the city politic

Dan Goldman on the Problem With Trump, Republicans, and Members of His Own Party

The veteran federal prosecutor tries politics.

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock
Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/Shutterstock

The last time Dan Goldman was in the House, he was impeaching Donald Trump. As the lead counsel in the first impeachment inquiry, he questioned witnesses for the Intelligence Committee. Now he wants to return as a representative of New York’s Tenth District, covering parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Goldman, 46, is a veteran federal prosecutor who served under Preet Bharara in Manhattan, where he prosecuted mobsters and white-collar-fraud cases for a decade, before he was tapped by House Democrats in 2019. His pitch to voters is that this experience has prepared him to preserve the nation’s democracy against a Trump return. He’s in a tight race in the Democratic primary on August 23 against City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, and Representative Mondaire Jones, among others. Although new to politics, he has a significant financial advantage over his fellow candidates as an heir to the Levi Strauss & Co. fortune, and he recently contributed $1 million of his own money to his campaign.

I spoke to Goldman about how he thinks his former Justice Department colleagues are handling their investigation into Trump, what he would do in Congress, and why he believes his party should’ve accomplished more with its majority. We spoke before the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago.

You’ve had an extensive legal career. Why transition to politics? 
I look around the country and I’m frightened by the attacks on the basic democratic foundations of our country, and I am very scared for the future of our democracy. I think that too many people, including Democrats, don’t recognize the degree to which Donald Trump is still in control of the party and is laying the foundation to steal the 2024 election. And I am devastated by the rollback of our right to choose and the foreshadowing of future rollbacks of our fundamental rights. And I felt compelled as a public servant to jump in this race to see if I could use my unique skills and experience to go back to Washington and stand up to Trump again, and the Republican Party, and make sure that we continue to have a democracy.

Prior to this seat opening up, you launched a campaign to run for state attorney general but later dropped out and endorsed Letitia James for reelection. What was behind that decision? 
I think Tish James is doing a good job, and I wasn’t interested in running against her. Many of the same reasons why I’m running for Congress now were the same reasons that I threw my hat in the ring for attorney general I think there are lots of ways to serve the public. And there are lots of ways to promote democracy and stand up for the vulnerable communities and people who don’t have access to the opportunities that every American should have. One way is to be attorney general, and another way is to run for Congress. But at the core, it was born out of the same desire that I’ve had for my entire career: to be a public servant.

Your opponents have a largely political background on either the local level or the federal level. What makes you the best suited to represent NY-10? 
Well, it’s a combination of the fact that I am the only one who has stood up to Donald Trump. I’ve been effective at doing so and proving the case. But I bring some strategies and ideas that we used effectively in the impeachment investigation but are easily transferable to passing legislation and to delivering results for our communities and our constituents. I think having been in Washington and understanding how Congress works, understanding that this Republican Party is different than our parents’ Republican Party — they’re not good-faith actors. So we need to use different tactics to bring them to the table because the same old playbook is not working. And so what I bring is a fresh and different approach that is different from my opponents, who are more conventional and typical politicians who seem to be using the same playbook that Democrats have used for a long time that are no longer working in Washington. They work well in City Hall. They work well in Albany because you have supermajorities of Democrats. So the challenges are different.

You say that Republicans in Congress are not acting in good faith. Considering that there’s a significant chance that, if elected, you’ll be entering the House controlled by them, how do you work to get things done? 
If the Democrats are in the minority, which I hope we are not, my experience having led the impeachment investigation will be even more valuable to the party because we can expect an impeachment investigation into Joe Biden. We can expect a number of tangential select committees that are stood up to investigate political nonsense. And so my experience having been a prosecutor and leading the Trump impeachment will be even more valuable to the party to be a bulwark against overreach and unwarranted investigations.

From my experience down there, you can be aggressive with the opposing party, but you can also work with them at the same time. And so while I have called for an aggressive investigation into gun manufacturers and gun dealers, who control the Republican Party — because I want to expose what they know about their marketing and advertising, and how it has radicalized young people who buy AR-15s and increasingly commit mass shootings, in order to put some pressure on the Republicans through their special interests — I also think we can work together on things like early-childhood development, which traditionally has been bipartisan, and renewable energy as an example because it saves the climate and it creates jobs. Republicans are increasingly talking about energy independence, and the best way to have energy independence is to invest in renewable energy. So we need to reframe the message or the approach to Republicans so they understand that it is in their self interest to come to the table. And even if we have different reasons, we can agree on a path forward.

Have you given any thoughts to what committees you’d like to serve on if given the opportunity? 
Well, I think I would be natural fits for the Judiciary Committee given that I worked for the DOJ for ten years, the Oversight Committee because of my investigative background, and the Intelligence Committee because I served as a senior adviser and staff member on the committee for 14 months. But I also have a lot of other interests that are, perhaps in some cases, more directly related to the needs of this district, such as housing and education. It’s unusual to get two plum committees like two of the investigative committees, so I would be very excited to work on the Labor and Education Committee or the Housing Committee. But I think housing and education are areas that I want to focus a lot on.

What more could the federal government be doing to address housing in places like NY-10?
The first is that the federal government can be facilitating more funding for NYCHA either directly or through programs that can help create a steady stream of funding for NYCHA moving forward. But that’s not enough because what we need is more and better housing. There are several ways the federal government can do that. We can use federal land to give to the city to build more affordable housing. We can provide grants to nonprofit organizations that are very involved in affordable housing in New York and, oftentimes, with homelessness as well. I think that, in many cases, just a small portion of capital is needed to get a project over the line, and the federal government can be the bridge through nonprofit organizations that are experts in this area to be able to help get some of these projects, which are a partnership between the city government, for-profit real estate and nonprofit organizations. So the federal government can help the nonprofit organizations, which will then facilitate a lot more, and that’s an area that I really want to explore.

Given your experience as the lead counsel for the first Trump impeachment, what do you think of the job the January 6 committee is doing?
The January 6 committee has done a heroic job of diving in in an incredibly intensive and rigorous way. To interview over a thousand people is incredible. I think we changed the template for high-level congressional investigations with our first impeachment by bringing sort of the prosecutor’s approach to congressional investigations. The second impeachment built off that and did a very nice job of presenting the case in the Senate trial, and the January 6 committee has really taken it to another level. I think we have a really clear picture of the extent to which Donald Trump and those around him attempted to overturn the election through fraud. The committee really demonstrates the power of investigations in Congress, and part of it is that they use the template that we started in the impeachment in order to, I think, be more effective in investigating an issue.

A big question concerning the January 6 committee is whether they’ll make a criminal referral to the Justice Department. Do you think there’s enough evidence to warrant that? 
I think it’s the wrong question. A criminal referral from the House for this conduct has no legal authority. So when you have a witness who makes false statements to a congressional committee, that’s a good reason to refer to the Department of Justice, because the department may not be able to determine that on its own. In this case, we already know that the Department of Justice is investigating this conduct, and so there’s no benefit to making this referral because they’re already doing it. And I think there’s a decent argument that there could be a cost to doing it because we know that Donald Trump, his defense would be that this is a partisan investigation. I think the attorney general has done a very, very good job of consistently emphasizing the nonpartisan nature of this investigation and the way that the Department of Justice operates under his leadership. And if you have a congressional committee that by its very nature is somewhat politicized because it’s the political branch, then you run the risk of giving Trump or others around him something to grab onto for their argument that it is partisan. He’s gonna make the argument anyway, but there’s no benefit to doing it, and there’s no reason to give him a talking point on this topic. So I don’t think they should make a criminal referral.

There are some people who feel frustrated at the pace of the Department of Justice’s investigation. What do you think of the moves being taken so far? 
So the first thing I will say is criminal investigations of this complexity and this scope take a very long time. It is not enough to simply take the evidence that we saw from the January 6 committee, go put it into a grand jury, and get an indictment. You need to make sure that you understand what every witness says, what the potential legal defenses are, what evidence is admissible, and make sure that you can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. So that is a very time-intensive and laborious process. That being said, there’s no question in my mind that the department was way too slow in moving from January 6 itself and the violent extremists and insurrectionists to the leaders of the coup and those who were trying to overturn the election. It’s a shame that it took as long as it did, but I think now they are moving with much more urgency as we start seeing from reporting — to the extent we believe it or that it is accurate — they are moving much quicker and getting much further up the ladder. But I still would not expect the decisions to be made until the spring of ’23.

What do you think the top priorities should be for the Democratic Party following the midterms?
Making sure that we have a democracy, and second is to make sure that we preserve our fundamental rights and expand access to abortion in states that will outlaw abortion access. I’m the only candidate in the field who has actually thought about ways we can do that in the current environment. I think all of us in the field want to codify Roe and probably want to repeal the Hyde Amendment. But I’ve been thinking hard about how we can expand abortion access through the federal government under the current system, and that includes ensuring that medication abortion is available to be sent across state lines and that states cannot prosecute those who receive it; ensuring that states do not prosecute doctors; providing more funding to VA hospitals and military hospitals to provide women with basic medical care, such as for miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, or even IVF, in areas where doctors are concerned that they could get prosecuted for that. And then the last thing is making sure that we’re looking for every opportunity to lease federal land to reproductive-rights groups who can provide services and counseling to women and can get them access to other funds that might be able to help them travel to other states.

I mean, there are a lot of other things we need to tackle. Climate change is a huge thing. Education is a huge thing. Affordable housing is a huge thing. Immigration is a real, important issue. These are all really important issues. But the first thing we have to solve is making sure we have a robust democracy because, without that, we cannot have any other rights and we cannot have any other policies that help the people who need the help the most.

So what are some concrete steps that Congress can take now to strengthen our democracy? 
I think it’s a combination of things. We have to make sure that we have free and fair elections and that the voters decide those elections, not elected officials. We need to make sure that we give every American access to the ballot and make voting much easier and much more accessible for vulnerable communities who are often discriminated against and deprived of proper access to voting. We need to reform the Supreme Court and restore legitimacy to it by providing term limits and by applying the judicial code of ethics to the justices along with an investigative body that can ensure that no justice can lie under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as I believe several have, and that no justice fails to recuse himself in cases involving his wife. We need more transparency. We need campaign-finance reform. We need to pass the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which is something that I helped draft before I left, and we need to expand that. We need to get rid of the Electoral College altogether, and at a minimum, if we don’t do that, we need to significantly amend the Electoral Count Act. We need to ban gerrymandering and we need to prevent future abuses of power by a rogue, unethical, amoral president.

There’s been a push for President Biden to cancel $50,000 of student-loan debt via executive order, but he seems to be concerned about the legality of doing such a thing by executive order. Do you think that’s a fair concern? 
I think the student-debt problems in our country are significant. They have a disparate impact on people of color in part because they’ve often been sold a bill of goods and there’s some degree of predatory lending that has gone on with it. I am very opposed, in general, to for-profit education. I think the incentives are just completely wrong, and I think, to the extent that they are taking loans and putting debt on people, that has to be addressed. We do need to figure out a way to do something about it. I think President Biden probably has the authority to do it. But I do think it is not as straightforward as many think.

Unlike many of your opponents, you’re not a supporter of Medicare for All. Why is that, and what actions should be taken instead? 
I think if we were starting from scratch, single-payer health care is a great way to go. I believe that health care is a fundamental right in this country and that every American should have free health care. But I am less interested in making false promises by advertising or promoting a single-payer system when I believe that it is much more realistic and achievable to expand current or different government health-care systems to include every American, if they want it. I am really much more focused on delivering actual results to the people who need them than I am on advocating for litmus tests when I think that it’s much more difficult to achieve. I don’t fundamentally disagree with my opponents about the goal of providing health care to every American. I am just more focused on solutions, and I think it is more realistic to continue to build off Obamacare, which was hard enough to pass, in order to continue to expand health care to the tens of millions of people who are uninsured in this country.

So it’s less about the idea itself and more about what’s practical and actually feasible? 
One hundred percent. I am really much more focused on results than revolutions, and I think it is really important to keep our eye on the ball, which is making sure that every American gets health care. I think what we saw from the Obamacare process, when the Democrats had a supermajority and we still didn’t get everything that many of us progressives would have liked to have gotten, is that we need to be focused on continuing to push the floor higher and higher and higher. And in my mind, the next step is to expand the current programs we have to include all Americans. Once we get there, then we can talk about what the best way to supply health care to all Americans is.

Democrats have control of both chambers of Congress, though with slim margins, and also the White House. What do you think of what the party’s achieved since Trump left office? 
I think it’s been very disappointing. I think that we had a real opportunity, with the control of the House, Senate, and the presidency, to move a lot more legislation forward. I think part of the problem has been that many in the Democratic Party refused to accept the reality of what the situation in Washington is. I was very disappointed that Joe Manchin’s proposal for Build Back Better last fall did not pass, and it didn’t pass because many in the Democratic Party believed it was not enough. I think some made perfect be the enemy of the good, and we lost that opportunity. We are now on the brink of passing a package that’s maybe a quarter of what Manchin was offering last fall, which is still better than nothing and will be very meaningful in terms of lowering prescription-drug prices and providing incentives for renewable energy and reducing the deficit — all things that we need to do. But it was a missed opportunity. Part of the reason I am running is I don’t think it is good enough to stand on ceremony and promote passing a bill through the House that won’t become legislation because it can’t get through the Senate. The voters who need help from the federal government don’t care if a bill passes the House if it doesn’t become legislation and actually get into their pockets and help them. And so one of the things that I will do when I get to Washington is focus more on getting bills that can become legislation rather than bills that make for good talking points but don’t get actual results.

Do you think there’s been more of a trend of focusing on big-picture ideas rather than smaller, more achievable goals? 
Maybe. I think there are a lot of powerful voices in the Democratic Party. But what I hope we can do, and what I will try to do if I’m elected, is unify the party toward a common goal and recognize that we have gotten a little off track as a party, where we’re more focused, I think, on social-media sound bites than we are on serious legislation and getting bills passed. I’m disappointed at how little collaboration there seems to be within the Democratic Party to reach some compromise so that we can help the people we all want to help.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dan Goldman on the Problem With Republicans and Some Dems