Ask a person of a certain age what they remember about the Watergate investigation, and they’ll rattle off two names: Richard Nixon and Peter Rodino.
The first, of course, is the president brought down by that investigation, who resigned in disgrace on August 9, 1974, before the House could vote to impeach him. The second is less well known but still a major figure in the history of 20th-century American politics. Rodino took over as chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee months before the historic Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974, and he wrote his name into the history books with his stewardship of the Judiciary Committee, leading to the first successful impeachment vote of a president in 106 years.
Today, the Judiciary Committee chairman’s gavel is held by Jerry Nadler, a liberal congressman who represents Manhattan and Brooklyn. Equal parts bookish law nerd and streetwise political operator, Nadler is leading the fight to pry loose a full copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. And if impeachment articles are brought against President Trump, Nadler will be the one to bring them. Future generations could remember Nadler the way people who lived through Watergate talk about Peter Rodino.
I hung out with and interviewed Nadler as the battle over the Mueller report reached a fever pitch. My profile of him gets inside the head of the man tasked with safeguarding the rule of law in the age of Trump.
Jerry Nadler Won’t Stop Until the Full Mueller Report is Out
The House Judiciary chair and New York congressman has brawled with Trump for more than 30 years
Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is about to do something wholly out of character: pay the Trump administration a compliment, sort of. It’s a late morning at the end of March, and Nadler is sipping Diet Coke from a paper cup in his spacious office in Washington, D.C., slouched so deeply into his chair that he seems to be submerging into the books and manila folders stacked atop his desk.
“It’s a very intelligent press strategy,” he says, jabbing a finger onto his desk, where a pocket-size copy of the Constitution peeks out of his business-card holder. He’s talking about Attorney General William Barr’s March 24th letter outlining the “principal conclusions” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr’s letter claimed that not only did Mueller find no evidence of conspiracy by the Trump campaign, but in Barr’s view, Trump also did not obstruct justice — in part because there was no underlying crime to cover up.
“What that letter is is a press release,” Nadler tells me in his thick Brooklyn accent. “It’s the only thing out there for a few days or weeks or whatever, and the president can claim vindication, when the report may be very different, for all we know.”
Nadler, who stands five feet four and prefers sweater vests and impossibly high-waisted trousers, could reasonably pass for a judge or a law professor, and the ease with which he dismantles Barr’s no-obstruction argument suggests he missed his true calling in the courtroom. “For example — and just to be very obvious about it — I am suspected of committing the crime of bank robbery,” he tells me. “I know I didn’t do it. But I decide, in order to avoid being convicted for this crime I never committed, to perjure myself in front of the grand jury, bribe witnesses, et cetera. I’ve committed crimes even though there’s no underlying crime.” Barr’s reasoning, he says, “is just wrong.”
Seeing Barr cover for the president has only deepened Nadler’s resolve that he and his committee must get their hands on the full Mueller report — without redactions — and share as much of it with the public as they can. (On Tuesday, Barr promised a redacted version would be released within the week.) “The whole point of the special counsel is to take this away from politics so that the public can depend on an independent assessment,” Nadler says. “And what did we get? A political guy doing the president’s job.”
Since retaking the majority, House Democrats have opened numerous fronts in their campaign to hold Trump accountable. The Ways and Means Committee has formally requested six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; Deutsche Bank, the president’s lender of choice, is cooperating with an inquiry by the Financial Services Committee; the Intelligence Committee has reopened its investigation into Russian interference in the election; and the Oversight Committee is probing the White House’s security-clearance process and whether Trump scuttled the FBI’s plan to move out of its headquarters across the street from his D.C. hotel (ostensibly to prevent a rival hotel from taking the space).
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler has a front-row seat to what he describes as the “borderline criminal and certainly anti-democratic” actions of the president. More than that, he is the lawmaker with the most power to check Trump’s lawlessness. The Judiciary Committee’s mandate, Nadler says, is safeguarding the norms and laws of this country; his portfolio of issues includes immigration, civil rights, criminal justice and much more. His committee also oversees the Justice Department, which means that if the complete Mueller report ever sees the light of day, it will be because of Nadler. He can subpoena documents, force government officials to testify before him (Mueller and Barr, for example) and drag the White House into court if necessary. And if Mueller’s report — or some other revelation involving Trump’s conduct — reveals clear evidence of impeachable offenses, it will be Nadler and his Judiciary Committee that introduce articles of impeachment.