The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to impeach the president? This billionaire is on the case.

Democratic donor Tom Steyer said on Jan. 8 that he won't be running for office in 2018, but will be pouring more money into mobilizing and organizing voters. (Video: Reuters)

On a recent weekday afternoon in Largo, Md., California billionaire Tom Steyer — a philanthropist, political fundraiser and former hedge fund manager — changed out of his business suit, zipped up a Mr. Rogers sweater, ambled into a conference room at a DoubleTree off the Beltway and began talking with the assembled 11 attendees about his most recent endeavor.

“I’m Tom,” he said, making his way to the front of the town hall and quickly turning to the issue at hand. “We are here to discuss impeaching a lawless and dangerous president.”

“Yes,” murmured one would-be impeacher, a retiree in sensible shoes.

“To remove a president is a huge task,” Steyer continued. “It can really only happen if the American people insist on it.”

Oh, yes,” murmured another, a freelance computer technician.

The low attendance was due to an address mix-up: Everyone had signed up via Steyer’s initiative, Need to Impeach, and originally the mailing list had directed them to the Marriott down the road. Only the most enterprising among them had reached the DoubleTree, where Steyer’s volunteers were already removing rows of seats so as not to highlight empty chairs.

Steyer, 60, did not seem overly bothered — “We’re making this up as we go along, for goodness’ sake,” he said more than once — and at another town hall later that night, the crowd would top a hundred. The diminutive Largo audience did not seem overly bothered, either: Before the program began, one attendee could be heard telling another: “I’m just glad to be here. It was either this or scream into my pillow some more.”

“Now, we know if we impeach this president, the next president in office is going to be a Republican,” Steyer cautioned from the front of the room. “It’s going to be Pence, probably, but if something happens, it will be another Republican.”

The would-be impeachers nodded to show that they understood this necessary hiccup in the removal of the leader of the free world.

“We’re looking at this as straight-up patriotism, not partisanship.”

The impeachers nodded.

“Now,” Steyer continued, asking a question that got to the heart of the matter. “Why are we sitting in a room in Maryland talking about this instead of having this taken care of by elected officials?”

Impeaching President Trump. It was a shoot-the-moon strategy, which very few elected officials had shown interest in pursuing, which would need to be based on information someone (Robert S. Mueller III?) was theoretically investigating but which might not exist at all, and which would then need to be voted through by the House of Representatives, which was controlled by Republicans.

The United States had never ousted a president via this mechanism: The House had brought formal impeachment charges — treason, bribery and “high crimes and misdemeanors” were the standard options — against both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, but the Senate had never gathered its two-third majority required for a conviction and removal.

Still. In 2016, a cohort of right-leaning Americans had found their champion in Donald Trump. In 2018, a cohort of left-leaning Americans were still searching for the appropriate talisman to combat Donald Trump. By sitting in a room in Maryland and talking about it, Tom Steyer was either providing the moral uplift keeping millions of Democrats from smothering themselves with pillows, or he was performing the dingbattiest windmill-tilting since Don Quixote.

If you own a television, you have probably seen Steyer on it. A longtime Democratic activist — during the Obama administration, his name was floated for both treasury and energy secretary — he launched Need to Impeach last October with a national television commercial on major news networks.

Steyer paid $10 million for the slot and narrated it himself. “He’s brought us to the brink of nuclear war,” Steyer said, over a montage of Trump’s early days in office. “He’s obstructed justice at the FBI. And in direct violation of the Constitution, he’s taken money from foreign governments and threatened to shut down news organizations that report the truth. If this is not a case for impeaching and removing a dangerous president, then what has our government become?”

Political mega-donor Tom Steyer launched a TV ad campaign to push officials to impeach President Trump. (Video: Tom Steyer)

At the end, Steyer appeared — lanky, gray-haired with a raspy voice, the type of man who seemed well-equipped to play Sam Waterston’s understudy in a Law & Order franchise. He encouraged viewers to visit his website and sign a petition. He was identified only as “American citizen.”

Actually, Steyer had never run for public office. But he was a prolific Obama fundraiser, and Obama had won. After he left his investment firm, Farallon Capital, in 2012, he founded an advocacy group called NextGen America; NextGen had backed winning Democrats in high-profile gubernatorial or congressional campaigns.

When Steyer got the idea, in mid-2017, of impeaching Trump, Mueller had made zero indictments in his investigation regarding Russian ties to Trump’s campaign. But Steyer viewed the scenario via a cockroach analogy: “There’s never one cockroach,” he would say. If someone has done one bad thing the public knows about, there might be a dozen bad things the public doesn’t.

So he created the petition, and made the ad, and figured that impeachment-worthy evidence would catch up. Then he made six more ads. Then he assembled a panel of psychiatrists to critique the president’s mental fitness. Then, a panel of constitutional scholars to analyze the chances of removing Trump from office.

Then, somewhere in the middle, Mueller filed charges against several individuals, including former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and a baker’s dozen Russians, and Steyer felt buoyed that he was on the right track.

Town halls such as the one in Largo were Steyer’s latest push. He planned to hold them nationwide, in districts where constituent interest in impeachment seemed high, encouraging folks to lobby their representatives.

Steyer was on a salvation tour for “the soul of America.” He had become the most recognizable face — the only recognizable face? — in the impeach movement. At one town hall, a supporter told him that, as she saw it, there were currently two main voices in the Democratic Party. One was Sen. Bernie Sanders, she said. The other “is you.”

Note: The only time a member of Congress — Al Green (D-Tex.) — had actually introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, in December, the motion was defeated. Badly, 364 to 58. Even Sanders (I-Vt.) warned that impeachment discussions were “jumping the gun.” Steyer was out-Bernie-ing Bernie.

Which might be why, when you call members of Congress who represent districts where Steyer has held or scheduled town halls, you get reactions like this:

“Yeah,” said one staffer, emitting a sigh upon hearing Steyer’s name before declining an interview on his boss’s behalf. “We definitely know about him.”

Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), whose district includes Largo, was circumspect in talking about the town hall Steyer was holding in his district:

“I mean, I’ve been in office now for 15 months — I’ve held 30 town halls,” Brown said in an interview. “Admittedly, in the first two or three months, Trump dominated them: Trump as a person. Trump’s policy positions.”

But for the past 12 months, Brown said, his constituents have been less Trump-focused. His district is full of Washington commuters: “They’re more focused on whether we’re going to fix Metro.”

Brown did take notice when he first started seeing Steyer’s ads on television. “It’s his prerogative,” Brown said, for Steyer to focus on that issue. “Certainly, if I had those kinds of resources, I’d probably be educating and advocating on issues like gun safety,” he says. Or, he said, maybe he’d be focusing on immigration reform. He wouldn’t be focusing on impeachment.

He doesn’t begrudge what Steyer is trying to do: “It’s just more of a head-scratcher.”

It was early in the morning, before the Largo town hall; Steyer sat in a small lounge in the Jefferson hotel in the District. He was explaining his impeachment rationale, and why arguments against it — Trump's term would be up in 2½ years anyway, Democrats couldn't get the votes — were meaningless to him.

“Look. If you think, on a historical basis, how really bad things happen — it’s not because people agree” with the bad things, Steyer said. “It’s because they don’t fight. They’re complicit: ‘We can’t overcome it. I know that’s wrong but I can’t do anything.’ ”

“Doing nothing is doing something,” he continued. “By doing nothing, you’re still making a choice.”

If he believed that the president deserved to be impeached, then the right thing to do was to push to impeach the president. Could he actually impeach the president? Perhaps not. Could he — a husband and father of four — live with himself later if he hadn’t even tried? He could not.

He was frustrated with Republicans in Congress, especially the Jeff Flakes and Lindsey O. Grahams who excoriated Trump but nonetheless voted with him. He was even more frustrated with Democrats who didn’t vote with him and still didn’t try to impeach him. “Nobody in Washington ever says to me, ‘Oh, no, he’s fit for president.’ What they say is, it’s not politically expedient” to impeach him.

Steyer wasn’t an elected official, so he didn’t have to worry about what was politically expedient. (While some had assumed his very public railing against the president was a prelude to a run for something — perhaps the California governorship — he had recently told the Los Angeles Times that he had no plans to seek office in 2018).

Plus, he was a man of considerable resources. NextGen America had originally been conceived of as NextGen Climate, with its money going toward environmental causes. Steyer had donated money to voter registration. He and his wife had donated $40 million to found a center for sustainable energy on Stanford University’s campus. If he now wanted to spend 60 hours a week working toward the impeachment of the president — well, all billionaires had their projects: The Koch brothers were pouring money into conservative candidates; Elon Musk and Richard Branson were scrambling to Mars.

"It's not like a bunch of people are going, 'No, no, I want to be the guy running impeachment ads,' " Steyer said. "All the smart people are saying, why are you doing that?"

"We are here to discuss impeaching a lawless and dangerous president," Steyer said.

Will Trump be impeached? It's far less likely than some Democrats are suggesting (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Seven hours after his Largo town hall, Steyer was holding another one, 45 minutes away in Arlington, Va.

This was at another DoubleTree, and there had been no hotel mix-up: Every seat was taken by people who had come to plot and eat the free bruschetta. What was unfolding, however, was not a discussion about impeachment so much as it was a therapy session for progressives who had finally found their spiritual leader.

"My name is Alex," said a college-age kid with neon hair, raising his hand to ask the first question in the Q&A portion of the event. "I look at [Trump] and the first thing I think is of the bullies at my school."

"My name is Alyssa," said a young woman who spoke of the president with the familiar annoyance usually reserved for a bratty classmate. "I grew up in Connecticut. Donald Trump has been in my life my entire life."

"My name is Kia," said a slim professional who introduced herself as the owner of a marketing firm. "Donald Trump is actually just the anti-Christ."

Steyer nodded. He talked about how Democrats needed to get control of the narrative again. He talked about how America was an ideal, and the country was currently in a battle for what that ideal should look like.

Was this the road to impeachment? Was this the road to catharsis, at least — a release of the emotional valve for the Americans trying to figure out how we got to this place and how we should get out of it?

One of Steyer’s staff members searched the sea of raised hands for the next person to call on. “Let’s go to someone over on the left,” he said.

There was a pause, and laughter. “We’re all on the left,” someone shouted.

The staffer pointed at a woman sitting toward the back of the room. “My name is Janice,” she started, “I just have to say a few things.”

At the front of the room, Steyer listened intently, and at the end of the evening, everyone inside agreed that whatever happened next, they all felt a little better.