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Opinion An unassuming mover in impeachment departs the House

Norman Eisen questions constitutional scholars during their testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 4, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Norman Eisen may be the most important figure you have never heard of in the saga of President Trump’s impeachment. The former ambassador to the Czech Republic, ethics attorney in the Obama White House and mastermind behind Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has led a litigation battle against the Trump administration, spent a year as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. His tenure ended Monday, leaving behind his body of work — research on presidential power, briefs, talking points and statements for House impeachment managers, investigation strategy, and ongoing litigation on the emoluments clause.

The child of a Holocaust survivor, Eisen has a deep sense of patriotism and faith in the rule of law as the ultimate guarantor of individual rights. In that respect, he was perfectly suited to confront a president bent on destruction of the rule of law and on transforming constitutional government into an authoritarian cult of personality.

Eisen was a critical force in building the case for impeachment from the very earliest days of the Trump presidency. Before coming on board in the House, he filed multiple cases against the administration on behalf of CREW on everything from emoluments to violations of the Hatch Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. Together with colleagues at CREW and the Brookings Institution, he drafted long white papers (essentially briefs) on impeachment, conflicts of interest and other executive power-grabs. These arguments would find their way into court briefs, the impeachment report and Senate trial arguments.

In 2019, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) brought Eisen on as a special counsel. Thereafter he often seemed attached to Nadler’s hip. Eisen helped the chairman and the committee lead the drive to impeach, supporting them together with co-counsel Barry H. Berke and Nadler’s staff. When unofficial impeachment investigations were launched, he took on the first witness, Hope Hicks, and continued in the role as one of the main questioners during the formal impeachment investigation under House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.).

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Here was a man who in the marrow of his bones believed in the greatness of the Constitution and optimistically harbored the hope that some Republicans might acknowledge the facts. When they refused, and instead engaged in all manner of lying and antics, he confided he was saddened and disappointed. (While others in Washington are shielded from such disappointments by a thick blanket of cynicism, Eisen remains ever-hopeful and optimistic about the power of the truth.)

It takes nothing away from Schiff to note that Eisen’s fingerprints were all over the committee’s questioning, slide presentations and investigation strategy. In public, Eisen took on the role, as he had in the Judiciary Committee, of questioning witnesses. When the proceedings moved back to the Judiciary Committee, he conducted the question of expert lawyers who testified as to the meaning of the impeachment clause. (He managed to extract concessions from the Republican witness, Jonathan Turley, that were later used by House managers in the trial.)

Eisen could often be spotted sitting at the House impeachment managers’ counsel table throughout the Senate trial, conferring with the managers and consulting with Senate and House Democrats and Republicans. While the trial hours often seemed to drag on for the public, every hour on the Senate floor required dozens of hours in preparation, much of it by Eisen personally or under his supervision.

Behind the scenes over the course of a year, Eisen also played a critical role in briefing the media both on the record and on background, translating sophisticated constitutional reasoning into simple but accurate language non-lawyers could grasp. When the public debate became incoherent and misleading about what was really in the articles of impeachment — why the House was not pursuing litigation and why the administration’s arguments were patently absurd — he was there to offer comprehensible and emphatic arguments to clear away the fog of confusion. Both for those who had not attended law school and for experienced lawyers, his calls and emails amounted to mini-seminars in constitutional law.

It is fitting Eisen leaves just days after the sentencing of Trump crony Roger Stone. “I started this job when Mueller’s work was still ongoing,” he told me. “I leave as the last major case from Mueller’s investigation is finished.” He had high praise for U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s hour-long statement from the bench at Stone’s sentencing hearing last week: “To me that bespeaks the great majesty of the age of Trump so far. He is not sweeping all before him away. Liberal democracy and the rule of law have many champions,” he said. “I was proud to play a small part.” He joked that he looks forward to “having at least one meal a day with my family.” No one who recognizes the extent of his work on behalf of the Constitution and liberal democracy could begrudge him that.

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

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Paul Waldman: What Democrats must do when impeachment is over

Greg Sargent: Trump’s corruption will get worse. His own advisers just showed how.