41 Minutes With … Tom Steyer

The billionaire can’t believe you’re ready to give up on impeachment.

Tom Steyer. Photo: Michael Friberg
Tom Steyer. Photo: Michael Friberg


om Steyer, the Democratic megadonor turned impeachment activist, has a distinct look when he thinks he’s saying something so obvious it might be embarrassing for you if you’re not keeping up. He smiles a little, his eyebrows shoot up his forehead, and he tilts his head back as if he’s expecting a punch line.

It’s been two days since the attorney general’s summary of Robert Mueller’s report went public, and Steyer is using this look a lot. I’m asking if his strategy has changed now that we know Mueller didn’t find evidence of Trump-campaign collusion with Russia, and he’s not having it.

“We’ve said from the beginning this isn’t about the Mueller report; this is a broad sense of criminality,” he says, on the edge of exasperation. We’re sitting across from each other in big armchairs in a wood-paneled meeting room in the back of a D.C. hotel, six blocks from the White House and five from where Mueller went to church after delivering his report. Jazz is playing, and Steyer, wearing his go-to red tartan tie, is full of defiant energy. “We’ve said that for over a year!”

Steyer, 61, wasn’t always Mr. Impeachment. The longtime hedge-fund manager and environmentalist spent years pouring his own money into politics, including more than $90 million during the 2016 election cycle. He started pressuring Democrats to get rid of Trump in October 2017, when he founded a political group called Need to Impeach. The group has built a list of 7.7 million supporters at last count, held town-hall events across the country, and run direct-to-camera TV ads making the case, all of which has eaten about $50 million of his $1.6 billion net worth.

On its website, Need to Impeach is still selling T-shirts declaring IMPEACH alongside hats, socks, and pins adorned with the group’s signature image: a peach topped with Trump-style hair. But the national narrative isn’t exactly going Steyer’s way. (“Obviously,” he grumbles, “I can read.”)

Steyer was in San Francisco, where he lives, getting ready for a red-eye flight to Washington, when William Barr’s letter summarizing Mueller’s report landed, and ever since then he’s been tweeting and hitting up his massive email list about how no one should give up the fight. “Donald Trump was NOT exonerated,” he tweeted on March 26. “But we knew before the Mueller report that he was the most corrupt president in history.” His point was that the public still hadn’t seen the full text of Mueller’s investigation — only the summary from Barr, a Trump appointee. He reminded me that Need to Impeach had long ago identified ten things Trump had done that warranted impeachment, like abusing the pardon power, and that the report by the special counsel dealt with only two of them.

“If you step back for a second and think about where we are, we have a president who is consistently dishonest. I mean, the Washington Post has counted over 9,000 lies. He is consistently corrupt. He has been implicated in at least two felonies while in office, and that’s just on the basis of one hearing. He has, in my mind, clearly obstructed justice in plain view, and in addition — in my opinion — he has sided with Vladimir Putin in terms of an electronic attack on the United States,” he says with the voice of a man who can’t believe he still has to explain this.

Steyer has come close to running for president, senator, and governor and has even gotten Trump to tweet angrily about him a few times, including once after the president saw one of Steyer’s ads during Fox & Friends. Yet Democratic Party leaders have been wary of his impeachment push, and he’s gotten only more isolated since Barr’s summary was released. On March 25, freshman congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who famously pledged to “impeach the motherfucker,” sent her colleagues a letter renewing the call. Hakeem Jeffries, the head of the House Democratic Caucus, replied, “We’re not focused on impeachment.”

It seems, from the outside, like an especially uncomfortable position to be in, but Steyer’s gotten used to political discomfort. One of the Democrats his political ads have targeted is Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who would manage the impeachment process if it ever were to happen. The Upper West Sider has said he intends to keep investigating Trump but has been clear that he won’t pursue impeachment unless it can be done in a way that doesn’t split the nation. I ask Steyer about that perspective and his eyes widen. “It’s sort of funny,” he says softly. “We’re going to divide the nation in two? Is he not aware the nation is divided in two?!”

His party’s problem, he thinks, is that it was too focused on Mueller, and now time is running out. “I kind of think about this the same way I think about climate: There’s a clock associated with this,” he explains. “Unless the show gets on the road, this isn’t gonna happen next year.” He says this ­matter-of-factly, but it’s a major concession from a man who’s thrown himself so fully into this cause.

“You can see the sands are slipping through the hourglass,” he continues, slumping in his chair if only for a second.

“We’re at a place where we have the most corrupt president in American history, who breaks the law every day, goes against the Constitution, and is dangerous to the American people, and the question is: Have we normalized him? Has this behavior now become normal? Is this the new standard for presidential behavior? Have we walked away from the idea that nobody’s above the law?!” Steyer asks, waving a blue pen in the air. “I think, in effect, what Mr. Trump was able to frame this as — and I believe the congressional Democrats agree with it — the only thing he could be impeached for was if he had a treasonous conversation directly with Vladimir Putin and it was recorded and someone else caught it and it didn’t come out through congressional hearings. That is the only thing that’s impeachable. And everybody took that frame!”

Everyone but Steyer, that is, so he’s still trying to win over whomever he can. He had breakfast with Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, who just passed on his own presidential run, and after our chat, he is headed to Capitol Hill for more meetings. During the day, he’ll send out more emails encouraging his backers to contact people like Nadler to keep up the pressure.

“Look, do I find it personally discouraging? No,” he says, pausing for half a second to consider the new political reality, then perking up. “We. Are. Trying. To. Do. The. Right. Thing. This is something where we continue to try and do the right thing.”

There’s that look again, eyebrows all the way up. “And I think the evidence is overwhelmingly on our side.”

*This article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Tom Steyer Isn’t Ready to Give Up on Impeachment