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Meet Jerry Nadler, the Next House Judiciary Chairman and Trump’s New Enemy No. 1

New York Democrat may not impeach president, but his rigorous oversight will be a thorn in his side

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is poised to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachment proceedings. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is poised to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachment proceedings. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Jerrold Nadler remembers when he began to figure out that you’ve got to fight back when life seems unfair.

It was 1957. Nadler was 10. He was at home in Brooklyn watching Disney’s film production of the 1943 novel “Johnny Tremain,” a young apprentice of silversmith Paul Revere on the eve of the American Revolution.

In the movie’s climatic scene, colonial lawyer James Otis delivers a rallying speech to revolutionaries in a cramped wooden attic in Boston.

[Nadler’s ‘high bar’ for impeachment could make ousting Trump impossible]

Otis was the colonial lawyer whose five-hour speech in 1761 decrying British “writs of assistance” would later become the foundation of the Fourth Amendment protecting Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.

At the end of his winding speech, the fictionalized Otis scans the room and leaves his comrades with a parting message: “We fight and die for a simple thing — only that a man can stand.”

“I still remember watching it,” said Nadler, whom aides and confidants claim has a photographic memory.

Not long after that, the New York Democrat remembers, articles started appearing in the newspapers about the Supreme Court upholding convictions of people whose confessions had been beaten out of them by police. Only two justices, Hugo Black and William Douglas, issued dissenting opinions.

“Seven to two, Black and Douglas dissenting. There were a number of such decisions, always Black and Douglas dissenting,” Nadler said. “I remember getting very angry and saying, ‘I’ve got to do something about that.’”

[McConnell, Graham leave room for Barr to withhold parts of Mueller report]

Now, 61 years later, the lifetime politician who got his start in 1977 as a New York assemblyman while he was still attending Fordham Law School at night is ready to fight back.

Watch: Following Sessions Ouster, How and Why Many Key Officials Have Exited the Trump Administration

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The I-word

First elected to Congress in 1992, Nadler is poised to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in January after the Democrat-controlled 116th Congress is sworn in.

Immigration, voting rights, and Justice Department oversight — read: Mueller investigation — are just three of the politically charged issues under the committee’s jurisdiction.

That means Nadler, who has represented Manhattan’s West Side, the financial district, and a sliver of Brooklyn for nearly three decades in the House, controls the gavel of the committee where Congress carries out impeachment proceedings.

Before the midterms, Democratic leaders skillfully dodged questions about impeaching President Donald Trump were they to win back a majority. Now that they have one, Democrats are still treading cautiously.

[Trump and Netanyahu: Embattled leaders turn to each other for political boost]

At her victory speech Tuesday night at the Democratic National Committee, Nancy Pelosi stressed that Democrats would try to “unify” the country. She did not mention Congress’ oversight role over the Trump administration, and she certainly did not mention the I-word.

Nadler has likewise skirted around such questions, though he said he is eager to conduct oversight hearings on the Trump administration’s policies of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, increases in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes since the president took office, and voter suppression, not to mention Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

And after Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, Nadler promised that the move “will be investigated and people will be held accountable” if lawmakers discover the president has abused his power to interfere in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing probe.

“The question of impeachment is down the road,” Nadler told Roll Call in a wide-ranging interview in which he cast doubts over whether Democrats would ever reach a point where they would seriously pursue impeaching Trump.

“As far as impeachment is concerned, we have to see what Mueller comes up with,” Nadler said. “I certainly wouldn’t predict it.”

Measured and methodical

Though he hails from one of the most liberal districts in the country, New York’s 10th, Nadler’s political demeanor more closely resembles the calculated coolness of party leaders than the pot-stirring of liberal firebrands such as California Rep. Maxine Waters, the presumed next House Financial Services chairwoman, whose dedicated opposition to Trump has lately defined her political image.

Friends in New York, House colleagues, and former staffers describe the Brooklyn native as a measured, methodical “constitutional scholar,” obsessed with politics and political history. Multiple former aides could not identify a single hobby of his that didn’t include reading or debating public policy with his friends.

“Hobbies? He doesn’t have any,” said Brett Heimov, Nadler’s former Washington chief of staff. “Reading books — that’s his hobby.”

The son of a Jewish chicken farmer, Nadler, who stopped growing — at least, vertically — long ago at 5-foot-4, is the only yeshiva-educated member of Congress. He does not drink. The most alcohol Nadler will consume is on Jewish holidays: a sip or two of Manischewitz for the Kiddush ritual.

For a man poised to chair the committee that works on bills regulating the fashion industry, Nadler is remarkably blithe about his appearance. A ketchup stain on his shirt has never bothered him so long as it can be covered up when he dons his blazer. As men’s pants have tightened over the years, Nadler has held onto his loose, pleated britches. And he has progressively hiked them higher and higher up his waist, to the point where they’re now suspended well above his belly button.

The presumed next Judiciary chairman is a creature of habit and consistency, those around him have said. He’s been eating for decades at the same greasy spoon in the Upper West Side’s lower 70s, where for 10 bucks you can get an overcooked western omelette with a “side” of six sizzling bacon strips and rye toast with jam. Staff assistants learn quickly not to let the mini fridge in his Rayburn Building office run out of Diet Coke.

He has retained senior staff in Washington and field directors in his district at an astonishingly high rate. Nadler’s Washington director, John Doty, has been with him since the congressman’s first full term. Same with his scheduler, Janice Siegel.

“Twelve years, 20 years, they’ve stuck with him,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a longtime friend. “He’s always had good staff around him.”

Even as he paces toward the House floor for votes in his straight-backed, low-chinned duck walk, usually clutching some mysterious manila folder, Nadler never accelerates his rhythm as members and their aides scramble past him and the reporters lurking along the series of double swinging doors outside the House chamber.

Just about the only thing that has changed about Nadler since the 1990s is his weight.

In the early 2000s, the congressman peaked at a gargantuan 338 pounds. The butt of countless bodyweight jokes, even among his peers, during the Clinton impeachment trial, Nadler used to take the elevator up to the second floor of the Capitol for votes because he just couldn’t make it up a lone flight of stairs. He underwent a stomach-reduction surgery during Congress’ August recess in 2002 and eventually cut his weight roughly in half. He has kept his weight under control since. When Republicans see him on TV over these next two years as he leads oversight hearings on the Trump administration, many are bound not to recognize him.

Since arriving in Washington in 1992 after a 15-year stint in the New York state Assembly in Albany representing liberal Manhattan, Nadler has lived out of a suitcase in a series of hotels whenever he’s in town for work. For the first few years, he stayed at the Howard Johnson’s near the George Washington University campus.

“The HoJo worked for me in Albany,” Nadler told his staff at the time. “It’ll work here.”

The congressman was forced to “move” when the university bought the building and turned it into underclassman housing.

Clashes with party elders

He had a few run-ins with Democratic leaders in the early ’90s. The Senate back then was divided equally among Democrats and Republicans, meaning President Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat from Arkansas, had to reach across party lines to make any landmark legislative progress.

From the start, Nadler opposed the sweeping 1994 crime bill that originated in the Judiciary Committee over the “three strikes” statute for previously convicted felons.

After the GOP picked up 54 seats and a majority in the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Revolution in the 1994 midterm elections, Nadler confronted Democratic leadership in a head-on clash to chip away at senior members’ monopoly of power at the committee and subcommittee level.

Back then, senior caucus members could double-dip as chair or ranking member for a subcommittee in addition to the full committee. That limited opportunities and stifled growth for some of the younger members of the party, Nadler and others complained.

After the midterm trouncing, they agitated for a vote on a party rule that would bar Democratic chairs and ranking members from leading subcommittees, too. When Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt refused, Nadler collected the requisite 50 petition signatures to force a vote.

The caucus voted to adopt the new rule, infuriating some members, including former Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell of Michigan, who was forced to give up one of his subcommittee posts.

“There were a number of committee chairmen who wouldn’t talk to me for years after that,” Nadler recalled. The clash over the rule, still the party standard, is largely forgotten these days.

Notions of impeachment

Nadler didn’t make waves on the national scene until four years later, though, in 1998 when he emerged as one of Clinton’s most outspoken defenders during the impeachment proceedings.

Nadler relished being a nettle for Republicans as they pursued allegations that Clinton had perjured himself when he told independent counsel Ken Starr in a deposition that he never had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The New York congressman was a frequent guest on CNN and other TV networks, on which he argued that Clinton may well have perjured himself — but that alone was not grounds for impeachment.

He summarized his defense of Clinton at a January 1999 town hall at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

“An impeachable offense is an abuse of presidential power designed to or with the effect of undermining the structure or function of government, or undermining constitutional liberties,” he told the crowd of several hundred.

Nadler’s notions of impeachment have not changed much, even as the Democratic Party has scampered away from Clinton framed within the new context of the #MeToo era, and as the current president flouts democratic norms, actively attempts to undermine the credibility of institutions like his own Justice Department and FBI, and habitually makes unsubstantiated claims — that often appear fabricated — on just about every issue he discusses.

Fanning the external impeachment chatter is the fact that half a dozen of the president’s closest advisers from the 2016 campaign have pleaded or been found guilty of crimes as a result of Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But even if Mueller comes back with alleged criminal activity by the president, that won’t be an automatic trigger for Democrats to initiate impeachment.

“The fact is, impeachment is not a criminal punishment,” Nadler told Roll Call. “There are crimes that you could commit that are not impeachable offenses and there are impeachable offenses that are not crimes. They’re different tests.”

Three hurdles to impeachment

During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Nadler believed a crucial function of the Judiciary Committee was to educate Americans about that distinction between crimes and impeachable offenses.

He pushed for, and secured, a Judiciary hearing in 1998 to answer what constitutes an impeachable offense, even though Democrats were in the minority.

Nadler’s impeachment theory, though, goes not one, but two steps further: Not only must Congress find that the president committed an impeachable offense, it must determine that ousting the president is a “service to the republic,” he said.

“The purpose of the whole impeachment process is to protect the integrity of liberty and of the rule of law and of government, to protect against a person with aggrandized power or who destroys the separation of powers or something like that,” Nadler said.

The third hurdle for impeachment is political: It must have bipartisan support.

“If you’re serious about removing a president from office, what you’re really doing is overturning the result of the last election,” Nadler said. “You don’t want to have a situation where you tear this country apart and for the next 30 years half the country’s saying ‘We won the election, you stole it.’”

And by bipartisan support for impeachment, Nadler does not mean winning over Republican lawmakers.

“I’m talking about the voters, people who voted for Trump,” he said. “Do you think that the case is so stark, that the offenses are so terrible and the proof so clear, that once you’ve laid it all out you will have convinced an appreciable fraction of the people who voted for Trump, who like him, that you had no choice? That you had to do it?”

Although impeachment appears unlikely — or, at the very least, a long way off — that does not mean Nadler will be sitting idle with his gavel in his hand these next two years.

He has already promised to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sessions’ firing. The Judiciary Democrats will revisit Russian interference in the 2016 election and hold hearings on current efforts by the administration to stem the Russians’ ongoing campaign. Part of that probe will focus on “cooperation” between Russians and Americans, including, potentially, some members of Trump’s inner circle, Nadler said.

Democratic investigators will take caution not to hinder the progress of Mueller’s investigation, though.

“We’ll clearly look into [Russian interference],” Nadler said, “but we’ll also have to talk to the Mueller people to make sure we don’t step on anything they’re doing.”

Legislatively, one of his top priorities will be to strike a deal with the Republican president and Senate on immigration, an elusive feat for recent administrations.