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A campaign for impeachment that’s downright Trumpian

Why We Wrote This

Democratic leaders don’t want to talk about impeachment. But billionaire Tom Steyer is tapping into a growing willingness of many Americans to question the legitimacy of their presidents.

Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune/AP
California philanthropist and Democratic activist Tom Steyer answers an audience member's question during a Need to Impeach town hall, on May 30, in Minneapolis. Mr. Steyer's petition drive, begun in October 2017, now has more than 5.4 million signatures.

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To anyone who watches cable news, Tom Steyer’s intense tone and demeanor are familiar. He’s been on TV since last October in an eight-figure ad buy calling for President Trump’s impeachment. So far, nearly 5.4 million people have signed his petition. Now in the middle of a 30-city, self-funded “Need To Impeach” tour aimed at activating anti-Trump forces, Mr. Steyer doesn’t offer wonky explanations of the emoluments clause or the minutiae of how to impeach and expel a president. He’s working to motivate the anti-Trump “base” and inspire alienated citizens to start voting again. The effort is downright Trumpian – a billionaire with strong views, a blunt message, and a taste for big rallies and engaging with voters. In a Monitor interview, Steyer expresses frustration with his own party leaders, who have been trying to tamp down impeachment talk. His strategy of going straight to the people to inspire an uprising that he hopes will force Democratic politicians to act also has a Trumpian feel. “The politicians – there’s nothing that’s going to get them to move,” Steyer says. “It’s basically got to be the American people who say, ‘He’s got to go.’ ”

Tom Steyer takes the stage to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a-Changin’ ” – surely an intentional choice, as we are in Minnesota – Dylan country.

But the song’s message, a call to action from an earlier era of social foment, may be more aspirational than actual. Mr. Steyer, a San Francisco billionaire, is in the middle of a 30-city, self-funded “Need To Impeach” tour aimed at activating anti-Trump forces. And even with polls showing that most Democratic voters support the idea of impeaching President Trump, party leaders think talking up impeachment now is a terrible idea.

It’s too soon, they say. Such talk divides the country even further, and risks dividing Democrats. And it would be a gift to Republicans ahead of the November midterms. Overall, public support for impeachment appears stuck at about 40 percent. But the former Democratic mega-donor is undaunted.

“We think that impeachment is the biggest political issue in the United States of America,” says Steyer, speaking recently before a town hall of more than 300 people in Minneapolis. “We think that impeachment is the tool that the framers of the Constitution gave the citizens to get rid of a reckless, lawless, and dangerous president.”

To anyone who watches cable news, Steyer’s intense tone and demeanor are familiar. He’s been on TV since last October in an eight-figure ad buy calling for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, and urging Americans to sign his Need To Impeach petition. So far, nearly 5.4 million people are on board.

The effort is downright Trumpian – a billionaire with strong views, a blunt message, and a taste for big rallies and engaging with voters. At his events, Steyer isn’t out to offer wonky explanations of the emoluments clause or the minutiae of how to impeach and expel a president. He’s there to motivate the anti-Trump “base” with broad strokes, and inspire alienated citizens to start voting again.

“Partly, it’s taking a page from Donald Trump’s own playbook,” says Kevin Mack, the lead strategist for the $40 million Need to Impeach campaign.

Steyer himself, in a Monitor interview, channels a bit of Trump-style populism in his frustration with Washington and his own party establishment. His strategy of going straight to the people to inspire an uprising that he hopes will force Democratic politicians to act also has a Trumpian feel.

“The politicians – there’s nothing that’s going to get them to move. The only people who matter in this are the American people,” Steyer says.

“And that’s probably right, because you’re throwing out an elected president,” he continues, leaning hard on the word “elected.” “So if you’re going to throw him out, it’s basically got to be the American people who say, ‘He’s got to go.’ ”

Steyer bristles at suggestions that it’s “too soon” or that he’s “normalizing” impeachment. He is reminded that every president since Ronald Reagan has faced calls for impeachment by House members, if not actually been impeached, as with Bill Clinton. But Steyer is unfazed. The danger isn’t normalizing impeachment, he says, it’s normalizing Trump’s behavior.

It’s “a normalization of lawlessness,” says Steyer, whose website lists what he calls Trump’s eight impeachable offenses.

Also being “normalized” is a willingness by Americans to question the legitimacy of their presidents, as well as the institution of the presidency and of democracy itself. George W. Bush won his first term only after a Supreme Court intervention, and without winning the popular vote. Trump, too, lost the popular vote. Mr. Clinton won twice with a plurality of the vote. Barack Obama faced questions about his citizenship throughout his presidency.

Growing political polarization feeds into the lack of consensus about government. Last October, the Pew Research Center reported that the nation’s partisan divide on political values, which had reached record levels under President Obama, had grown still wider in Trump’s first year.

The concept of a “loyal opposition” is increasingly foreign. Since Trump’s election, lawn signs saying “Not My President” and “Resist” are common in neighborhoods dominated by Democrats.

On the question of timing, Steyer argues that the “evidence” speaks for itself – that Trump is already so impeachable that it’s not even necessary to wait for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation into possible collaboration between Trump associates and Russia in the 2016 campaign, as well as possible obstruction of justice.

“Mueller is a criminal prosecutor,” says Steyer. “Impeachment is a political act.”

Town hall as therapy session

A half hour before Steyer’s Minneapolis town hall, the line outside the Machine Shop – a historic, newly renovated event space – snakes around the corner. It’s an older, largely white crowd, and most are fully on board with the drive to impeach. Security is tight.

Inside, a buffet of hors d’oeuvres awaits. Judy Kahm, a retired researcher at the University of Minnesota, is newly activated in politics. “I wasn’t involved until the women’s march,” says Ms. Kahm, wearing a T-shirt for a local Democratic candidate and fully supportive of impeachment.

But her friend Lynn Levine, enjoying some guacamole, is on the fence about Steyer’s approach, and came to hear him out.

“I have issues with Trump being impeached,” says Ms. Levine, a retired school psychologist. “There will be a backlash. Plus, we get Pence,” she adds, referring to the vice president. “I think he’s more dangerous, because he looks normal.”

Levine skips over the fact that impeachment by the House doesn’t remove a president from office, but leads to a trial in the Senate. Conviction – and removal from office – requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 out of 100 senators, a bar that has never been cleared.

But few here are sweating the details. Many also aren’t aware that the Democratic leadership in Washington does not support Steyer’s campaign. Not that it matters: This town hall is as much therapy session as pep rally, a chance to gather with like-minded people, air grievances about Trump, and get marching orders for the midterms. One man wears a red hat that says “Make Red Hats Wearable Again” – a spoof on the red “Make America Great Again” hats worn by Trump supporters.

During the Q & A, audience members vent about the president’s immigration policies; attacks on the press, the justice system, and the intelligence community; the minimal pushback on Trump’s actions by Republicans; the role of money in politics. Minorities and young people are among the most vocal, a departure from the crowd’s overall cast.

“I’m from Ethiopia,” one man says. “Today, Ethiopians see the US government as the enemy. How we can engage and work with you?”

A girl from St. Paul speaks up: “What can young people do?”

Such questions set up one of Steyer’s core points – that getting the nation back on track requires leaders to be “close to the American people … listening in the communities.” His existing grassroots organization – NextGen America, which he launched in 2013 as NextGen Climate – provides the ground troops for his effort to help Democrats retake the House in November and amass the majority needed to impeach Trump.

While Need To Impeach has a staff of 41 people, NextGen is close to 500, says Mr. Mack, the strategist. Steyer has pledged to spend $30 million on NextGen, which targets millennials.

“It’s the largest age cohort, the most diverse in American history, the most progressive cohort,” Steyer tells the crowd. “They’re very knowledgeable, very passionate, not lazy. And they don’t believe in the system.”

Measuring the impact

Voters are divided on whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, with 39 percent saying “yes” and 42 percent saying “no” in the May Harvard-Harris poll. An additional 19 percent said he should be censured by Congress. Those numbers have barely budged in the past year.

Which raises a question: Has Steyer’s seven-month-old campaign had any impact? As a successful hedge-fund manager, he’s all about metrics and performance. But poll numbers are not his main bottom line: Inspiring Democrats to turn out in the November midterms is at least as important.

Steyer sees plenty of opportunity with his 5.4 million petition-signers, a number that Mack defends, saying it’s regularly “scrubbed” for double-signers and other mischief. Mack has run surveys of signers, and reports that more than 60 percent of them are infrequent midterm voters. Among signers who live in the 75 most competitive congressional districts, 67 percent are infrequent midterm voters. Those are votes that could tip close races toward Democrats, he says.

“When you dig down and ask them survey questions – like, ‘Why sign a petition but not vote?’ – they’re very clear about three things,” Mack says. 1.) “No Democrats run in my area.” 2.) “The Democrats that do run are so conservative they don’t really represent my views.” 3.) “Congressional Democrats just don’t stand for anything anymore.”

In other words, they think the system is broken. The swamp has won. They sound like the mirror image of Trump supporters, who had given up on politics and voting but were lured back in by a charismatic figure with a compelling message. The real metric that Steyer is aiming for is not just a Democratic takeover of Congress, but to win as big a Democratic majority as possible, adding fuel to his impeachment drive.

In the interview, Steyer expresses frustration that “Democratic leaders don’t want to have this conversation” about impeachment. “They think it will divide the Democratic Party, it will embolden Republicans to come out and vote,” he says. “They’re reliving 1998. I get that.”

That’s the year Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In the ‘98 midterms, Democrats defied the historical norm and gained five seats. But Steyer says Trump’s offenses far surpass those of Clinton or even President Richard Nixon, who resigned as impeachment loomed. And there’s never a good time to do something this difficult and unpleasant, Steyer says.  

“If you never stand up for principle, because it’s inconvenient, awkward, and politically poor tactics,” Steyer says, “then you never stand up for what’s right.”

A church-going Episcopalian, Steyer brings a hint of religion to his campaign. On the back of his left hand, he often draws a Jerusalem cross – a reminder of his wife and four children, and to stay true to his beliefs.

Presidential aspirations?

Steyer’s future, it’s easy to surmise, may include running for president. His town-hall tour has already taken him to early caucus and primary states (Iowa, South Carolina) and key general election battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida. On Wednesday, he appears in Reno, Nev., another early caucus state, and a swing state in the general election.

It would be another Trumpian move for the Californian – a wealthy political donor with no government experience – to go for the big job. A veritable caucus of billionaires is already generating buzz around 2020, including Steyer, Oprah Winfrey, outgoing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and investor Mark Cuban.

Steyer had openly considered running for Senate or governor of California this cycle, but opted out. When asked by the Monitor about running for president, he keeps his options open: “What I have said, which is true, is we are totally focused on Nov. 6, 2018.”

Even if Democrats retake the House, Steyer knows the road to impeachment would be tough. At the Minneapolis town hall, a woman named Cindy asks if “we can get some famous people, movie stars, rock bands” to join the effort.

“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of mobilizing famous people, but it would be helpful to have them speak up,” Steyer responds, noting support from the rapper Common.

On the Minneapolis stage, Steyer wasn’t joined by any prominent political figures – such as Minnesota Rep. and deputy Democratic National Committee chair Keith Ellison, in whose district the town hall took place; or Richard Painter, a former Republican White House ethics chair and now a Democrat running for the US Senate from Minnesota. Impeaching Trump is part of Mr. Painter’s platform.

Steyer has gotten some positive, if symbolic, reinforcement in Congress. In both December and January, Rep. Al Green (D) of Texas sponsored procedural votes on impeachment. The first went down to defeat 364-58, the second 355-66. Both times, only Democrats voted yes.

Republicans are warning that a Democratic takeover of the House would lead to Trump’s impeachment – which they see as a coup – and hope to spur GOP turnout with that message. Former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon calls the midterms “an up or down vote on impeachment.”

“Trump is on the ballot in every congressional district,” he told CNN on June 3. “This is not going to be some Democratic congressman versus Republican congressman. This is going to be Donald Trump versus [House Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and Tom Steyer.”

Congresswoman Pelosi has called on Democrats to stop the impeachment talk, calling it “a gift to the Republicans.” But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake sees how Steyer’s impeachment message could help the party.

“There is what I call the ‘revolutionary base,’ those who are vehemently anti-Trump and very, very progressive; some feel there’s no point in voting,” says Ms. Lake. “I think the impeachment effort could mobilize some of those voters.”

As the Minneapolis town hall winds down, Levine, the retired psychologist, walks by the press seats and says she “might change her mind” on impeachment.

“I think we might be better off with [Vice President] Pence than Trump,” she says on the phone later, citing Steyer’s arguments on Trump’s alleged financial malfeasance in office.

And she likes Steyer’s passion. Add another signature to his petition.

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