing that’s out of the headlines now is that we should be investigating the fact that the United States government tore babies out of the arms of their mothers and there are still separated kids who haven’t been reunited with their families and may never be. That should rank as one of the scandals of the decade.
When you’re talking to GOP colleagues, what do they say? What would make them turn on this president?
I don’t know what would make them turn on this president. They’re terrified of Republican primaries. The Republican Party has turned into a cult group, or large parts of it have. Trump can do no wrong and even if he lies, it doesn’t matter. We’ve never had a president before who lies about things the way he does. We’ve never had a president before who claims fraud in elections in Florida and Arizona and Georgia. We’ve never had a president who just outright lies like that. Or a president who sent troops to the border, who takes troops away from their homes during the holidays, and it probably costs however many tens of millions of dollars. And the troops are sitting there doing nothing. Could it be an election stunt? Yes. We haven’t seen this before.
What about his Cabinet? You’ve got Ryan Zinke being investigated, you’ve got Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, the list goes on. Is this one of the most corrupt administrations we’ve ever seen?
It’s certainly up there. The amount of corruption is fantastic, and again, the Republicans in Congress have refused to do anything about it. A Democratic Congress now will investigate it — because it’s part of our job as the United States government to make sure people aren’t stealing the country’s money. And to make sure that government agencies are doing their job of protecting the public health and protecting the public welfare. It’s a hard job. It’s the Republicans’ job too, but they haven’t done it, to hold the secretary of whatever accountable for what they’re doing or not doing. It’s part of our jobs and it’s part of Congress’ reason to be.
Reports are coming out that Trump is in a particularly foul mood these past few days, and raging at various staffers and possibly firing more White House officials soon. Do you think there’s a little fear and anxiety from the president that you guys have the power of subpoena now and are going to be looking in places he really doesn’t want you to?
Well, I don’t know whether there’s fear. I’m sure the president may not like it, but he’s gonna learn that he and the administration will be held accountable to the American people, and maybe he is reacting to that realization. Maybe he’s realizing that for the first time, he’s going to be held accountable. Maybe that’s why he’s in a bad mood. The fact that he knows he’s going have to answer these questions. He’s going to be held accountable, as any administration should be.
One of the striking things about that New York Times story was that the Trump Organization’s operating principle was buying influence. As president, is he doing the same thing and thinking he can get away with it?
Well, first of all, I don’t know that he paid off anybody as president. He may have done it during the campaign. I mean, look, I’m not a psychologist, but if someone has done things a certain way his entire adult life, he’s not likely to stop. And insofar as he thought about it, he may have thought that the Republican Congress does not hold him accountable, but he’s gonna learn. Americans understand that no one is above the law. The Republicans were derelict in their duty, but we will not be.
The big news of Amazon coming to your home state of New York, what do you think?
I don’t have a comment on that. I haven’t really looked at it. Except to say one thing. I don’t know the details here, so I can’t comment except to say that I’ve always been very skeptical of local governments giving big tax breaks to corporations to locate, and I don’t know how many tax breaks, you know, have been given here.
I think I read $1.5 billion.
Well, that raises big questions.
You seem very determined in your mission. Is the party?
We have a great legislative agenda to promote democracy, to stop voter suppression, to deal decently with refugees, to promote the economic agenda of the American people. But we also have to have a clear democratic agenda in terms of protecting the structure and function of government against, basically, dishonesty and against anti-democratic behavior that threatens our democracy.
Right, but are the Democrats united in this effort? There’s talk about Nancy Pelosi’s leadership being challenged — what do you think of that?
We are very united here. We’re very united in saying we have to defend democratic institutions against this administration, which is trashing them.