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Jerry Nadler Was Born to Battle Trump

The House Judiciary Committee chair has been preparing for this moment for decades.

Illustration by Eddie Guy

Jerry Nadler and Donald Trump have a history. As Michael Daly has recounted in The Daily Beast, Trump approached Nadler in the 1980s, when Nadler was still a state assemblyman, and asked to build a skyscraper in his district. At 150 stories, it would have been the tallest building in the world, housing NBC’s new headquarters and some 5,700 apartments. Nadler said no. He wanted the city to use the site, which was on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, for a new affordable housing complex. Trump was furious. Not long after, he gave Nadler one of his typical derisive nicknames—“Fat Jerry.”

Trump, of course, did not know that three decades later, Nadler would be heading up a congressional committee with perhaps the most sweeping mandate—not to mention the clout and resources—to check his corrupt and inept administration. In March, as one of his first acts as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Nadler launched an expansive probe into Trump’s behavior as candidate and president. He has already sent more than 80 letters to individuals and entities, demanding documents that outline years of dealings with Trump. And in the days after Robert Mueller sent his report to the Department of Justice, Nadler made it clear that he would do everything in his power to ensure that his committee, the House, and ultimately the American people could see the full report and judge its implications and findings for themselves.

Nadler might seem like an unusual political leader to take on the role of presidential nemesis; he is thoughtful, thorough, and cerebral, a man of ideas—the opposite of Trump. But he knows the terrain better than most. He has sat on the Judiciary Committee for more than a quarter century, and spent most of that tenure on the subcommittee that oversees constitutional questions. He has watched Bill Clinton get impeached—and had a hand in not impeaching George W. Bush. But even for someone with Nadler’s wide range of experience, the House Judiciary Committee will be a tough battleground.

Because it deals with the most divisive issues, from abortion to gun rights to immigration to prison reform, Judiciary attracts the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats. The current Republican contingent is almost a rogues’ gallery of the more extreme Freedom Caucus bomb-throwers; Louie Gohmert, Jim Jordan, and Matt Gaetz are only the start. There are no thoughtful, moderate conservatives, as there were when Chairman Peter Rodino held hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon—no Tom Railsbacks, M. Caldwell Butlers, or William Cohens. The Democrats have some of their most liberal members on the committee, too, and some of their brightest stars—from Zoe Lofgren to Ted Deutch to Karen Bass and Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, to Eric Swalwell, Ted Lieu, and Jamie Raskin. Nadler, however, stands out—not only for his keen legal mind, but because he understands the magnitude of what he is now required to do, and the man he is going up against.

Jerrold “Jerry” Nadler was born in Brooklyn, on June 13, 1947, almost a year to the day after Donald Trump, who was born, just one borough over, in Queens, on June 14, 1946. But while Trump’s family was wealthy, Nadler had a far more modest upbringing. His father, Emanuel, was an office manager for a gasoline distribution business. After Stuyvesant High, he went to Columbia on a Pulitzer scholarship, and to law school at night at Fordham while serving in the New York State Assembly. (They didn’t overlap, but Trump also spent time at Fordham before transferring to Wharton.) In 1992, after 16 years in the State Assembly, and two unsuccessful bids for higher office, the congressman representing Manhattan’s West Side, Ted Weiss, died days before the primary, and Nadler was chosen to replace him.

I met Nadler soon after he arrived in Congress in 1992. He was clearly smart and politically savvy, and very serious, but I am not sure I would have forecast his eventual rise to prominence. His congressman growing up was Emanuel Celler, a legendary champion of civil rights and liberties who chaired the Judiciary Committee for 22 years. Nadler idolized him and became interested in civil liberties himself, so when he entered Congress, he gravitated to Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, which he chaired, or served on as ranking member, for 13 years, compiling a reliably liberal record to match his district, which snakes along Manhattan’s West Side and into Brooklyn.

In 1998, not long after Nadler was elected to his fourth term, the committee voted out articles of impeachment on President Clinton. Its chairman at the time, Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, had hoped to make the process careful, constrained, and serious—and bipartisan enough to generate public support. (“You don’t impeach him for a peccadillo,” he said.) Of course, the process was anything but. The Judiciary Committee became a snake pit of partisan acrimony, led by a highly aggressive and virulently anti-Clinton chief counsel whom Hyde had chosen. At the time, Nadler—who became a liberal hero for his tough defense of Clinton and attacks on Hyde’s process—referred to it as “a partisan railroad job” and to Ken Starr as a “jerk.” He told The New York Times he wanted either to change the law that allows an independent counsel to look into the president’s misdeeds, or to abolish it altogether.

Nadler later resisted calls for hearings to impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, saying that even if Bush had committed impeachable offenses, the partisan atmosphere—and the timing, just before a presidential election—would make it unfeasible.

Today, he is weighing many of the same factors, and facing down a Congress more bitterly divided than any he has ever seen. When Trump was first elected, Republican Bob Goodlatte chaired the Judiciary Committee and wasted no time in making it as fiercely partisan and Trump-friendly as possible. As Nadler told me when we talked in March, the day before Mueller concluded his investigation, “[Goodlatte] and his colleagues did anything they could to hinder any attempts to hold Trump accountable.” Nadler sought out bipartisan compromise and action where he could—he worked with ranking Republican Doug Collins of Georgia on criminal justice reform and music licensing, for example—but sharp partisan and tribal differences carry the day on this as on all other congressional committees.

Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report was far from a “total exoneration,” as Trump and his loyalists have proclaimed. We do not know whether additional evidence will unearth connections between Trump campaign staff and Russia (or WikiLeaks), nor do we know what precisely Mueller told Barr about whether Trump had obstructed justice. We are still waiting for action from the Southern District of New York and for conclusions from the multiple other investigations still underway. As a result, we do not know if or when the Judiciary Committee will initiate some kind of impeachment inquiry. (One can imagine Nadler initiating one, if only to provide the appropriate leverage he and his colleagues would need to access the full report.) What we do know, however, is what Nadler has said about the man in the White House. “We are faced with a president who poses the most significant threat to our values since the Civil War,” he told me—threats to the rule of law, the free press, an independent judiciary, and the panoply of democratic institutions.

It will not be easy for Nadler or for his counterparts on other House Committees—including Adam Schiff at Intelligence, Elijah Cummings at Oversight, Maxine Waters at Banking, Richard Neal at Ways and Means, and Eliot Engel at Foreign Affairs—to hold this administration accountable. So far, it has stonewalled requests for documents and testimony, and we will soon see a flurry of subpoenas and, undoubtedly, duels about separation of powers going to the courts.

To help, Nadler has staffed up, with many heavy hitters who have left lucrative legal posts to join the committee, and two special counsels, Norm Eisen, former Obama White House ethics czar, and Barry Berke, a noted New York lawyer who has specialized in white-collar crime. They will help navigate the issues flowing from Mueller and the other investigations into Trump, along with the many other questions on Judiciary’s docket in the coming months: daca, antitrust, and the Voting Rights Act are only a few. There have already been hearings on the president’s power to issue pardons and to declare states of emergency. For Nadler, these are no less important than his mandate to counter the momentum toward autocracy and to shore up democratic institutions and practices under siege.

Trump and his acolytes are sure to launch attacks more vicious than “Fat Jerry.” Nadler has not had to deal much with such personal scrutiny before. But like Peter Rodino before him, this chairman of the Judiciary Committee seems ready to rise to the occasion when the times demand it.