Tom Steyer: "Impeachment is a way to reaffirm our belief that everyone is accountable"

Billionaire activist tells Salon Trump should be in prison and Democrats' fears about impeachment are nonsense

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published May 22, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

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

One week ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that her caucus should not deviate from its 2020 focus on health care and the economy in pursuit of impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. It is a position to which she’s held firmly since retaking the gavel in January, and according to the Washington Post, not a single House Democrat objected to her request.

That was a week ago.

Since then, billionaire impeachment proponent Tom Steyer returned to the airwaves with a new ad campaign that features a new target: Democrats. Then came a real bombshell: Rep. Justin Amash, a conservative Republican from Michigan and member of the House Freedom Caucus, became the first member of his party to support the impeachment of the president. Pelosi has now scheduled an emergency meeting with House Democrats to discuss impeachment for Wednesday morning.

It’s clear that Pelosi is now in a bind because her initial strategy of attempting to build the case for impeachment through investigations has been effectively thwarted by Trump with his policy of no cooperation across the board. Democrats find themselves in a box where the only way get the transparency they seek would be through the impeachment, which everyone knows will ultimately fail, at least in the sense that the Republican-led Senate will fail to convict Trump no matter what evidence comes forward. Failing to impeach, on the other hand, is a political calculation that proves more impotent with each passing day.

The House Judiciary Committee recently voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for his refusal to provide the committee with the full, unredacted version of Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation. In turn, the Justice Department offered some of the requested counterintelligence materials from the Mueller report — but only on the condition that Democrats would not pursue "enforcement action" against the attorney general.

That offer came only hours after Trump’s former White House counsel, Don McGahn, defied a congressional subpoena to testify. Pelosi’ stalling tactic, whereby Democrats waited for Mueller’s report only to serve up contempt citations against administration officials who disobey subpoenas, has only frustrated their base and emboldened Trump.

The "total stonewalling of the Congress’ power by the administration with a degree of contempt and arrogance is startling,” Steyer told Salon in a Tuesday interview. “Trump doesn’t believe in equal powers, or oversight, or laws or the Constitution. The American people can see it.”

“Clearly this is a guy who would be in prison if, in fact, he weren’t sitting in the White House," Steyer said. "He would be prosecuted successfully for obstruction of justice if there wasn’t a Department of Justice policy that you don’t prosecute sitting presidents of the United States.”

Steyer’s group, Need to Impeach, recently released a $1 million ad buy for national networks in New Hampshire and Iowa criticizing Democratic Party leaders for doing nothing.

A few Democrats have since started to speak out in favor of starting the impeachment process, including some from key swing states like Wisconsin and Florida that will play a pivotal role in Trump’s re-election effort.

“Every day, the leadership of the Democratic Party admonishes Donald Trump’s pattern of reckless lawbreaking and corruption. But when pressed about what they plan to do about it, they fail to act,” Steyer said in a statement issued alongside the ad’s release. Democrats’ message, in other words, is that Trump is horrible and dangerous and a grave threat to the country and Constitution — but not bad enough to require them to do anything about it.

With his ad campaign and congressional lobbying effort, Steyer says he hopes to convince Democrats that their political calculation that impeachment will hurt their electoral chances in 2020 is misguided.

“All the political arguments about why it is smart to shield Trump don’t make any sense and are not borne out by the facts,” Steyer argued. He pointed to the impeachment of Bill Clinton to prove his point. Republicans, Steyer said wryly, were punished so severely for their efforts in the election following their impeachment attempt that they won control of the entire federal government, including the presidency.

Richard Nixon had just been re-elected in a landslide and stood at 65% approval when Democrats launched the Senate Watergate inquiry in February 1973, Steyer pointed out. The full airing of evidence and testimony against Nixon quickly eroded his support, bringing it to 39% in July 1973.

“To drag this out will not only normalize the president and end the possibility of impeachment, it will also frustrate the American people,” Steyer told Salon. 

“This president is clearly trying to run out the clock,” he explained. “And to the extent that Democrats ... enable him to be a president who has a few differences with Congress but who is otherwise a normal president working on a bipartisan fashion to get things done for Americans — to the extent that is true, that will in fact take impeachment off the table. That will in fact take the power out of the hands of the American people. That will in fact spike the effort and make it irrelevant what the American people ultimately want.”

Steyer makes the case that contrary to Pelosi’s insistence, Democrats won back the House in reaction to Trump’s rise rather than on their own agenda.

“It is true that if you polled people the No. 1 issue at that time was health care. But it wasn’t like people just discovered health care in 2018," Steyer said. "The reason why health care was such a big issue was partially because the president tried to kill the Affordable Care Act three times. So it wasn’t health care people were concerned with, it was the removal of health care by a hostile president.”

Referring to the dramatically increased voter turnout of the 2018 midterms, Steyer said: “Twenty-four million people did not show up in 2018 because all of a sudden they realized they had to go to the doctor. Everybody realized that in 2014, I assure you. In 2014 they were assuming there would be a doctor they could go to.” Democratic voters, Steyer contends, want Democrats to hold Trump accountable in order to protect the Democratic agenda.

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Val Demmings of Florida, a freshman Democrat elected during the 2018 midterms, on Tuesday. As she explained on CNN, when Democrats "protect our democracy, we protect health care, we protect immigration, we protect people covered by TPS (temporary protection status), and we protect those things that are important to the American people.”

In a Democratic primary campaign overloaded with candidates, Steyer is one of the few people in America not already running for president who probably should be. His clear-eyed advocacy for impeachment is unmatched even in the most crowded presidential field in modern history. As he lays out the case, the prevailing wisdom that Trump is currently too strong to launch formal impeachment proceedings is not based in historical nor contemporary data. And there is no clear evidence that once the impeachment process begins, it is likely to drive Trump’s numbers up.

As for Nancy Pelosi, she can have her cake and eat it too. After meeting with ever impatient caucus on Wednesday to hash out the plan on impeachment, the speaker will head to the White House to continue talks with President Trump on an infrastructure plan. As Steyer explained, impeachment will help with that cause.

"This country is sorely lacking a positive shared vision for the future. Impeachment is the first step towards renewing our civic engagement so that we can work out a shared positive vision about what it means to be an American and what America itself is about, which is the goal of the whole exercise.

"Impeachment is a way for us to reaffirm our belief in the system itself, our belief in the system of laws, our belief that everyone is accountable to the laws and that Americans have the ability and the courage to pursue the American experiment that was supposed to have been leading the world."

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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