Noah Bookbinder may not be the first guy you’d draft to help unseat a president.
For months, panicky liberals have gazed hopefully at special counsel Robert Mueller, the square-jawed former FBI director whose legal dream team has been kicking down doors and questioning countless Donald Trump associates over allegations that sound like something out of a spy novel. But the likeliest person to take down Trump might well be an unassuming lawyer with the demeanor of your friendly neighborhood dry cleaner.
Bookbinder’s nonprofit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued the president this year for allegedly breaching the Constitution’s little-known “emoluments clause” by enriching himself with foreign payments. If successful, CREW could win access to the president’s closely guarded business records and tax returns.
“And if it gets to that point,” said Bookbinder, a short, balding man who keeps his spartan office stocked with rice cakes, “he might rather resign.”
Of course, it’s also highly possible that this lawsuit will go nowhere. But CREW will still have won, with its soaring new stature in the fast-growing sector of the Beltway economy devoted to disrupting the Disrupter-in-Chief.
These are boom times for the anti-Trump industrial complex. Fundraising is through the roof for lefty organizations that hadn’t been relevant since the Clinton era; the grass roots have never been greener for new activist groups; and political hacks may be sexier than ever. A clique of former Obama speechwriters with a sideline in #Resistance podcasting is selling out 6,000-person concert halls; Rob Reiner, the director of “Spinal Tap,” has teamed up with James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, to found the Committee to Investigate Russia; and liberal activists recently surpassed the Guinness world record for the most people on, yes, a conference call.
For Bookbinder, though, success could become a liability.
To get its day in court, CREW needs to prove it has standing — that it has been personally harmed by Trump’s supposed misdeeds. Bookbinder’s argument is equal parts brilliant and absurd: that the president’s copious ethics controversies have become an unsurmountable time suck for CREW, preventing it from tending to traditional watchdog duties such as monitoring dark-money groups or catching congressmen who use taxpayer dollars to decorate their offices. The judge, however, may well note that since Trump took office, CREW has raised so much money from concerned citizens that it has doubled its staff and moved up to a better office of its own.
Bookbinder admits the lawsuit is a long shot and cautions that the toppling of the presidency isn’t even the ultimate goal. CREW, he says, simply wants a return to ethical norms.
And yet . . .
“If somehow he is not president anymore, then he’s not violating the emoluments clause, and all of the ethical problems go away,” he said with a smile, his eyebrows roaming excitedly onto the plains of his forehead. “In some ways, it would be great to be the ones that did it.”
A hero complex can take you far in Washington. It’s the engine driving underpaid campaign managers and Hill staffers through 20-hour days. It can help you win the unwinnable, or justify that which cannot be justified. It can make you a boss, if it doesn’t make you an exile. You need a hero complex to run for president. And you definitely need one to take down a president.
“A lot of this is casting the right person to meet the moment,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director at MoveOn.org. “We have a many-tentacled antagonist, and the nation’s storytellers are begging for protagonists to battle against the hydra.”
It’s a cyclical phenomenon: The Obama presidency was the best thing that ever happened to Fox News, and it created the perfect climate for the Breitbart fever swamps. George W. Bush gave us the rise of Keith Olbermann rants and Jon Stewart snark, and there would be no vast right-wing conspiracy without the Clintons. Never waste a good crisis, D.C. denizens love to say. And they’re not about to waste a great one.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Robert Creamer, a progressive organizer with Democracy Partners. “And this is the most excitement I’ve ever seen from groups on the left. That includes the civil rights era, Vietnam. . . . People know to strike when the iron is hot.”
The left is enjoying more donations, more volunteers, bigger budgets, greater enthusiasm. If Trump were to fire Mueller, dozens of organizations that have been gathering on weekly phone calls stand ready to put together a nationwide protest on the same day.
But while the right fights over who gets to draw up the blueprints for their kingdom, the left can’t help but fight over whose army will get to blow it up.
“We’re in the middle of a low-grade civil war on the left,” said Rodell Mollineau, the former president of the American Bridge 21st Century super PAC. “Everyone’s out there fighting for donors, for relevance, for power, for the chance to whisper in the next leader’s ear.”
Democrats seem destined to re-litigate the 2016 election until the end of time. A former Clinton aide founded Verrit, a website that aims to give liberals the tools to win social-media debates, and kicked off with, among other postings, one blaming Bernie Sanders for putting Trump in the White House. Members of the Sanders diaspora, meanwhile, have started the Our Revolution organization to try to keep dragging the party to the left.
Big players with bruised egos are looking for redemption. David Brock, the operative behind American Bridge and other Clinton-aligned groups, returned to work after having an actual post-election heart attack. The Center of American Progress, founded by John Podesta and heavily seeded with Clinton vets, has created a war room investigating Trump’s ties with Russia. It’s called the Moscow Project, which was a bummer for Zac Petkanas, another Democratic operative who wanted to call his own messaging start-up the Kremlin Project.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re players on the same team competing for the home run record,” said Harrell Kirstein, a spokesman for Bridge, which focuses on opposition research. “If somebody gets the glory we’re going to be excited and jump on the train, but we’d rather get there first.”
But competition is a good thing, says Brad Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic operative now fighting Obamacare repeal efforts with a group called Protect Our Care.
“Getting a spotlight shone on your work in many cases is a big part of the work,” he said. For a group like CREW, the spotlight helps its mission of keeping the public informed.
“It’s also important,” he added, “for fundraising.”
Democrats like to rage about money in politics and the distractions of fundraising. But when it comes to financing the cause of taking on the president, they’re all in. MoveOn.org has more than tripled its budget since Trump became president. New grass-roots groups like Indivisible have flourished thanks to thousands of new donors, many of whom barely gave a whit about politics before the last election.
And although it’s still possible to rally the base with issues of actual policy — witness the frenetic call-your-congressman campaign of the health-care fight — nothing gets these folks more energized than the promise of a successful presidentectomy. For them, 2020 and its growing crowd of Democratic challengers just isn’t soon enough.
An online effort called ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org raised more than $200,000, some of which will fund a billboard outside of Mar-a-Lago reading “No one is above the law.” And even citizens with little or no political experience are getting in on the action. Kirstin Elaine Martin, a Massachusetts public-relations consultant in Massachusetts, raised $33,000 in a quixotic effort to petition the Supreme Court for a redo election.
“If we can get a new election with the money we’ve raised,” she said. “It’ll be the best deal in America.”
A couple of weeks before Bob Dylan plays Washington’s new concert hall, the Anthem, the boys from the Pod Save America podcast will take the same big stage, probably sitting on a couch, to discuss resistance politics.
“Trump is proof that politics is an every-day business,” said Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter and co-founder of the podcast. “For progressives to realize the goals they believe in, you need constant activism. And Donald Trump woke a lot of people up who weren’t paying attention.”
It’s one of the great ironies of his presidency that many things Trump fights against end up doing well. He’s helped subscriptions soar at the “failing” New York Times. Lobbyists are flourishing in their role as swamp guides. And the left has never felt more emboldened — albeit cautiously, of course.
“I wouldn’t choose to have him as president,” said Wikler, of MoveOn.org. “But there’s a chance that he ends up really helping the progressive cause by banding everyone together . . . if we can stop some of his worst impulses first.”
“He could help create a lasting progressive movement,” said Creamer, of Democracy Partners. “If we can avoid nuclear war.”
For Adam Jentleson, who runs CAP’s Moscow Project, the irony of his antagonistic relationship with the president is not lost on him. Potential hires have asked him: What happens if Trump leaves the White House?
Granted, Trump has already survived a lot; he may well go on to serve eight full years, despite the lawsuits, the investigations, the protests and all the pieces of damning opposition research that find their way onto the front pages of national newspapers.
And yet, with so many crosshairs trained on Trump, it’s only natural to wonder what would happen if his presidency ended prematurely — especially if your employment depends on it.
“Talk about problems you’d want to have,” Jentleson said. “Our first move would be to go get a drink and celebrate. But then . . . who knows? We might not have a job.”