There’s no better place to build your brand than in the opposition. In that narrow sense, Donald Trump’s presidency was good for Eric Swalwell. A two term congressman from California when Trump was elected in 2016, Swalwell’s tenor broke through the chorus of criticism directed at the White House to make him, by the end of that strange era in our politics, one of the Democratic Party’s most visible stars. He helped manage the first Trump impeachment (which, naturally, he penned a book about) and now he’s returned for the sequel. On a recent sunny afternoon in Washington, we sat down (outdoors) to discuss his experience during the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the impeachments, his time as a prosecutor, his brief and unpleasant experience as a candidate for president, and the matter of the Chinese spy. Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.
Heading into the trial, how optimistic are you?
I think we’re going into this seeing an opportunity to convict. I recognize that it’s going to be a challenge, but we think that the facts are so compelling and you have jurors who were also victims. They ran for their lives. They sent the same text messages to their loved ones that I sent to mine. There’s got to be a sense among them that this can’t ever happen again. One of the ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to hold accountable the guy that incited it.
What are you hearing about how your Republican colleagues are feeling?
There are my one-on-one friendships, where they’ll confide that they don’t like the guy, The guy’s got to go. He’s awful. There are the ones who say that they’re afraid of primaries. I’ve got a friend on the Judiciary Committee, he’ll come over to me after a heated exchange between both sides, and he’ll just kind of eye roll what he just said. It’s a matter of trying to determine who’s really afraid and making decisions out of fear, who can’t stand him and wants to show the resolve to do the right thing, who thinks it’s just a joke — and they’re in on the joke and they just have to do this because of the pro-wrestling effect — and then who actually believes in him? Those are the four categories that I have found among my colleagues.
But in the Senate, I think you’re going to see a serious case. We’re encouraged that McConnell seems open-minded and he wants a fair process. I think the fact that he’s not in office, the dynamics are going to be a little bit different in that no one can say this is politically motivated –– not that the last one was, but you can’t say this is an effort to undermine his presidency. His presidency is over. This is truly about trying to hold him accountable, to deter someone from doing this again, and to disqualify him from ever being able to do this again.
Can you walk me through the day of the 6th as you experienced it?
I was on the floor. I was just so angry, and in disbelief that they were able to breach the Capitol. It was very much the same feeling the night Donald Trump was elected, like How did this happen? It was kind of the same feeling of like, Okay, they’re on the grounds, but there’s no way to get in. Okay, they’re inside, but of course, a couple of police are going to be able to stop them. Okay, they’re climbing up, they’re going up the stairs, but they’re never getting in this chamber. This chamber’s secure. This is Congress, we’re counting electoral votes. And then pretty soon when the police officer goes up to the podium and says, “They’re right outside,” and at this point you can hear the pounding and smashing glass in the speaker’s lobby. He said, Take out your gas mask and be prepared to duck under your chair. It’s bulletproof.”
And it’s like, Okay, maybe this is really happening. But I still thought, No, they’re just preparing us. This is one of most secure places in the world. And it was finally when the House chaplain, unannounced, walked up to the podium — and she has served in theaters of war — starts offering a prayer, she just starts praying. I’m like, Okay, the Capitol has fallen.
What was the prayer?
She was praying for peace. She was just talking about peace. But to me, I mean, it was also like, Is this the last rites?! Like her version, the House chaplain’s version, of our last rites?
A freshman member told me that at no point during orientation was any kind of safety protocol or evacuation plan discussed. Was that also your experience?
I wasn’t briefed on that either.
No one was ever like, “Hey, just so you know, in case you have an attack, there’s a gas mask under your chair?”
No. And they were also, like a gas mask, it’s like a newspaper and I would open it up and I know what to do with it. I was like, I don’t know how to put on a fucking gas mask. So I looked at Ruben Gallego who had served in Iraq. I’m like, “Ruben, what do I do with this?” And so he’s opening it and telling me how to put it on. And he realizes that others are just like me, we didn’t serve in a war. So he’s helping a bunch of people learn how to put their gas masks on.
At two o’clock, my wife texted me and said, “Are you on the floor?” because she’s watching the coverage. And I said, “Yes, they apparently have bombs,” because one of the cops said that, at the podium, that they may have explosive devices. And then at that point, this is right as the last rights are also being read. I said, “I love you very much, and our babies,” and then she lost it. She’s like, “Don’t say that.” And I don’t know — what do you say? We just didn’t know what was on the other side of the doors. You could just hear it and you could see like thousands of people had poured into the Capitol. I regret that I didn’t even pick up the phone and call her, but it was just so — she would have heard the announcements and people scrambling to put gas masks on. And she’s like, “You don’t have to tell me you love me, I know, you don’t have to do that.” But other members were doing that. One member called her husband and told him where the will is.
You’re a former prosecutor. What’s the most interesting thing about this case from that perspective?
I think the jurors as victims is the most unique thing you will ever see in a trial. Right? I mean, a Senate juror’s obviously different from a regular juror in that you don’t get to pick who you have on your jury. They self-selected by being in the Senate. But you’ve never seen a trial, would never see a trial, where the jurors are truly victims. That’s such a unique part of this.
Do you think that that makes people more likely to do what you view as the right thing?
Yes. And I think also, it touched on their personal safety and maybe it just gives us a better shot at, yeah, people doing something.
As a Democrat, are you worried at all about the beginning of the Biden era being defined by Trump?
You don’t want to make him more significant than he is. He’s now an ex-president and he’ll be regarded as probably the worst ex-president. But we also can’t just sweep this under the rug. This was an attack on the Capitol, someone died, 50 officers were hospitalized. My colleagues and staff members and cafeteria workers are traumatized. I just don’t think this one is a, “Let bygones be bygones for the sake of unity.” I think there’s a sense that unity means justice and accountability.
Speaking of that, you have a lot of colleagues who supported the former president or pretended to support the former president, which is the same thing. How do you interact with them now?
I remember we were going through these narrow hallways that day [January 6]. Madison Cawthorn struck up a conversation with me and we were approaching a ramp and he asked me to push him up the ramp. I was so angry at him, the president, people that were a part of this. We didn’t know what was going to happen. But there was terror that was brought. But he’s in a wheelchair, he asked someone to push him up the ramp. [As Swalwell said this, he shrugged, as if to say, “Of course you help someone who asks for your help in that situation.”]
I think right now it’s just trying to think about the next two years, there are 139 of them that did this. How do you work with them? Do you separate those who truly were, in the days leading up to this, a part of the radicalization and the big lie and went and spoke at the rally? Is there a difference between that group and the people that just voted for it, because maybe they thought it heads off a primary challenger? I don’t know. I’m still, in my own mind, I’m trying to reconcile that, because Congress has to function. A lot of people I’ve worked with on their side voted for it, people that I’ve gone out and had beers with. It’s like, How do I look at you? They walk by me now and someone’s like, “Hey Swalwell, what’s up?” It’s just like, I don’t know if we’re there yet. I don’t know if I want to say “What’s up?” right now.
A lot of those people you’re referring to have also attacked you in very personal terms over the Axios report that revealed your campaign and office was infiltrated by a Chinese spy circa 2014. Can you talk about what that experience has been like?
For my family, the death threats have flooded in. Not just my wife and I, but it’s also been for my father, my brothers, their friends. And all for a story where — don’t take my word for it when I say there’s no wrongdoing. I can’t talk about the case, but there was no wrongdoing. The FBI multiple times issued statements saying that there’s no wrongdoing. All I can do is just do my job and not let it affect me.
There is a colleague of mine who sent a tweet out just attacking me, and I texted him and I said, “Really?” He called me, and he was like, “Hey bro! How you doing, man?” I’m like, “How am I doing? You just sent out a tweet attacking me. Why are you doing this?” He goes, “I didn’t know I sent a tweet.” I’m like, “What do you mean you don’t know you sent a tweet?” He said, “Oh, let me check on that.” He called me back, “Oh, my staff sent it.”
I said, “Well, take it down. Why don’t you call me if you have questions?” He goes, “Well, I don’t think you did anything wrong. You did exactly what you’re supposed to do.” I said, “Well, then take down the tweet, don’t be a part of this feeding frenzy.” He’s like, “It’s coming down, I swear.” He texts me, “Just talked to them, it’s coming down.” But he didn’t take it down, so I called him again, and he goes, “Hey man, so my staff said that this is the best performing tweet we’ve had. And I’m not going to say anything else. If I’m asked about this publicly, I’m going to say you did the right thing. But if we take it down, it will be so obvious.” I’m like, That’s courage around here?
This has gotten sort of muddled in the conversation around the story. Can you help me understand? Did you have a relationship with her that was —
I did nothing wrong. No.
There’s no wrongdoing. I’ve only talked about this case in a secure location with the FBI, I told them I would not talk about it unless it was declassified. So I can’t say anything other than I did nothing wrong. There was nothing improper. They have backed that up over and over. If there was anything that was compromising, I wouldn’t be on the [intelligence] committee. And [ex-committee chairman Devin] Nunes and McConnell and company were all briefed on this well over five years ago. So to me, it’s maddening that it would be perverted to suggest I did anything wrong.
Without violating your agreement to not discuss the details, can you tell me what it was like to be betrayed by someone you thought you knew?
I was a young member of Congress at the time and I’d just got on the intel committee when I was approached [by the FBI] for defensive briefing. So I’d never never had been really given any briefings before I went to Congress or during orientation about what foreign governments were trying to do. So yeah, it was jolting. And that’s why I did all I could to help. But it also hardened my resolve, when I saw what the president was doing in 2016, to be like, “No, when you’re told that foreign governments are trying to infiltrate a campaign, you don’t say, ‘Russia, are you listening?’ You help your government.” That was something that I carried with me, which was just kind of anger that they failed the test. I felt like I passed the test, which is why I stayed on the committee. Why the FBI has multiple times said, “You didn’t do anything wrong.” And I feel like they failed the test. It offended me knowing that they didn’t handle it the way you’re supposed to handle it.
The White House and the Trump campaign’s defense about the Russian collusion allegations always seemed to come back to the idea that they were too stupid to have colluded, or too stupid for it to have ever occurred to them to try to collude. Having the experience that you had with an adversarial foreign government, was any part of you empathetic to them, given that you understand first hand how anyone could be vulnerable?
Well, I certainly agree that anyone could be vulnerable and I don’t think we do a good enough job of like telling people who go into government what the threats are. But once I read like the Mueller report and the early reporting that we found, right after 2016, it was like again, okay, you guys were told and you’re still leaning in on this. You’re still saying, again, “Russia, are you listening?” Trump was given a defensive briefing and still, they all leaned in and they lied. Again, which I never lied. Like if I had lied, I would have been charged with something. And I did what every person should do, just cooperate, help. And obviously disconnect the volunteer from the candidate. Like that’s what you should do. And to the last day of his presidency, I just felt like he always sided with Russia. Like if he had to choose between our country or Russia, he would choose Russia.
I think it was Matt Berman from BuzzFeed who had this funny tweet where he said, I’m paraphrasing, that the best thing about this second impeachment is we don’t have to learn about a whole confusing cast of Ukrainian characters. This one is a pretty simple story to follow, it’s a single article. How do you think of this within the broader context of the Trump impeachments?
This was clear. This is not just about January 6, right? It’s not a heat-of-passion crime. Like he didn’t just go to that rally and spontaneously say that “you can’t show weakness” and that you’re a cavalry and that “you have to fight.” It didn’t just come out of his words spontaneously in the moment. For months, he’d been telling this big lie to radicalize his supporters to believe that the election was stolen. And he knew that his words and his tweets in earlier context had motivated people to go to state cabinets, right? Like “liberate Michigan, liberate Wisconsin.” He saw what they would do when he said that. They would show up and body armor and camo gear and assault rifles. So he had knowledge of what he could do with his words. The name of the [January 6] rally was “Stop the Steal.” And if you’re not an elected representative, the only way you can stop the steal is to physically try and disrupt the proceedings. And so the speakers who went before him invoked violence, like [Mo] Brooks and Giuliani. So I think that the case is that yes, the day of the attack was on the sixth, but the attack was completely foreseeable considering everything he had been doing leading up to it. And then once it happened, he did nothing. Like if he didn’t intend for them to do that, they wouldn’t have taken more than two hours to pass for him to intervene and stop it.
But the language of politics so often echoes the language of war. Politicians are always battling, it’s always a siege. It’s all very dramatic.
I saw your piece on that.
It’s not just the language of war, it’s the language of harassment, too. Campaign-fundraising emails — yours are, frankly, some of the worst. I’ve been meaning to bring this up to you. They trick me all the time. I’m constantly getting Rickrolled by your fundraising emails and then cursing your name.
Did you donate?
I haven’t unsubscribed yet! But my point is, that language, the language of persistence, or the language that activists use when they encourage you to “Call your congressman” to “Let your voice be heard.” As someone concerned about free speech, I have a hard time fully accepting that, depending on the outcome, commonplace political language is tantamount to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
I expect that’ll be one of the arguments. And of course we value free speech, but it has its limitations. Right? And I think that’s why this is not just about the sixth. It’s about what he did leading up to it, and the incidents at the other state capitols. That I think shows that he had knowledge that violence could follow his words or tweets. The last case I tried right before I got elected was a criminal threats case. The defendant was a college student and he was in a pissing match with his professor over grades, so he sends a letter to the leader of the Nation of Islam, signed by the college professor, threatening to kill the Nation of Islam leader, thinking that he would retaliate against this professor or something.
Part of the argument and in the case was that words can’t be a crime. He was being tried for felony criminal threats. It’s his crime. I convinced the jury that the terror that he caused by conveying this threat to the Nation of Islam leader, and then later to the professor, that there are limitations [to free speech]. And he was convicted.
What I think about the most in this case, if you take the president out of the equation, say after he lost 30 court cases, he conceded the election and stopped using the “stop the steal” rhetoric. Say he just did that. Would this violent rally and attacks still have happened? I don’t think it would have. I think if you take him out, it doesn’t happen. He’s the central figure of all this. And to me, that is the best proof that he is responsible.
The challenge here, with the former president, is to tie his words to the actions of the terrorists that stormed the Capitol. As I said, this case is the most unique in the composition of the jury and what the jury experienced. I think that is a challenge but also an opportunity for connecting with them.
Are you trying to lobby people at all privately?
You’re not taking people to dinner and trying to sway them?
Yeah, that feels sleazy or at least dirty.
[Gestures at surroundings.] We’re in Washington.
I know, I know.
Speaking of the Washington way: You ran for president. Most people, once it occurs to them that they could be president, never seem to be able to let go of it.
I think it’s out of my system.
I’ve got the vaccine. [Laughs.]
I don’t believe you at all, just to be clear. Like not at all.
I hope you believe me. No, I think the lesson I learned was that it was really hard to do that with two kids in diapers and my wife working full time.
Is she still mad about it? I would be!
Yeah, it was not a positive experience for her. She doesn’t look at it like, “Oh, this great experience where we ran for president.” It just wasn’t. I was trying to harness the energy that I put into running for Congress when I was 31 and beating a 40-year incumbent when I was single, no kids, no real obligations. Having two kids in diapers, a wife who worked, being on Judiciary and Intel, it just, I never felt like I could run the way I wanted to run. I don’t even think that would have changed the outcome. I wasn’t even happy with what I could put into it.
You really don’t think you’re going to do it again?
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include an FBI official’s statement to the press clearing Swalwell of wrongdoing.