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WHEN: Wednesday, May 15th
After a quarter-century in Congress, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York stands on the brink of an outsize role in American political life. As Judiciary Committee chairman in the Democratic-controlled House, Nadler leads his party's efforts to exercise oversight of President Donald Trump and his administration. If Democrats pursue the fourth serious presidential impeachment effort in American history, Nadler would wield the gavel when it starts. Nadler, now 71, first took on the future president as a New York assemblyman in the 1980s when he joined the resistance to a massive Trump development project on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Trump won that battle, though his development got downsized. In today's confrontation, the entire country holds a stake. Nadler and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California face difficult political choices. Trump drew less than 20% of the 2016 vote in both their districts, but some Democratic colleagues fear a 2020 backlash from impeachment. So party leaders have moved cautiously in the wake of the Trump-Russia special counsel report. Over scrambled eggs at Westville Hudson in the lawmaker's New York City district, Nadler sat down to discuss the challenge. A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Representative Jerry Nadler follows.
To listen to the extended interview, subscribe to the Speakeasy with John Harwood podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever else you listen.
All references must be sourced to CNBC.com.
John Harwood: Are you enjoying the responsibility you now have in this situation?
Jerry Nadler: Well I don't know if I'd say I enjoy it. I'm in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. You've got to do your job and you've got to do your duty. In one sense, I've prepared for it my entire life, because my motivation getting involved in politics, going back to when I was 12 years old, was protecting civil liberties. I remember reading newspaper stories when I was 11 or 12 about Supreme Court decisions that infuriated me, upholding convictions based on confessions that were physically beaten out of prisoners. I remember getting very angry and saying, "I have to do something about this."
John Harwood: There are some people who believe that Trump is trying to goad the Congress into impeaching him because he thinks he will get a political benefit from that. There are others who think he's just an impulsive person who acts the way he acts.
Jerry Nadler: It's more the second than the first. I think he is very impulsive, I think he's very willful, and I think he's very ignorant. I mean, unlike Richard Nixon, who knew exactly what he was doing when he was violating the law and violating norms and so forth, he just goes ahead. He doesn't know what the law is. He doesn't know what the Constitutional history is. He doesn't know the implications of half of what he does.
John Harwood: Well so, do you agree with Speaker Pelosi, who said the other day that he is self-impeaching by his conduct, making it impossible for you to avoid that?
Jerry Nadler: He's making it increasingly difficult. No questions are being answered about any subject. And then, when subpoenas are issued, he has a blanket command, disobey all subpoenas. Nobody should testify, and nobody should give documents to Congress. Well, that's a way of neutering Congress, of making sure that Congress can't do its job, of turning the country into a dictatorship of a monarchical president.
John Harwood: That's why you call it a constitutional crisis?
Jerry Nadler: Yes.
John Harwood: He ridiculed that idea, said that you guys were just putting on a show and rallying your political base. How do you advance your position which is an abstraction – constitutional crisis, people can't see it when the President says, "3.2 percent economic growth in the first quarter. What are you talking about? I'm making people's lives better." The idea of a Constitutional crisis is not something people can see, feel, or touch.
Jerry Nadler: That's right, but you know, we fought a Revolutionary War over that. It affects people's lives ultimately. And the fact, whether the president is doing a good job in the economy or not is one question. He may be. But, if he's destroying all the norms, and destroying all the practices, and destroying the laws, and arrogating all power to the presidency so that the people through Congress have nothing to say, that's a very different crisis. That's a constitutional crisis.
John Harwood: Is that an argument that you can make the American people see and understand and accept?
Jerry Nadler: I think so. I mean, we have to hold hearings, and we have to get people to testify. And not just on the collusion with the Russians and obstruction of justice, but in all kinds of issues where they're refusing to – we can't get information about the family separation policy at the border about carrying kids out of people's arms.
John Harwood: If there's a larger issue about him and his conduct, what is it?
Jerry Nadler: Well, you've got three issues, really. There was tons of evidence that they knew the Russians were interfering with the election on their behalf. They welcomed it, they wanted it, and they coordinated with it. And the second clear conclusion is there are 12 episodes of obstruction of justice. Beyond all that, is the basic question because the administration does not want this information because they want all information kept. They are refusing all subpoenas, they are telling private parties don't give information to Congress. They are trying to say that Congress representing the American people, can't get information, and therefore, can't function. The effect of that, whether the President realizes that or not I don't know, but the effect of that is to make the President a monarch, to make him a dictator. That is the biggest constitutional crisis and that's what we've got to fight.
John Harwood: Do you believe, in fact, that the President is compromised by Russia?
Jerry Nadler: Trump was saying throughout the campaign, "I have no dealings in Russia. I have no dealings of whatever kind." We now know that in fact, they were negotiating for Trump Tower, Moscow, right til the end of the campaign. Ok. Putin knew this. Putin knew that they were having these negotiations. He knew that Trump was lying to the American people about it, and that gave him leverage, because he could have revealed that during the campaign. Ok. Whether there is leverage now, I don't know.
John Harwood: There was a poll that was done recently in which a solid majority of Americans said they believed that before he was President, President Trump committed crimes. Are you one of the people –
Jerry Nadler: Before he was President?
John Harwood: Before he was President he committed crimes. Are you one of the people who believes that?
Jerry Nadler: He may have, I don't know. I just think, well he admitted –
John Harwood: Is that relevant to that belief in the period that led to the presidency? Is that relevant?
Jerry Nadler: The President can be impeached only for two things, only for misuse of presidential power while President or for cheating in the election that gave him the presidency. Other than that, if he did something terrible before he was President, he robbed the bank, that's not impeachable. It's a crime, it's not impeachable. There may be crimes that are not impeachable, and impeachable offenses don't have to be crimes. There are different tests. It's not that one is more severe than the other, they are simply different tests. So for example, at the time and I'll say it again now, I believe that perjury regarding a private sexual affair by the President, is a crime, but it's not an impeachable offense because it doesn't threaten the structure of government, it doesn't power, etc. So if Donald Trump, for instance, committed perjury about some real estate deal in Manhattan, that would not be an impeachable offense.
John Harwood: Do you believe he's committed crimes while in office?
Jerry Nadler: Yes I do believe that.
John Harwood: You do believe he's committed crimes while in office.
Jerry Nadler: Yes I do. I do believe – Mueller lays out very strong evidence of a number of obstructions of justice. Those are crimes. Yes, of course he did.
John Harwood: And I wonder in the case of your party, if the larger idea is that Democrats think that Donald Trump is a con man, and they are justified in finding ways to, grounds to get a con man out of office.
Jerry Nadler: I don't know what anybody else may think, but I would very much oppose that point of view. Donald Trump is a con man. He is thoroughly dishonest. He lies all the time. We know that. None of those are grounds for impeachment. They're grounds for defeating him for reelection. They're grounds for why he shouldn't have been elected in the first place. But that's up to the American people. Impeachment is a weapon or a tool to protect the functioning of government and to protect liberty and to protect the structure of government.
John Harwood: When you say, "The question of impeachment is down the road," which your colleagues say and Speaker Pelosi says as well, does it need to be this calendar year or not at all?
Jerry Nadler: When I say it is down the road, I don't mean just in terms of time. It depends what comes out and what we learn. It depends where the American people are, whether they want to go that way or not. I don't want to make it sound as if we're heading for impeachment. Probably we're not.
John Harwood: You really believe that? Probably we're not?
Jerry Nadler: Probably, but I don't know.
John Harwood: Because what I hear from your colleagues is the reverse – probably we are, but not yet.
Jerry Nadler: Maybe. It's hard. I don't know.
John Harwood: I had the lunch the other day with Bill Cohen, who as you know, was a young Republican congressman during the Nixon impeachment process. He said he thinks Trump deserves impeachment, and that in fact what we're seeing now from Trump and his administration are worse than anything Nixon ever did. Do you agree with that?
Jerry Nadler: Yeah, I do. Nixon never posed the kind of existential challenge to the separation of powers and to limited government that Trump does.
John Harwood: President Trump and some conservative Republicans say that the media, social media companies, the "deep state," are suppressing or constraining the civil liberties of conservatives or Republicans, or President Trump.
Jerry Nadler: I think it's nonsense. Do I believe that what we are doing is supporting civil liberties? Yes. I mean, they're going off on nonsensical quests – Lindsey Graham and Jordan. You know, what's the origin of the investigation? Did it start with the dossier? We know what the origin was and it wasn't the dossier and so forth. And even by the way if the origin wasn't good which it was – but even if it hadn't been, look what it found. It found – and that's the issue – it found the Russians making a concerted effort to rig an American election, and various people in the United States supporting that, and then trying to cover it up. That's the issue.
John Harwood: Lessons from Peter Rodino or Henry Hyde?
Jerry Nadler: I don't remember in detail about Rodino, except that he presided with dignity and fairness and he was reluctant to do it. In fact, the story is that when the committee voted to impeach the President, he went into his office and cried, even though he had helped to engineer the vote.
John Harwood: If that happens, are you going to go in your office and cry?
Jerry Nadler: I don't think I'll cry. I'm not that emotional. But no, what I'm looking for is – and he was crying, presumably, that it was necessary. If it's necessary, you've got to do it. We have to protect the Constitution, and protect a democratic form of government. That is overwhelmingly –
John Harwood: What about Henry Hyde?
Jerry Nadler: If we succeed in doing that, maybe I'll cry out of happiness. But not – Henry Hyde, I think he lost perspective.
John Harwood: Now, one thing that you said during that impeachment process was that an impeachment lacks legitimacy if it's done by only one party. If you have no Republican member of Congress supporting it, does that mean it can't happen?
Jerry Nadler: When you start the inquiry, you know what the evidence is or you should know enough of the evidence. Otherwise you shouldn't start the inquiry. But If you think that the evidence is so stark, about deeds so terrible, that by the end of the inquiry when it's laid out, then you'll have some Republican support – unimpeachable – then you can do it.
John Harwood: Are you concerned with and should you be concerned with the electoral impact of what you're doing?
Jerry Nadler: If you're going to do anything, you need the votes of people from districts not like mine, as well as mine, so obviously you have to take account of it. But, again, the ultimate measuring rod is saving liberties.
John Harwood: What about financial impacts? Your district encompasses Wall Street. If you thought the turmoil of an impeachment process was going to be damaging to the American economy, would that be a reason to shy away from it?
Jerry Nadler: The American economy is very large and very resilient. But number two, no. That would not be a reason. I suppose if you thought it was going to cause a major depression like the '30s, you'd have to think about it. But that's not real.
John Harwood: Would censure of the President be an effective remedy for a Constitutional crisis or violation as you would see it?
Jerry Nadler: I don't know. I'm skeptical personally of censure.
John Harwood: Why?
Jerry Nadler: Because I don't know that it means much anymore. It was done once in American history, when Andrew Jackson was censured in 1830 or '31, and then it meant something. It meant a lot. And then so much that he was infuriated and when the Democrats – he was a Democrat – when the Democrats took control of Congress, he made sure the expunged the censure resolution. But that was in the era of duels. That was in the era when someone insulted you, you took them to a duel. You shot them in Weehawken. Today, I'm not sure anybody would care about a censure resolution one way or the other. They'd laugh it off.
John Harwood: Do you think if the President were impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate, it would boost his re-election prospects?
Jerry Nadler: It might very well.
John Harwood: Would that be a reason not to do it?
Jerry Nadler: It would be a consideration, certainly.
John Harwood: As I listen to you, and I listen to other members of your party and think about how you assess the current situation, it feels to me as if politics is now the only reason for you not to impeach the President. Is that where we are?
Jerry Nadler: No. No. The major reason – certainly a major non-political reason not to impeach the President was if you thought it would tear the country apart.
John Harwood: Do you have any autonomy in that decision, or is that really the Speaker's call?
Jerry Nadler: Well, it's neither. If we were going to consider that, I'm sure a lot of people would have input into that decision. Everybody's independently elected, everybody has to get independently re-elected. The Speaker's not a tyrant, nor does she want to be. Decisions are made by consensus, I suppose. She is a very dominant leader, she gets her way a lot because she's persuasive, and because she's logical in terms of what she's supporting in the first place. But she has to listen to the caucus, as do we all.
NADLER ON BATTLING DONALD TRUMP IN 1980S NYC
John Harwood: Unlike many people in Congress, you actually have experience from the 1980′s in confronting Donald Trump, or disagreeing with Donald Trump. What did you learn from that experience?
Jerry Nadler: I didn't actually learn that much, because we didn't have very much personal contact at all. I think I met him two or three times personally. But, he threw a lot of money and political influence around. And he wanted to get his way. And I battled him because I disagreed with him.
John Harwood: He called you names and –
Jerry Nadler: Yeah I don't really remember that. He may have.
John Harwood: The story I read said he called you Fat Jerry.
Jerry Nadler: Yeah, but, was it at that time or later? I don't remember. When he first proposed this gargantuan project, everybody opposed it. And I was one of the everybody's. I mean all of the local legislators, every community group –
John Harwood: It wasn't just you.
Jerry Nadler: Oh no. Everybody opposed him. It was ridiculous, a hundred fifty story building surrounded by seven Chrysler Buildings, plus television. It was ridiculous. And I thought the design was grotesque too, but that is beside the point. Much too big, etc. Universal opposition to it. And, this was from 1985 to 1991. In '91, a compromise was reached. A much smaller project, but still gargantuan. And a lot of the groups that had opposed him supported it, and some of the civic groups did because you're going to get a nice park and various other things. Most of the other – I was a state assemblyman at the time – most of the other legislators switched from opposition to support. I did not. I didn't like the compromise either. You know, one man's compromise is another man's sellout. Depending on your view point. I thought it was still terrible and I then became the only legislator opposing it for a while and I was eventually joined by two more. And I continued to be one of the leaders of opposition.
John Harwood: Does anything about that experience inform your approach to the current situation?
Jerry Nadler: Not really. We knew he was unscrupulous, but you knew that from just his general dealings in New York. Many of the people who supported him, whether they were vendors or contractors or architects, ended up opposing him politically because they didn't like the way they were treated. They didn't think they were treated fairly. But that was really later. No, I just thought he was overbearing, and I thought he felt he could get his way no matter what, because he had the immense money and the resources. And that was wrong. I should make it clear – I opposed the project for reason that almost nobody else opposed it. Most people opposed – and that is why I didn't compromise – most people opposed the project for all the standard reasons you oppose a giant real estate project. It's too big, too tall, block the sun, too many people, too dense. All of which is true. I opposed it because it was built on a railyard which I wanted to keep operating. And I told him when he first bought the land in 1985, I told him that if he designed his project in such a way, as to allow the railyard to continue operating underneath it – and that could have been done because there was a 70 foot drop – then I might support his project, I might oppose it because I didn't know what it was going to be, but I wasn't going to kill myself. But if he designed it in such a way as to preclude the continued operation of the railyard, I would do everything I could to stop this project because I thought the railyard was vital because at that time, there was still half a million manufacturers jobs in New York City. Half of them – a quarter of a million in Manhattan below 59th street depended ultimately on rail transportation, and I wanted to save those jobs. And to me, that was the issue.
John Harwood: So do you think of that experience –
Jerry Nadler: And of course he designed it so didn't save the railyard and that is why I lead the opposition.
John Harwood: Do you think of that experience as a fight with Donald Trump that you won, unequivocally, because it wasn't built?
Jerry Nadler: No, we didn't win. The so-called compromise, which was much too big and large, was built. The rail yard stopped. No, I don't think it was a win at all. Quite the contrary.
NADLER ON THINKING THE COURTS WILL DECIDE AGAINST THE PRESIDENT
John Harwood: How confident are you that your side of that argument is going to prevail?
Jerry Nadler: I don't know. I think to a large – it probably will. Because I think the courts will – I mean, one of the problems is that every time we try to enforce a subpoena it's going to court and they are going to try and run out the clock. And they may succeed. And the fact is, we need stronger ways of enforcing Congressional subpoenas, some of which would take Congressional action to change the law, which the Republicans won't do in the Senate. But I'm thinking beyond this President, too. So even if they run out the clock on a lot of it, the law – the courts will decide against the President in most of these things because –
John Harwood: Even though the Supreme Court is a majority – has a conservative majority?
Jerry Nadler: Yeah because it isn't a question of conservative. Unless you say it's not a conservative majority but it is a partisan dishonest majority. If it's a conservative, honest majority, that is they are acting on ideological considerations, on legal considerations, not on what's do whatever the President wants, he's going to lose.
John Harwood: Do you believe it is?
Jerry Nadler: I hope it is.
John Harwood: But what do you think?
Jerry Nadler: I suspect it is. I suspect that you certainly have four judges there who do the right thing. Roberts I assume will probably do the right thing. He is a very conservative judge, but he seems to be an honest one. I don't know about some of the others. But I suspect you have – I mean, again, you look at the Nixon court. On the case of U.S. versus Nixon, the tapes case, there was the strongest possible assertion of executive privilege. These were tapes of the President talking to his advisers and getting advice from them. The strongest possible case for keeping it quiet so the President could sign his advice, which is the germ, the essence of executive privilege. And the court ruled eight to nothing that it had to be made public, that it had to be given to Congress because executive privilege couldn't shield wrongdoing. Given that, for court now, to say no, all of this evidence of possibly of wrongdoing, or whatever yields to very tenuous claims of executive privilege. I mean the Mueller report, the redacted version of the Mueller report, the Grand Jury evidence aside, we have an argument, a real argument. That aside, there is no real executive privilege argument for any of that. President just asserts it or claims it very attenuated. So, I think we will win, ultimately, all of these subpoenas will win in court. And maybe – the problem is it may be too late for now – maybe too late to act on the President, which is a real problem. But it will vindicate the rights going forward. And after he is no longer President, hopefully, we will get Republicans to agree that we have to – I mean one thing we should learn is that various norms, that is to say everybody does this or no one ever does that, well, now he did. And we will probably have to enact them into laws. And hopefully once Trump is no longer the issue, we will get Republican support.
NADLER ON BILL BARR
Jerry Nadler: If you read the Mueller report, maybe there wasn't the evidence sufficient to prove beyond reasonable doubt, criminal conspiracy, but there was tons of evidence that they knew the Russians were interfering in the election on their behalf, they welcomed it, they wanted it and they coordinated with it. Colluded in a word. There's no question about that. Colluding with a foreign power to rig an American election. There's no question.
John Harwood: Despite Bill Barr saying over and over, "no collusion."
Jerry Nadler: Bill Barr is just a liar. And, he's just representing the President. I mean, when he put out his interpretation of the report, and then kept it from everybody for four weeks so that it could come into effect, you saw that.
John Harwood: You actually think Bill Barr is just lying, as opposed to being a defender of the person who put him in the Attorney General's job?
Jerry Nadler: I'm not sure what his motive is. You could have two interpretations of Bill Barr's motives. One, the less charitable interpretation is he's doing whatever he has to do, to protect the President personally. And he'll hide whatever he has to hide. He will misrepresent – we know he misrepresented. Lied may be too strong a word, but he certainly misrepresented very strongly what was in the report. And one interpretation is that he is doing it to protect the President, that is why he is there. Different interpretation – and that is why he wrote that 19-page memo auditioning for the job. The more charitable interpretation is that he simply believes in the so-called unitary theory of government, and this tyrannical theory that the President can never – any President cannot obstruct justice, that as long as he believes that he didn't do anything wrong, he can stop an investigation. Which is a terrible doctrine because it would mean that you can't investigate any President for doing anything. And that he wrote this 19-page memo to vindicate that point of view. And that he is acting now to protect that point of view. Basically, the point of view being that the President should be a monarch. Which is very dangerous.
John Harwood: Which of those two outcomes do you believe?
Jerry Nadler: I don't know. But they're both dangerous. One would have him being very dishonest, the other would have him being honest but very dangerous to the republic. I mean, to accept that view, assuming he holds it and he is pushing that view – whether he holds it sincerely or not, I don't – I assume he does. But to accept that view no matter how sincerely held, is to accept a President as a dictator and to change the form of government in this country.
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