Tom Steyer says the Democrats telling him to call off his impeachment crusade are like those who told civil rights activists to be patient, and says Nancy Pelosi and others holding back on calling for impeachment are “normalizing” Donald Trump’s presidency.
Steyer doesn’t care that Democratic leaders are worried that he could blow their chance at winning the House by talking up impeachment around the country and in his TV ads—though he argues he’s actually helping Democrats. He says he’s the only person willing to tell the truth. And the thing about a self-made billionaire with nothing to lose: it’s hard for anyone to convince him he might be wrong, or to get him to stop.
“Impeaching the president of the United States is upsetting the status quo. Anytime in American history that there has been an attempt to upset the status quo, there have been people within the status quo—within the establishment—saying, ‘It may be true, it may be something we should deal with, it may be important, but not now,’” Steyer told me in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “If you look at the civil rights movement, the pushback was not, ‘You’re not telling the truth,’ the pushback was, ‘We’re dealing with it in time. Stand down so we can deal with it in time.’”
Steyer believes he’s lighting up the votes that the Democrats need to flip the House, despite Pelosi’s pushback in both public and private. In a phone call late last fall, the House minority leader urged Steyer to pull the money he was putting into pro-impeachment TV ads and instead spend it on tanking the Republican tax bill.
She’s his congresswoman. They’re friendly. They’ve known each other for years.They agreed to disagree, said a person who was told about the call.
For Steyer, it’s not just Pelosi who’s wrong, it’s every Democrat who stands with her. They’re putting the country at risk right now, he said, and they’re destroying themselves in the long term.
“The Founders gave us impeachment to answer a reckless, lawless, and dangerous president and every day that his behavior is accepted, every day that you don’t oppose it, it becomes enshrined as the way things are done. You have normalized this presidency, you have normalized his behavior,” Steyer said. “And then at the end of four years when you come out and, you know it’s inevitable, ‘It’s outrageous what he’s done.’ Really? Because for the last 1300 days you’ve kind of gone along with it. … How much credibility—I think there’s a question here.”
A Pelosi spokesman declined to talk about Steyer. In the Democratic leader’s orbit, mentions of his name tend to set off a series of heard-it-all-before groans. She’s repeatedly said that she hasn’t yet seen a solid case for impeachment, and maintains that fewer people are talking about it now for Trump than were for George W. Bush in the heat of the Iraq War fallout in the run-up to the 2006 midterms romp she led, when Democrats picked up 31 seats and flipped both the House and Senate. Democratic leaders worry that even raising the topic of impeachment this year threatens to make swing House districts unwinnable and all but erases the chance of retaking control of the House.
Steyer, meanwhile, says he’d impeach Trump tomorrow if he could. He had 58 Constitutional experts put together eight arguments to boot the president before they even get to the Mueller probe, including for violating the emoluments clause, making the country less safe and attacking the press. And he suggests that the greater risk for Democrats—both as a matter of principles and electoral math—is in not talking about impeachment.
Steyer and his staff have crunched their own numbers off the nearly 5.4 million people who’ve signed up with his “Need to Impeach” initiative. By their count, there are 10,000 people in each of the 75 most hotly contested House districts who are on his list—enough to swing a close race—and two-thirds of them are sporadic voters. By shooting down every question about impeachment, Steyer says, Pelosi is writing those voters off.
“What we know is there are millions of Americans who don’t vote because they are not hearing the truth,” said Steyer, who starts every interview by drawing a Jerusalem-cross pattern on the back of his hand—it’s the international sign of humility, he said, and a reminder to tell the truth, even if they put you on a cross for it. “They don’t think that the existing political establishment wants to talk about the basic questions of the day.”
Another person who doesn’t want to talk about Steyer is Rep. Al Green, the Texas Democrat who, in December, got 57 colleagues to join him in support of impeachment—a vote that he says he’ll keep forcing, despite being publicly dismissed in a letter from Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Green first filed articles of impeachment the day before Trump’s inauguration, and since then he’s only built upon his argument that Trump’s alleged bigotry makes him unfit to be president. Green is quick to remind people that according to the Constitution, “you don’t have to commit a crime to be impeached.”
Green says he’s been threatened, has a guard with a gun now sitting in his district office and has to have security at parades back home in Houston. But he says Democrats in the House—and one Republican colleague as well—have told him they want him to keep going. “It’s really about the republic, not about Republicans,” Green said. “It’s bigger than Democrats; it’s about democracy.”
Green will not say Steyer’s name, or that he’s been helpful to the cause. This is a civil rights fight to him too, and Green says he doesn't want to make a wealthy person who's for impeachment and has the money to run ads seem any more worth talking about than a man he said he met literally living under an overpass who talked to him about impeachment. “People who are rich and trying to accomplish goals are no better than people who are poor and indigent and trying to accomplish goals,” he said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee still doesn’t want to talk about impeachment either, and a spokesman pointed out that that none of their candidates are running on it—but also said that DCCC chairman Rep. Ben Ray Luján wasn’t available for an interview on the topic.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, which already sees this as a perfect way to warn of Democratic overreach and a party in hock to its demanding base, eagerly jumped in.
“Tom Steyer is stoking the flames of this ludicrous progressive pipe dream, further complicating Nancy Pelosi’s plan to regain the majority,” said NRCC press secretary Jesse Hunt. “The Democratic Party’s midterm messaging is being led by two out-of-touch San Francisco liberals whose only desire is to appeal to the progressive wing of the party—what could possibly go wrong for them?”
“I can’t watch a president race-bait on a regular basis and then pretend to not believe that he should be impeached,” said Todd Rutherford, the Democratic leader of the South Carolina statehouse, who attended a Steyer event in the state capital last week and pointed out it was attended by several identified Republicans who’d driven hours to be there. “If we say it, then they’re going to use it as a rallying cry, but I think even Republicans realize there’s something wrong with our president.”
In April, a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed 47 percent of registered voters say they would definitely vote against a candidate who promised impeachment, while 42 percent would definitely vote for one, with 10 percent undecided, though the prospect of impeachment tracks much higher levels of support among the younger voters whom Steyer has been spending much of his time talking to and literally investing in.
That’s who Steyer says he’s hearing most from on the 30-city town hall tour he’s currently in the middle of, and looking at extending—and which some observers suspect is actually a trial run for a 2020 presidential campaign. He’s gone to Iowa and South Carolina in the last month, is headed to Nevada on June 13, spent $40 million so far on nine TV ads and 40 staffers working on impeachment from San Francisco, along with 500 more working on other issues for him around the country as part of his group NextGen.
That makes for the largest organization of any potential presidential candidate—though Steyer insists that anyone who thinks that’s what he’s up to should remember that they assumed he was running for governor or U.S. Senate in California when he got started last year.
As for whether he’s running in 2020, Steyer doesn’t say yes, and he doesn’t say no. Like a lot of people expected to run for president, he said he needs to see how the midterms shake out.
“I want to be part of the group of people working to push America back to a more positive vision that does not exist. I will work really hard to do that. I will do almost anything to do that.”