How the Democrats’ Biggest Donor May be Playing into Trump’s Hands

There’s not much ambiguity in Tom Steyer’s core message. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tom Steyer hadn’t even fully opened the floor for questions when a gruff voice rang out from the mezzanine of the frilly, two-tiered meeting hall he’d rented on a humid early May evening in Orlando. Shouting loudly enough so the crowd of around 150 Floridians, largely seniors, could hear before a microphone had time to reach him, an impatient older man presented a simple question to the San Francisco billionaire who’s 11 months into his campaign to impeach President Donald Trump.

“What’s the strategy? ’Cause if you impeach him at the wrong time, you’re screwing yourself. There’s a proper time to impeach him,” the spectator said, plowing through the groans and interjections of “Now!” from his neighbors in the audience. “If you do it now, like you said, you got Pence on your hands. And he’s worse! He’s worse!”

Steyer, a fit 60-year-old ex–hedge fund manager in a navy blazer, a light blue shirt, dark slim jeans, and shiny black loafers, shifted uncomfortably in front of two large American flags. The furious question was just one of legions of concerns the Democratic megadonor has been facing in recent months from members of his own party. A black digital clock sat at the front of the stage, positioned so that only he could see it, perched at 02:00 to start counting down whenever he started talking, a reminder to keep his answers under two minutes. If only Questioner No. 1 would let Steyer — or the other Orlandoans who’d waited in line for over an hour to get in — talk.

“So when you impeach Trump, you gotta do it real close to 2020,” he concluded. “I don’t want to give those bastards five minutes to get their act together.”

Seizing a chance to get a word in, Steyer jumped. “We’re not choosing a president, we’re getting rid of a president,” he said, peering up, then scanning the hall. “And we’re going to get what the Constitution gives us, which is definitely not the first choice of anyone in this room, or the second choice, or the third choice.” Bad answer, if you asked the guy upstairs. But the rest of the crowd was listening. Steyer pivoted back to the message he’d just run through in his introduction — a point he makes often enough these days that he’s perfecting the delivery, like a line in a campaign stump speech: “My point is the Founders — the people who wrote the Constitution — gave us a tool for removing a dangerous and lawless president, which is what we have. And not to use it means that we are basically going to accept the idea that there is no response to a president who puts democracy — and our people — at risk.”

Trump, of course, is nowhere near impeachment. But Steyer is now nearly a dozen town halls into the latest front of a campaign that might easily be dismissed as fringe-dwelling at a time that Trump’s Republican Party dominates Washington, if not for the fact that Steyer is by far the Democratic Party’s biggest individual spender in recent election cycles, to the tune of nearly $200 million. No journalist would cover his effort if Steyer’s face weren’t plastered all over national television and in battleground states in ads calling for impeachment, making his campaign constant fodder for Washington’s chattering classes, and even for the president’s Twitter feed.

His answer to questions like these wouldn’t be interesting if it weren’t for the fact that his party’s leadership — from Nancy Pelosi on down — has tried to get him to stop his push, likening talk of impeachment to a big fat gift for a stuttering GOP. Steyer’s town-hall schedule wouldn’t be picked over obsessively by political operatives if national Republicans weren’t now eagerly trying to turn impeachment into the issue that hands them the keys to another two years in charge of Congress. His stump speech would also be ignored if he hadn’t already signed up more than 5 million people to his campaign to evict the commander in chief.

And Steyer’s every last move wouldn’t be of any interest if those maneuvers weren’t now forcibly exposing the chasm between the talk of impeachment and the reality on the ground, on top of surfacing uncomfortable questions for both parties to grapple with as November’s midterms — and the subsequent profound political unknown — approach. First and foremost: If impeachment is on the ballot in 2018, who wins?

“We’ve noticed that the political Establishment is opposed to the opinion of the country: that this president needs to be impeached and removed from office. We hear it, we see it. They say the time is not right, they say it is politically inconvenient. They say that we’re normalizing the impeachment process,” Steyer acknowledged to his rapt crowd. “What we believe in is: tell the truth, trust the American people. And if you refuse to talk about the most important issues of the day in an honest and straightforward fashion, how are people supposed to trust you?”

Time for some more questions.


This wasn’t always Steyer’s plan.

Ever since he threw the bulk of his energy into politics during the Obama years, Steyer has had a complex relationship with Democratic leaders, in part due to his insistence on running his own political organization rather than funneling his money through theirs. As far back as 2013, he and D.C. campaign strategists clashed over ad strategy in an Iowa Senate race where he was investing, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta — a longtime environmentalist ally of his — privately ripped him for getting too far ahead of the candidate on energy policy.

By mid-2017, though, Steyer was searching for the best way to use his $1.6 billion personal fortune in the fight ahead. He’d spent nearly $90 million in 2016. But he only landed on impeachment as a potential avenue after, having grown frustrated with a tug-of-war between his collection of political advisers, he publicly blurted out his support for removing Trump from office in June.

The campaign’s shape came together within weeks. In October, concerned that Democrats weren’t acting urgently enough to energize the party base that would be key to overthrowing the GOP’s hold on Washington, he started with a stern letter sent to party leaders — and handed to the New York Times — demanding their support for impeachment. When no obvious change came of that gambit, Steyer, stepped onto the airwaves, filming his first direct-to-camera appeal for impeachment while urging citizens to sign his petition outlining the need for Trump’s ouster.

At the time, Steyer was still toying with the idea of running for either senator or governor back home in California. But in November, after he poured resources into Virginia to help Democrats in the gubernatorial and down-ballot races — and actually got credit from party leaders for his help — he traveled with his daughter to Germany for the climate-change conference in Bonn. There, he took a side trip to Nuremberg, where his father had been a prosecutor in the post–World War Two trials. When Steyer returned home that month, he told associates his mind was made up. Nuremberg’s message was unambiguous: One must stand up on moral issues before it’s too late. And if impeachment is a — the — moral issue, that’s what Steyer would have to spend his time and money on. A run for office was out, a national impeachment drive was in. Steyer compiled and started promoting a list of eight reasons impeachment was needed (from obstructing justice to abusing pardon powers). His spending plan for the television ads soon reached $40 million, and he pledged $30 million to NextGen, his super-PAC, to help win the House of Representatives.

Within minutes, Democratic leaders started second-guessing him, and Republicans tried taking advantage of him. But hours after the Times reported this spring on page one that the GOP was planning to use an anti-impeachment campaign centrally in the midterms, a defiant Steyer sent a letter to his email list informing his backers that he’d sent a copy of an “impeachment guide” pamphlet to over 5,000 candidates for office around the country. More of his party’s honchos grew nervous that his push would somehow interfere with their messaging around Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

But now Steyer, who’s almost entirely ditched his old not-too-camera-friendly practice of wearing a red tartan tie every day, was becoming a political celebrity in his own right. Between that rise and the escalating Washington whispers that Steyer — who was then polling Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — might be laying the groundwork for a presidential run, party chiefs decided it was time to try reining him in. Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — the Democrats’ House and Senate leaders — both called as he ramped up his efforts, but it never amounted to much of a pressure campaign. The powers that be quickly concluded Steyer was convinced enough of his trajectory that there was no use swaying him. (They were right: He’s taken to privately saying that if party Establishment leaders like Pelosi are complaining, it means he’s on the right track.)

“If you look at American history, and if you look at the last two years in particular, there is a constraint on telling difficult truth. There has traditionally been a pushback against people who try and tell the truth when it’s not an easy truth. Look at what happened in the civil rights movement. People were saying all the way along: ‘It may be true, it may be important, this is not the time for it. You know, politically, this is bad for us. Put it away,’” Steyer told me the afternoon before his Orlando town hall, sitting in a windowless conference room at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, where he was planning out his day. That morning, Steyer said, a woman who recognized him from his TV ads stopped him while he was in line for coffee to thank him, something that’s been happening more and more these days. After we spoke, he was off to meet with local high-school and college activists over lunch. “I think this is a similar statement of: ‘We know he’s unfit, we know he’s met the criteria, we know it’s urgent and important, but politically, this just doesn’t work. So please take the most important truth and put it back under the bed where it belongs, so we can go about the important business of politics.’” By mid-May, his list of impeachment backers stretched to include more than 5.2 million names.

Building his base. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Yet it’s the arguments that he’s making talk of impeachment too commonplace, and that he’s not timing his push correctly, for which he has the least patience. One of Steyer’s most persistent critics since November has been David Axelrod, the Barack Obama political architect turned CNN talker. “If we begin to use impeachment as a political tool to erase public officials — presidents — we dislike, or whose policies we dislike, then once you go down that road, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It becomes the norm, that’s my concern,” Axelrod explained to me.

In April, Axelrod tweeted this worry, and he followed up imploring Steyer not to “make the mistake of confusing your ad copy for a bill of impeachment.” Former attorney general Eric Holder jumped in. “Ax is exactly right,” he wrote. “Midterms can be, among other things, a referendum on this Administration, its policies and its supporters — at federal and state levels. Midterms should not be centered around questions of impeachment.”

To this, Steyer shakes his head.

“Every single day is a perfect example of why I disagree with that theory, which is this: the implication that the status quo will stay the same. Like, if we could just get to November 6, we’ll be all right,” Steyer said before pausing, eyes wide. He then sped up, his voice rising with urgency.

“So the idea that we can take truth and stuff it under the mattress for the next six months? I don’t think there’s any chance of that,” he continued, sitting back, eyes still propped about 20 percent more open than usual. “There’s something going on here where they say, ‘You’re normalizing impeachment.’ I say you’re normalizing this president. Every day you allow this to go on unchecked and unopposed, you’re saying this behavior is fine.”


Four days earlier, Steyer was sitting in Washington taking in the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and Trump was rallying in Washington, Michigan. It was an obvious opportunity to pile on the D.C. Establishment, and for about an hour it looked like one of the president’s standard events, complete with off-script riffs about immigration (“we need security, we need the wall, we are going to have it all”), Kanye West (“he gets it”), and Senate Democrats (“I know things about Tester that I could say, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again”).

But then, 56 minutes into the program, he turned his sights on a 14th-term congresswoman from Los Angeles.

“We have to keep the House, because if you listen to Maxine Waters —” he began, immediately drowned out by a volley of knowing boos. “She goes around saying, ‘We will impeach him, we will impeach him.’ Then people said, ‘But he hasn’t done anything wrong,’” he continued, the crowd of over 4,000 now growing visibly restless and the MAGA hats behind him shaking from left to right in frustration. “‘Oh, that doesn’t matter, we will impeach the president.’ So I don’t think we are going to have a lot of happy people if that happens. I think it is going to be a little bit tough. But she goes around, and some others: ‘We will impeach him.’ It doesn’t matter if you do anything right or wrong. They want to do that. We have got to win the House.”

Back East, GOP strategists working to avert a midterm Democratic sweep were overjoyed. They’d been trying to convince Trump to make that argument for months, and this was the first time he’d unveiled it with such gusto.

The calculation had been obvious to them since at least mid-2017. If a big blue wave powered by anti-Trump fury was indeed building — as many had privately acknowledged for more than six month — Republicans would need to find a way to juice turnout among their own Trump-loving voters in order to avoid an electoral catastrophe. How better than to terrify them by warning that victorious Democrats would oust the president, and to goad those very liberals into talking about the prospect out loud?

“It’s destructive for the Democrats to make it an issue, because it makes them look as if electing them creates conflict, and most Americans don’t want conflict,” Newt Gingrich — the then–House Speaker who led the push to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998, and then saw his party lose seats in the ensuing midterms backlash — recently explained to me. By late last year it was accepted as fact among leading Republicans on the Senate side of Capitol Hill that House Democrats would impeach Trump if they won in November, according to GOP officials familiar with the internal conversations. When top Republican campaign hands sat down to discuss midterm strategy that fall, the only thing many of them could agree on was that impeachment would be a real possibility with a Democrat-led House.

Their problem was that Trump’s White House had already made clear that the president considered such talk off limits. House Republicans’ campaign arm sent backers a fundraising email raising impeachment’s specter the day after Trump fired Comey last May, and close Trump allies let their displeasure be known almost immediately. So as the likelihood of a Democratic House takeover intensified in the ensuing months, the subtle campaign to convince Trump to allow that kind of midterm push intensified.

By February, when National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Steve Stivers, an Ohio congressman, gathered roughly 15 of the party’s top talking heads and his communications staff for a dinner at a restaurant in downtown Washington (first reported by the Times), the question loomed. As Stivers walked the gathering through his prepared presentation, one of the attendees asked if he had poll-tested impeachment messages or provided members of Congress with guidance on how to talk about it, recalled one Republican in the room. In this Republican’s recollection, Stivers responded, “Look, impeachment is an issue that’s winning for both bases, but it muddles up the middle. [And] when Democrats talk about that, they dilute their own message.”

Public polling seems to support the conclusion that impeachment talk is perilous territory for Democrats looking to persuade new voters. In April, a group of leading Democratic strategists and pollsters published a report aimed at teaching the party how to message its way to victory in 2018. A stark warning was embedded in the figures. The biggest concern for voters who didn’t describe themselves as “strongly favorable” to Democrats was, “all they do is oppose Donald Trump,” the Navigator Research project found. That same day, a national Marist poll commissioned by NPR and PBS NewsHour found that while 42 percent of registered voters would “definitely” vote for a candidate who pledged to impeach Trump, 47 percent would “definitely” vote against that candidate.

In the suburban House battlegrounds chock-full of both resistance warriors and disappointed Trump voters, then, Republicans are unlikely to benefit from ringing an impeachment alarm bell. But as the national party’s focus increasingly shifted toward keeping the Senate majority in recent months, leaders’ eagerness to run a nationalized election about Trump’s job increased. In 2016, he won by double digits in five of the states where Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018, after all, and he remains broadly popular in many of them, making a base-turnout-first strategy especially attractive. A pair of developments soon bolstered the argument for making the midterms an impeachment referendum. Yet another Republican lost a special House election deep in Trump country, in Pennsylvania in March, and reports began suggesting the GOP tax reform wasn’t the political gold that national leaders had expected — meaning the party needed another line to pursue.

“The [Democratic] candidates who are successful right now, the Conor Lambs of the world, are preaching stability: they’re not going to go out there and talk about impeachment,” explained a senior Republican operative of the strategy to pull Democrats into the conversation, whether they like it or not. “Republican voters can sink their teeth into this issue: We don’t want any more chaos. We’ve got porn stars, we’ve got this whole shitshow, and we can’t take any more of it. Let [Trump] ride out his four years, and we’ll reevaluate in 2020. We gotta stop with the extreme talk surrounding him.”

To leading Republicans, the best-case scenario for 2018 now looks a lot like what happened — albeit in reverse — in 1998. Then, perceived GOP overreach around Clinton’s impeachment handed Democrats five seats in the House. “The thing to learn from [that year] is how Bill Clinton, who obviously is one of the best practitioners of the craft, how he and his team effectively responded to it,” explained Steven Law — now the president of Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell–aligned, Senate-focused super-PAC — who led his party’s Senate campaign wing in 1998. “They characterized it as what it was: an intensely personal and emotional attitude Republicans had toward him that had almost nothing to do with policy.” (Liberals have little patience for this comparison: A top Democratic campaign strategist sighed, “No one thought Bill Clinton was going to start a nuclear war.” Steyer told me he thinks scars from 1998 explain the apprehension of his own party’s leaders about his push.)

By spring, a trickle of Republicans outside of the White House finally started embracing impeachment messaging. Nevada’s Dean Heller, the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican this year, sent out a May fundraising email asking supporters to “Pitch-in $15 IMMEDIATELY to save the Majority and stop their threats of impeachment!” The NRCC took to painting Steyer as a bogeyman, warning in a campaign cash ask of its own, “He plans to spend millions of dollars to help elect liberals who would do nothing but obstruct and waste taxpayers’ dollars on pointless, politically driven investigations.”

Then came Trump’s speech. By the middle of the following week, one GOP power broker who’d spoken with top campaign officials and Trump allies said, a loose messaging plan was finally set: to frame the midterms as “basically a coup d’état.”

All this has been frustrating for the Democrats who are actually going to face voters in November.

The overwhelming majority of them, especially those in the most competitive races, never bring impeachment up voluntarily, and they only rarely face questions about it. It almost never comes up in conversation between lawmakers on the Hill. Seasoned party pros insist they felt more pressure to push out President George W. Bush in 2006, amid protests against the Iraq War.

House Democrats’ political arm hasn’t once sent candidates or campaigns impeachment-focused messaging guidance; the party’s highest-ranking midterms strategists see no need. They believe November’s surge in anti-Trump voter participation is already baked in, and that any attempt to further amp up those base voters with talk of vacating the Oval Office would be both a waste of time in many districts that are already trending toward them, and catastrophic in emerging battlegrounds in traditionally conservative areas.

One veteran Democratic operative who’s working with a handful of congressional candidates brushed questions about impeachment off as just another dodgeball that he’s teaching candidates to sidestep without breaking a sweat, like demands for their stance on debt-free college or single-payer health care. The topic only comes up in many competitive districts when dedicated activists — like Steyer — push the matter. “Like the other ones, you just answer in such a way that speaks to the value without actually answering it,” he said. “You figure out how you don’t have to answer it.”

Still, Trump hadn’t even been sworn in as president when some of his scattered opponents on the left started the tentative drumbeat that Steyer is now amplifying.

When a few hundred of the left’s top operatives, donors, and lawmakers descended on a humid golf resort in Aventura, Florida, over Trump’s inauguration weekend for a summit organized by super-PAC impresario David Brock, they were greeted with glossy prospectuses mapping out his groups’ plans for the new administration. Included in a section labeled “TOP OUTCOMES” was this line: “Defeat Trump either through impeachment or at the ballot box in 2020.”

Two weeks later, Waters — far from a power player within the Democratic caucus — became the first elected official to say it out loud, calling Trump’s impeachment “my greatest desire.” By spring, a handful of Democratic election lawyers in Washington were looking into relevant statutes for clients who requested guidance on how to responsibly pursue the tactic, and in early summer a handful of liberal organizations with large online memberships, like and Democracy for America, were calling for impeachment, often pointing to Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James Comey in May. The example of Waters’s newfound resistance celebrity made these pushes look especially attractive to anyone eager to bring in grassroots liberals (and their money).

Both party elders and rank-and-file lawmakers treated such rumblings as minor nuisances until the push arrived in the House. In June, a California congressman floated the prospect of formally introducing articles of impeachment, and he followed through the next month, but the effort promptly fizzled. Purporting to be channeling an increasingly frustrated Democratic grassroots, Texas’s Al Green then considered forcing a vote in mid-October, only to be dissuaded at the last second when party leaders asked him not to expose politically vulnerable colleagues. That same day, Steyer sent his first letter. Nonetheless, after a Tennessee representative introduced his own impeachment measure in November, Green returned to the floor in December to demand a vote. This time, House members had no choice but to weigh in on the record: Just 58 House Democrats sided with him; 126 opposed the move. When he tried again in January, he won 66.

Representative Al Green discussing his impeachment bill. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The idea foundered among lawmakers. It ignited activists. Invoking impeachment became a useful tool in primary contests between Democrats, especially in governors’ races where the winner would never have to vote on an impeachment anyway, and in liberal areas where intra-party contests were fought over the volume of anti-Trump stances. In Illinois, calling for impeachment in May of 2017 was an early way for billionaire businessman and gubernatorial front-runner J.B. Pritzker to establish grassroots credibility. In Florida, former Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine — facing three others in a gubernatorial primary — is now running digital ads insisting impeachment must be on the table if Trump fires Mueller. In Southern California, congressional candidate Andy Thorburn closed one TV ad by intoning, straight to camera, “I won’t just be a check on Trump in Congress, I’ll vote to impeach him.”

Those remain the exception. Some vulnerable Democrats in top-tier Senate races have opposed Trump in stark terms — Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey called on Trump to resign in the wake of sexual-assault allegations in December, for example — but most have steered clear of impeachment talk altogether, taking the tack of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who that same week said, “I’m not going to waste my time or energy on that. I think it’s futile at this point in time” on Meet the Press. After Green successfully got his December vote, Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer issued an uncharacteristically brusque statement aimed at a colleague, concluding, “Now is not the time to consider articles of impeachment.”

So as Steyer’s ads circulated further and his email list ballooned, Pelosi became more explicit in her criticism. Her colleagues in the House were growing nervous about what would happen to their standing among their base voters if they won in November and then didn’t immediately begin impeachment hearings, or if Trump fired Mueller and mass protests broke out, igniting the Republican base, too. “I have said over and over again that I don’t think that we should be talking about impeachment, I have been very clear from the start. There is a process at work that will either yield or not information that will be dispositive of that issue,” Pelosi said in April, calling an impeachment push “a gift to the Republicans.”

Yet few rank-and-file lawmakers or candidates agreed out loud, wary of angering not only their own voters but Steyer-linked operatives handling the donor’s $30 million-plus worth of organizing power all over the country. “Steyer’s like your drunk uncle who may put you in the will. You don’t want to piss him off, but he has some really strange ideas. Bless his heart, he’s very nice,” lamented a party campaign operative. “But you’re doing everything you can not to piss him off, because you want him to invest. But it’s not particularly helpful.”

When Green forced his second impeachment vote in January, only two House Democrats running for higher office in 2018 sided with him: Colorado’s Jared Polis and Minnesota’s Tim Walz, both of whom are running for governor. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, Nevada’s Jacky Rosen, Texas’ Beto O’Rourke, and New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham — all candidates for statewide offices — voted the other way.

Still, the drip-drip of Trump news wore on into 2018, Steyer’s national push trundled past its infancy, and his army of backers grew. By April, O’Rourke — a national figure now in his bid to unseat Ted Cruz — appeared ready to switch his vote. Asked on Lubbock radio if he’d yet seen enough evidence to support impeachment, he now said, “The answer is yes.”


Candidates and campaigns and presidents and billionaires can talk about impeachment all they want. Jerry Nadler doesn’t.

To Nadler, impeachment is not a 2018 question. The congressman — who’s held elected office in the city since 1977 and represented parts of Manhattan’s West Side in Congress since 1992 — is now the top Democrat on the House’s Judiciary Committee, meaning he’d be the face and gavel behind any real impeachment effort if his party does win in November. Any discussion about impeachment must run through Nadler’s office, and he’s treading carefully.

Representative Jerrold Nadler will likely be wielding the gavel if Trump ever faces impeachment hearings. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

When the 70-year-old Upper West Sider speaks, even to voters in his district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 60 points, he takes pains not to say anything that Republicans could eventually interpret as overly partisan or pre-judgmental when they inevitably seek to discredit anti-Trump efforts. So when Nadler faces the inescapable questions about impeachment at his congressional town halls, his answers have the distinct, if not quite methodical, feel of being fully mapped out by a lawyer in advance. (He is, in fact, a lawyer.)

“One, I would dearly love to preside over the impeachment of Donald Trump,” he assured constituents at a February town hall held at NYU, in response to one of three questions he’d get that night about ousting Trump. “Two, I don’t know if we can do that, or will do that, or would do that. That remains to be seen, on the evidence that comes out of the Mueller investigation, and out of the oversight.”

At home, Nadler spends significant time urging his supporters and skeptics to be patient — none of this can realistically happen until Democrats win back the House, he often reminds them. Yet on Capitol Hill, there’s little ambiguity about the role Nadler — a staunch opponent of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 — could soon play. He only stepped into the top Democratic slot in the committee in December after John Conyers left Congress — he got there by winning an internal race in which he specifically pitched himself as a constitutional law expert. His campaign materials described him as the “strongest member to lead a potential impeachment.”

His years of history with Trump, with whom he’s clashed for decades over the developer’s plans along the Hudson, helped. On a recent drizzly Monday evening, Nadler tried to make this clear to a cavernous high-school auditorium full of restless voters on 24th Street. Standing behind a lectern with a House of Representatives seal hung shakily from the front, Nadler tried speaking over the grumbling and occasional angry shouts from the audience every time he even mentioned the GOP or Mueller. “If you are frustrated by the current Congress, which has completely abdicated its responsibility as a check on the president — you know, we’re a government of checks and balances, Congress is supposed to check the president — imagine how I feel, having fought Donald Trump for years, going back to my days in the state assembly.”

But Nadler’s current caution isn’t just political prudence. It stems from a broader civic one shared by his party leaders. (Neither Pelosi’s nor Schumer’s office, nor the Democratic National Committee, have even mentioned impeachment once in the talking points they regularly distribute to surrogates, and many House Democrats only referred to it as “the ‘I’ word” throughout 2017.) They see their role as making sure the nation doesn’t come forever unglued next year.

“If impeachment comes into play, there’s going to be a large number of people — not a majority, but certainly that core of Trump support egged on by his amen corner at Fox — who will say this is an attempt at a bloodless coup, an attempt to erase the election results,” said Axelrod. “The more that this proceeds in a way that is unassailable, the better.”

Nadler has been trying to make this case. Sometimes he goes full dire. “You had better be able to think that by the end of the process — not at the beginning, but by the end of the process — you will have convinced some appreciable fraction — not a majority, but some appreciable fraction — of people who voted for Trump that you had to do it, that it’s justified,” he insisted at NYU. “Because if you can’t, you will tear the country apart. For the next 20 or 30 years you will have recriminations: ‘We won the election and you stole it from us.’”

In the hotel conference room in Orlando, Steyer wasn’t thinking about 2019, or 2039, or 2049. He shifted in his seat when our conversation turned to what, exactly, he would do next year if Democrats do take the House and don’t immediately begin hearings to get rid of Trump.

He winced at the thought, and let a heavy silence sit for a few seconds before answering. “My strategy has never been, in this, to go and be a lobbyist. If you ever go and look, I don’t spend any time doing it. My strategy, in every part of what we’re doing, has been to push power into the hands of the American people.”

He kept going, eyes widening again with apparent disgust at the prospect of showing up on Capitol Hill with a pitchfork or a bullhorn. “Am I going to go to Congress and make an ass of myself? I hope not. If I do, Gabe, I hope you slap me. Why would I do that? Why would I change anyone’s mind?”

“The idea that I would become a lobbyist and shrilly shriek, you know, ‘Mommy! They took my ball and now they won’t play with me!’? I can’t imagine doing that.”

Which leads us back to the question of where all this energy — this five-million-plus-people strong, $40 million-plus campaign — goes from here, if it fails to oust Trump, or to even put the House back in Democratic hands in six months. Even if it works, and Nadler rings in the new year with impeachment hearings, what role, then, does a grassroots-inflaming, camera-ready financier turned environmentalist turned megadonor turned activist play?

That “what-if” was embedded in most of the questions Steyer faced six hours later, through to the final one. Leaning over the balcony not far from the first questioner, a woman piped up to address the elephant crowding any room that Steyer walks into: Is he considering running for office at some point? He nodded along to the question, and maneuvered a classic politicians’ pivot to the matter at hand in grandiose terms. “I have not been exaggerating how I feel about 2018. I think this year is a very straightforward struggle to define what it means to be an American and to fight for the soul of America. I think it’s that elemental, and we are completely focused — I am completely focused — on what we do in 2018.”

That wasn’t a “no,” and Steyer wound up the kind of neatly packaged anecdote that candidates are well-trained to tell. “I always said I want to be one of the people to get this country back on a positive, just, inclusive, respectful, and prosperous path — I’ll do anything to do that.” He’s been trying to summit each of the 14,000-foot peaks in California, he said, and recently when he was coming down from one of them, his climbing partner asked what it would take for him to head back up the last 1,000 feet again. “Honestly, if you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t do it,” the billionaire remembered saying. What if it would accomplish the political progress he’s been chasing? “I said I’d do it in bare feet.”

Still not a “no.” The timer at his feet clicked down to 00:00.

“I don’t know where we’re going to be on November 7, 2018. Somewhere really different from now,” he said. “And it could be a lot better or a lot worse. And there’s no pollster who’s telling us anything credible about where we’re going to be. So, from my standpoint, it’s a very clear choice about what’s right and what’s wrong. So I don’t need to worry about anything.”

The Democrats’ Biggest Donor Is Playing Into Trump’s Hands