just asking questions

A Long Talk With Eric Swalwell

On running as the “guns and Russia” candidate and still carrying huge student debt.

Eric Swalwell. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Eric Swalwell. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Eric Swalwell. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Guns and Russia,” laughs California congressman Eric Swalwell, “That’s like a band name.” The newly minted 2020 long shot is nodding along gamely and acknowledging that, yes, he’s known for talking about those two topics — he’s worked closely with Parkland student Cameron Kasky and become a prominent NRA enemy, and he’s also a Trump-era cable-news regular, thanks largely to his spot on the House Intelligence Committee. But sitting across from me at a café near Grand Central on a recent Monday morning in the middle of yet another swing through New York to get television attention for his campaign, he’s making sure I know he’s got other things he’d like to discuss, too. Swalwell is one of 20 Democrats running for president, and he knows it’s going to be a heavy lift to distinguish himself politically (he was the only politician on Capitol Hill to endorse Martin O’Malley in 2016, so there’s something). Maybe that task starts with talking about topics like student-loan debt — he’s got plenty of his own — and the opposition research Trump’s allies have already been doing on him.

It feels like ancient history, but there was a point in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary where Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders started debating gun control policy, and it was treated — nationally — like a very surprising development that Democrats were willing to talk publicly about guns in such terms. Obviously, that’s different now. So what’s changed?
Well, from Parkland to Sandy Hook — Sandy Hook was like my “coming to Congress” moment, in that I was at orientation when it happened. And, as awful as it was, I thought at least I would be a part of a Congress that would do something. And then we went, you know, Sandy Hook, Charleston, nothing. San Bernardino, nothing. Pulse, nothing. Vegas, nothing. Parkland. Parkland was like Sandy Hook in that, you know, it was a school shooting — and there’s Santa Fe also — but the kids were a little bit older than the Sandy Hook kids, who clearly were not able to articulate what they saw. But these kids articulated their loss in a pretty profound way, and they organized, led a march, you know, took out 17 NRA-endorsed candidates in the House. And I think they kind of converge with Giffords, and Brady, and Everytown, and Moms Demand Action. They all came together at this moment. It was last May, a couple of months after Parkland, that I wrote an op-ed calling for a ban and buyback on assault weapons. And I had just started to sense that we were constantly negotiating down on gun safety. Sandy Hook happened, we saw background checks, lost. That was even a bridge too far. Then Pulse happened and we wanted to — God forbid — say that people who were on the terrorist watch list couldn’t buy a firearm. That was too far. And then Vegas happened, and we couldn’t even get a vote on bump stocks.

So I sensed that our instincts are to keep going lower and lower and lower, but the Republicans and the NRA were never coming to the table at all, so we were negotiating against ourselves. But then I would talk to people across the country, I would see in the polling and anecdotes, most people know what the solutions are. I also found that most of the loudest voices against, like, any gun safety measure were online. There was a vocal tweeting, bullying minority that was largely online, but when I would go to different events across the country — I went to 26 states during the midterms — people weren’t coming up to me at events saying, “Oh, you’re going too far on gun safety.” That was reinforced last winter, post-Parkland, in Michigan. We were in a little suburb called Allen Park, it was a basement town hall. It was not a fundraiser — like, the host structured it in a way that she invited all her friends and and neighbors, and to get in you had to have never been to a political event before and voted in the last election — that was the first place I ever said publicly that I wanted to ban and buyback assault weapons. And this is Michigan, where, you know, the kids get the day off of school when hunting season opens. I was prepared for at least some blowback. And what I saw was mostly a sentiment of, “Well, there’s just so many [guns] out there. There’s probably too many. How could we do it?” It was almost like the problem’s metastasized so much that we can’t beat it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, that’s a right that we absolutely have.” No one was saying, “Don’t take my assault rifle.”

To me, it was like, okay, if resources is the problem, or execution of the plan is the problem, I can deal with that. So I feel like I’ve figured out the mirage of this issue, that it’s not a divisive issue. We’re told it’s a divisive issue by this vocal minority, to keep us from doing anything about the issue. So I will propose to ban assault weapons, and then there are verified accounts saying, “Well, you’re gonna have to come to my house and take it.” Or “This is gonna lead to bloodshed.” One of them I wrote back, and I said, “Well, what do you mean ‘bloodshed’? Like, if a democratically-elected Congress passes a bill that bans something, tell me how it leads to bloodshed.” They were like, “Well, you know what I’m talking about.” Basically what they’re trying to threaten is, “If you vote to do this, you’re going to create a war.” And so what they hope that they do is they intimidate us from ever taking any action.

Have you found it’s useful for you — politically speaking, or in terms of getting others to pay attention to the topic — to have the NRA or professional advocates vilifying you, personally, more than others?
They hate me because they know I’m not the bogeyman they want. That I’m a prosecutor, son of two Republicans, born in the Midwest, brothers are police officers. I feel comfortable shooting guns. I do shoot guns. I think that they want the person who is proposing tougher gun laws to be someone who’s never handled a gun before, that isn’t connected to law enforcement. When I was a prosecutor I got to shoot at the range so I could explain to juries how the firearm worked. You know, to prove intent, or to prove that the person didn’t accidentally discharge the firearm, I would have to learn everything about the firearm. So I feel comfortable around guns, and I think that makes them nervous — that I can talk to other people who feel comfortable around guns, who are gun owners, and they’re gonna say, “Hey that guy’s credible.” And, again, I’ve also figured out that their members aren’t in line with the leadership.

One reason you’re well-known is because you’re on TV a lot talking about Russia, and I know you get the question a lot: As a candidate are you going to talk about Russia all the time? I know the answer, obviously, is no. But was there a point where you thought it was possible that the Russia, or Mueller, conversation could seriously shape the way the 2020 conversation unfolds? Is that still possible?
I think it still is. The way I talk about the Russia issue is that, at first, when I first was on the Intelligence Committee — which I did not go on for Russia, I went on there in 2015 mostly because I had a counterterrorism interest. I was an intern on the Hill when September 11th happened. I was in Moscow, in October 2015, on an intel trip. It was the peak of their interference campaign — I was staying at the Ritz-Carlton right on the Red Square — unbeknownst to me. Like, literally, I was watching the first Democratic debate with Clinton, O’Malley, Sanders in my Red Square hotel room. And this is underway, and I had no idea. I wasn’t thinking of Russia that way. But in the fog, the aftermath of 2016, to me it was just like: This is a hit on our country. I was probably guided by what I saw as a 20-year-old intern. September 11th was a different type of attack, but there was unity. Republicans, Democrats came together. I went and wrote legislation for an independent commission after the Russia attack, modeled it almost entirely on the commission that was stood up after September 11th, and just started to see that this was not what happened after September 11th. There’s not gonna be unity. I got every Democrat onboard for that bill, and just two Republicans. And a number of them told me, “Hey, we know there’s problems here, but I can’t cross [Trump].” And one intel committee member said, “If I cross him, he’ll lop my head off. I can’t do that.” So, at first it was just, like, “Democracy under attack. We should do something. Unity’s the best way to do it.” Then you started to see all the shovels that were taken out on their side to bury any evidence against them, to keep us from finding more. Then, over that year, my thinking on what they did evolved. They attacked our democracy to help Donald Trump. They clearly wanted a guy who would reduce sanctions, reduce the role that NATO plays. Later, obviously, get us out of Syria.

But as I looked at what they’d done across the board, the reason they did it, principally, in addition the the transactional benefit, was to make sure that Russians never ask for what we have. They can interfere in our elections, pour gasoline on the fire, stoke racial tensions, contribute money to the NRA, then the people in Moscow are not gonna say, “Hey, I want democracy instead of this autocracy system where all the wealth is concentrated at the top and all the rest of us get crumbs.” They’re just gonna say, “Well, I’d rather stick with this.” But whether it’s causation, or coordination, or accidental, we have a leader who acts like their leader in the way that he treats the press, in the way that he thinks the law doesn’t apply to him, the way that people at the top benefit from his policies. That’s a long way of saying that on the trail I talk about Russia, and, at its best, the idea of America is: No matter who you are, or where you’re from, what your parents did, who you love, if you work hard, you can be anything. And if that can be true in America it should be true anywhere. Including Russia. And the best way for Russia to make sure it’s not true there is to beat the idea here. And that’s a large part of what they’ve done — try to tear down the idea of America. So what I’m trying to do is defend against this outside threat, defend the rule of law, and from attacks within.

Okay, but you’re on the Intelligence Committee, you’ve been watching all this as closely as anyone, so post-Mueller report — or at least the parts we’ve seen — what are the next investigative steps you want to see? I keep hearing this argument from Democrats that impeachment is not the right way to go right now, that you can’t pursue it if the whole country isn’t onboard.
We’ll never have the whole country onboard, right?

So that’s the question. Does that not, then, become an excuse? What comes next?
I mean, it took him 200 pages to lay out all the contacts — the links, as he called it — between the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was never a sentence that said, “And these contacts ceased,” or “These links have ended.” So I think, first and foremost, before you even go to impeachment, it’s like, understanding: Well, are we still vulnerable? Are these contacts still ongoing? Is there a national-security concern about what they’re doing, who they’re working with, etcetera? I don’t think anyone can look at the first 200 pages and say, “Well, those might not have risen to the level of crimes that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but we’d love if that happened again in 2020.” I think most reasonable people read that and say, “Well, you can’t have this happen again.”

I mean, this was a shitshow for our democracy that they were able to get in this way, and no one told law enforcement what was happening. All they did was send green lights — “keep doing it.” They actually planned it, and that they would benefit from it. So certainly, we have to make sure that it’s not ongoing. Second, what do you learn from it, so you can write laws? Even though we may not have imagined that this could occur, we probably don’t want it to occur again. So what are the laws that don’t allow it to happen again? And then third, yes, how do you hold accountable people for their conduct, whether it was what took place or the way they sought to obstruct the investigation? So, on impeachment, you know, getting the full report — because about an eighth of it was redacted — is the next step. And if you’re talking about country buy-in, Mueller [is] testifying. Seeing is believing. Most people that I know, they’re taking their kids to soccer practice, getting them to bed. They’re not gonna read a 400-page report. Mueller coming to Congress, raising his right hand, laying it all out? People will follow. That’s going to be an important waypoint on this journey of, “How do you hold this guy responsible for what he did?” Recognizing that whoever the next president is, whoever ten presidents from now is, they’re going to look at what we did in this moment to determine what the standard of conduct is for presidents. If we just do nothing, I don’t think we want to lower the bar to that.

So then what do you make of the argument that a lot of your colleagues have advanced that the election is basically here, so we should just decide this electorally? Do you worry that if that becomes the Democratic line, there’s some sort of implication that if Trump wins, this was all okay? He could win, of course.
The Trump argument is: “I didn’t show my taxes and I won, so that was the voters saying I don’t have to show my taxes.” And I don’t think any of us think that that’s okay. So I do worry about that, and I want to say that doing nothing about what they did with the Russians, and what he did to stop, or obstruct the investigation, is not an option.

When you think about Trump running for reelection, and all that entails, are there things you’re worried he’ll do?
One relates to outside interference — “I’m not gonna condemn it.” And it’s not just Russians, I think other countries will see this as an opportunity to interfere. And it could be to hurt him too, right? Who knows? I hope that we’ll stay consistent and condemn any interference, no matter who is helped. Second, he’s already trying to savage the primary field. You can almost just see the livetweeting in response to each answer on the debate stage like he’s a color commentator. And his outside groups, you know, have a lot of money. We’ve already seen requests [for information]. Six months ago, the prosecutor’s office I worked at was getting requests from some of the Trump super-PACs. I think they’re doing that with everyone. And then again, he’s never met truth in his life, so I imagine he’s just going to continue to feel emboldened to say what he wants, and I think where Democrats have had a hard time — and most Americans have a hard time with this guy — is we’ve always been playing by the old rules, whereas, like with the Mueller report, he came out immediately and said, “No collusion, no obstruction,” before the report was even seen by him. You know, we all thought, “Wow, he better be right that there’s nothing damning in there, because he’s gonna look really bad if there is.” But he doesn’t care. It’s his M.O., and Barr’s M.O. — he’s playing from the same playbook. Brand first. Be the first to brand, and then everyone else is playing catch-up. And that’s certainly what’s happened. I’m trying to look a few plays down the field, not just the one in front of me. Playing this out, if Mueller is coming to testify, that’s going to give the American people awareness that has not been there on this issue. He is gonna lay out who these guys are deep in with, what it still means today for us, and then how the president, when confronted with an investigation, conducted himself. I think people care now, and they’re really going to care. I tell you, a lot of voters come up to me and say, “You tell the reporters in Washington I care about the Mueller report.” A lady told me that in New Hampshire a couple weeks ago. I was in a church basement in Iowa back in February, and a woman told me she had a Mueller prayer candle. It just goes to how they view this president, which is that he’s corrupt, and this is part of how he’s corrupt.

Let’s change gears. This morning your House colleague Seth Moulton announced he’s running for president. Among the House members running, you, Moulton, Beto O’Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard, and Tim Ryan all challenged and beat incumbent Democrats to get to the House.
Yeah, it’s funny, the field is so big that it’s like a division. You gotta get out of that division first to get to the next round. I think that bunch is impatient, go-getting doers. You could say that about a lot of people in the field, but certainly I’m good friends with Tulsi, Beto, Seth. I went to Tulsi’s wedding, and I went to Seth’s wedding. Tulsi, Beto, and I came in in the same class — at that orientation, the three of us just found each other. It wasn’t an accident that we found each other. We kinda had the same spirit of taking on the Establishment when we felt it needed to be challenged.

Okay, so what did you make of the new DCCC regulations that are going to make incumbent challenges harder?
I don’t like it. Competition is good. Challenging an incumbent just for the sake of challenging an incumbent? I don’t support that. But I do think competition is good and you shouldn’t run away from that. And the cream rises to the top, no matter what you do. Something like that, putting a policy in place, I think you almost just encourage it even more.

I want to ask about your own political awakening. You went to the Bush inauguration in 2001, and then by later that year you were interning on Capitol Hill for Ellen Tauscher, who was a Democrat. And then by 2003 you were out there protesting [former Republican governor of Maryland] Bob Ehrlich’s education policies. What happened?
I played soccer in college, at this little school in North Carolina called Campbell. It was the only place in the world where they would offer to pay for everything. I could play as a freshman, and it was Division One. So I was clearly in need financially, impatient as far as wanting to play immediately, and competitive, wanting to play Division One. Politics was like that. I had worked on a campaign for extra credit in a civics class in high school, but it wasn’t something that I thought about much. A friend of mine scored tickets to the inauguration. I had never been to Washington before. I drove up from North Carolina to D.C. It was interesting, but I was still playing soccer at that time. Then in that spring, ’01, I got injured — I was a goalkeeper, I broke both thumbs — and a high-school teacher, who was also the mayor of my hometown, said, “Hey, why don’t you apply to this internship on the Hill? You liked that Washington trip. The world’s not over because you got injured in soccer. Go to the Hill and see if you’re interested there.” So I applied, didn’t really know if I was a Republican or a Democrat. I don’t think I voted in 2000.

I went there and just loved it, to the point where I didn’t want to go back to Campbell, I was dreading it. I was boarding at the University of Maryland, commuting from College Park to the Hill. I just loved it. In the morning I worked at the Washington Sports Club, I had a 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift, I remember the Levin brothers would come in every morning and play squash. And then, during the day, you’re just giving tours and sitting in on the hearings. I just loved it. And then Tortilla Coast in the evening, I was a server. I didn’t want to go back. There was an aide in the congressional office who told me, “I can tell you really like this job, why don’t you just apply to Maryland as a transfer student?” I said, “The deadline’s passed.” She said, “Well, I know someone at the university, I’ll tell her about your injury, taking the internship, and see if you can get a late activation.” So I applied, and got in. It was a hard call to my parents, because they were like, “Wait, so we have an almost entirely paid-for scholarship at Campbell …” I did it, and stayed on the Hill. It was funny, I remember going to the chief of staff, asking if I could stay as an intern, and being really nervous for the ten-minute meeting I got with him. He was leaning back, like, “Let me get this straight: you’ve been working for us for three months, and you want to stay on during the fall while you’re in class? Still unpaid?” “Yeah.” He said, “Yeah, we’ll let you do that.” I thought it was, like, getting a big favor done. So I stayed, and that was about the same time September 11th happened, and that was the kind of awakening. A housemate of mine lost his father, who was at the Pentagon. That got me thinking about students who’d lost parents who would be financial providers, and what would happen to them. So I started working on legislation in Annapolis, the statehouse there, to create a survivors’ scholarship, and enjoyed the process of taking a problem and trying to put a solution on it.

Did you see Senator Warren’s new proposal to wipe out student debt? What did you think of that?
I mean, one, I want to do anything to relieve people of student debt. My proposal is to bring the interest rate to zero, and to allow employers to contribute tax-free. I think that’s doable, and I think you can get buy-in from the country on that. It’s something I know well:$80-to-100,000 is where my student debt is today. I know for families it just holds you back, you’re in quicksand. So, yeah, this was an issue I cared about in 2002 and it’s an issue I care about in 2019. That issue of student debt, and college affordability, is probably what I would say reinforced that I was a Democrat. My parents probably think I did it just to piss them off.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

Eric Swalwell on Running As the ‘Guns and Russia’ Candidate