Tom Steyer is so fed up with Donald Trump that he's prepared to go after Democrats who won't impeach

Salon spoke with billionaire Tom Steyer about why Democrats must impeach Donald Trump

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 9, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

Tom Steyer (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Tom Steyer (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

You may not recognize the name Tom Steyer, but if you've been following American politics since the 2016 election, you'll almost certainly recognize his cause: He wants to impeach President Donald Trump.

This is a cause both simple in its focus and exceedingly difficult in its execution. While Democrats control the House of Representatives — the body that can start impeachment proceedings — many seem reluctant to do so out of fear that it will lead to political blowback against them. This is why Steyer threatened this week to unload on House Democrats who are in a position to push for impeachment but aren't doing so. Of course, even if those Democrats do decide to impeach the president and succeed in that mission, the next step will be getting Trump convicted by the Senate. Since no fewer than 20 Republicans would need to vote for conviction in order to remove him from office — and no Democrats could defect from party lines — that task could prove downright impossible.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The first question I have is about the logistics of impeaching Donald Trump, because as my Salon readers will almost certainly agree, they know why he should be impeached — or at the very least why there should be an investigation — but because you would need 20 Republican senators to turn on him to actually remove the man from office, and because a lot of Democrats are reluctant to go toward impeachment, there are practical challenges. What are your ideas about overcoming those?

Matt, if you look at what we've done on impeachment and what we're doing, you can see that our underlying thesis is that the power in this process resides directly with the American people. So when we started the petition drive over 15 months ago, what we were implicitly saying was you may not listen to any of our new/elected officials of both parties, you may not be listening objectively to the arguments, but the American people feel strongly about this. We thought we’d get a million people to sign up. By the time of the election, we had 6 million people signed up. We now have over 7.1 million people signed up. They're joining somewhere between tens of thousands, over 10,000 people a day, as many as 38,000 people. That will include today, yesterday, the day before, the day before.

What our theory is, both for reluctant Democratic congresspeople and Republican senators, it's that they will listen to and should listen to the voices of their constituents, so what we started with was a petition drive. The people on that petition drive took over 3.5 million actions by the time of the election last year. Eighty thousand of them volunteered and wrote over a million and a half hand written notes asking voters, sporadic voters or unlikely voters of swing districts to please turn out, and what we're doing now in addition to growing the list is we're also trying to deepen the engagement of the list, trying to turn that 7.1, hopefully going to 10 million people, into a mobilized grassroots force. Because if you do the math, that’s about 20,000 people per congressional district and that’s a gigantic number. Ten thousand this way is like 25,000 people per congressional district.

The question is realistically how do you get these people to convince, for instance, the Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 that this should be a priority, and I image the answer to this question is very different, how do you get Republicans or Republican leaders to realize that Trump is not just a liability politically but also a legitimate threat to the country?

Well, I think that if you look… our goal is to basically organize and empower the people around the country by district so that if you are a congressperson in the Lehigh Valley, we want to make sure that your district is organized with both paid and volunteer people on the ground going door to door, maybe having a town hall in your district, to get together to talk about why impeachment is so important. We might poll in your district just so you understand how much your voting constituents support impeachment and how seriously they take it and try and build their power locally to demand…

We’re calling this “Operation Accountability,” Matt. It’s not about us, it’s not about the theory. If the people of the United States demand that the president be held accountable then we believe the elected officials will listen to them, of both parties. That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell. Just like Abraham Lincoln said, "With public opinion, you can do almost anything; without public opinion, you can do almost nothing." What we're trying to do is organize the voice of the American people that we believe strongly is in our camp.

Now, for me, I would like to focus on the contrast between Trump and his immediate Republican predecessors in the White House. There were people who though that George W. Bush, for example, should have been impeached. Would you say that the case against Trump is different from the one against George W. Bush or, for that matter, against Bill Clinton, who actually was impeached?

Well, what I would say is, yes I would. The short answer is Mr. Trump is the most lawless president in American history. He is someone who has, I believe, broken his oath to the Constitution and the American people while he was trying to get elected and he has broken his oath to the Constitution and the American people since he’s been elected. I think that that… we're not talking about policy differences. I'm sure I disagree personally with Mr. Trump on numerous policies; that’s not impeachable. What's impeachable is his lawlessness, his recklessness, and his disregard to the Constitution and his promises to put the American people first.

If you had to list examples of specific things that constitute his lawlessness, constitute his disregard for the Constitution, what examples would you cite?

Well we did a training, Matt, of 300 activists this week, and the beginning of this week in Washington, DC, so that they could deliver articles of impeachment to every congressperson and every senator, but also they could go back and organize in their communities. We got 54 — I'm not a lawyer, but we got 54 legal scholars to write up the ten ways in which Mr. Trump has clearly fit the criteria to be impeached, and I could get Erik [Olvera] to send that to you. We gave it to every single volunteer on a laminated card.

I would say to you, for me, the two most obvious and easy to understand are pretty straight up — corruption and obstruction of justice. We've seen him try to obstruct the investigation into his behavior and behavior of his campaign almost from the beginning, the very first day, almost before you fill the boxes, and continues with ongoing obstruction of justice. I think that he is somebody who has been corrupt in the way that he's running his business at the White House almost from the beginning, and that’s specifically mentioned in the Constitution as an impeachable event.

Now what do you think the danger is if he doesn’t get impeached? Let’s say, worst-case scenario, he is reelected by a landslide in 2020 and his presidency ends on January 20th, 2025, what will be the impact on this country if that happens? Why is holding him accountable and setting that precedent so important?

Let me start with something that is ephemeral but incredibly important, so hard to define but incredibly important, and then talk about specific things that I think will happen as a result of his being in office, God forbid, for another six years.

First of all, if you allow a criminal, if you allow somebody who is lawless — who’s committed lawless acts as president, that everyone agrees has done that — and you decide that you will allow him to stay in office, you have made a decision as a country that the rules only apply to the people that you choose to apply them to, and when it’s convenient for you to apply them. That is a terrible thing for a country to decide, that in effect we no longer believe in the rule of law, the president is above the law. When it’s hard to accomplish, then we don’t do it, and in fact we don’t believe in equal justice for all. That is a terrible thing, for this society to publicly decide not to do what's right, and if you will notice, Matt, and very few people probably did notice it, two days ago, United States dropped out of the top 20 in terms of the least corrupt countries in the world. I hope you noticed that.

I did not.

Yes, terrible, and that’s something we should be ashamed of. So the first point is not doing the right thing when there's a threat to the foundations and values of your society, it's a terrible precedent to set, whereas stepping up and doing the right thing is an incredibly important precedent and changes the rules of the game that everyone understands, that we will hold people accountable for their lawlessness.

In terms of the impact on the country, I don’t know if you saw it, but I put out what I thought were the five inherent rights of Americans in the 21st century that are not being recognized, and he would be bad for every single one of them. He is directly destructive to every one of the five rights that I consider to be essential to be recognized. Those are the right to an equal vote, which implies fair and equal elections and treating people equally; the right to clean air and clean water, he obviously denies climate change, supports pollution, has tried to dismantle the EPA and do away with the oversight pollution firms; the right to learn, which is the idea of free quality public education from pre-K through college with skills training, obviously they're doing what they can to dismantle public education; the right to a living wage, which is the protection for working people in terms of income in our society, which has been under attack for four years, and we can see gross income inequity as a result; and the right to help, the attempt to revoke formal care in multiple cases.

So we will see in my mind direct attacks on Americans’ incredibly important inherent rights in the 21st century. I also believe him to be a shockingly incompetent president, and we will see that, in my mind, show up in economic failure as a result of what I consider to be a catastrophically stupid tax cut to the richest Americans and the largest corporation. So I see him as both attacker of values and foundation, the most essential foundation to the American society and protections of the American people, and at the same that he is a shockingly inept president on an economic basis and obviously someone who has gone about systematically alienating our longtime allies and reducing our prestige and security in the world. It is pretty much across the board, I hate to say that.

So you can't think of anything that you would say that would be positive about him?

Here’s what I would say that I see I think he is good at. He has addressed some of the underlying issues in American society in his own way. The problem I have is, he talked about the forgotten people and the people whom corporations didn’t respect and stuff like that, and that’s actually true. The problem is that if you look at what he’s pushed for, he has pushed for things that absolutely attack working people, that are very bad in terms of their income, but also in terms of their healthcare and any kind of equity or justice in our society. So, yes, he has a good ear sometimes in terms of picking what are their issues. The problem is his solutions are worse than the problem oftentimes.

I’d like to segue from that to the 2020 Democratic field. For a while, you were being considered as a possible candidate. You have since then said that you're not running for president. What qualities does the next president of the United States need to have?

I think the overwhelming things that I'm looking for, Matt, is what I just described. I think that we're at the tail end of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Reagan Revolution, and I think Mr. Trump is the lawless embodiment of that intellectual and moral bankruptcy. So what I'm looking for is someone who can see a positive future for all Americans and can give us a shared vision of how we can continue and expand and improve the American experiment for everybody in this country in the 21st century. I mean, that’s actually what I was trying to do with those five rights, is to say, “If we have this framework, doesn’t that give us the positive framework so that we can pull together, and instead of this being a zero-sum game, understand that together we will produce something much better than we will if we do the Trump style of divide and vilify and don’t prosper?”

I’d like to go into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She recently was critical of Howard Schultz and you were recently critical of Howard Schultz as being essentially out of his depth. Could you elaborate a little bit on that, because the criticism is that he is a billionaire without any political experience who thinks he is qualified to be president. Was that the angle you were coming from when you said that?

No. I mean, Matt, what I was saying after listening… I don’t know Mr. Schultz, and he may well be a brilliant business man, a brilliant person. What I was saying really reflected, what I just said to you, about what I was looking for in a president, which was a positive vision for the country and an ability to synthesize problems and explain the world to Americans in a way that we can have a positive vision together, the way we traditionally have, by the way, understanding how we're going to build a better country and how we're going to be freer and more prosperous together.

All I was saying was, I listened to some of those interviews and he sounded very, very far from being able to do that. So, I felt like what I said was I don’t think that he's ready for primetime because that’s what I'm looking for, and I didn’t hear anything that suggested that he had that kind of comprehensive, positive, inclusive, just vision that I think is the overwhelming requirement for someone who wants to be president.

That’s an interesting point, and I suppose my final question will be about your experience working on other Democratic presidential campaigns or contributing to those campaigns. I was doing some research and you were involved with Walter Mondale, with Bill Bradley, with John Kerry, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What are the qualities that separate, for lack of a more diplomatic way of putting it, a winner from a loser? Let’s be honest, that’s the question every Democrat is asking.

That’s a great question, Matt, and what I've done in working really… and what we've done here at the grassroots is organizing, and we haven’t just worked on a presidential campaign, my goodness. I mean, in 2018 we were the largest youth voter mobilization in African-American history here, next gen. We've run, I think, at least six statewide propositions direct democracies in four states. We've registered millions of people. We've gone door to door and talked to multiple millions of people. I got the chance not just to work on presidential campaign but to be involved in dozens and dozens of House races and [legislative] races and gubernatorial races, and what I look for in every one of them — but particularly in a presidential race — is values and vision.

If you look at what Barack Obama was able to do, he was able to explain his values and his vision for America to Americans in a way that inspired them. When I was talking about, what I thought was necessary, I think President Obama did that very well. I think he’s the person of all those people who you listed who won. President Clinton won and he was able to do it. So I don't think they had the same vision. I think they were different times. I think they’ll go down in history differently and stood for different things, but I think what we're looking for now more than ever — even more than in 1992 or 2008 — is someone who can do that, which is stand up for the values of America and give us a positive vision of how to go forward together and inspire people, remind them what it means to be an American, and give us, as I like to say, a reason to get up in the morning with a smile on our faces and spring in our steps.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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