Last November, hedge-fund billionaire, environmentalist, philanthropist and, most of all, Democratic activist Tom Steyer happened to be at the United Nations climate-change conference in Bonn, Germany.
He decided to make a side trip to Nuremberg, the scene of the Nazi rally glorified by Adolf Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, and later the war crimes trials; Steyer’s trek dovetailed nicely with his current high profile as the deep-pocketed, camera-ready crusader for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
By virtue of the television ads that Steyer has paid for and starred in as a surprisingly relatable pro-impeachment pitchman (including at least one that touts his Forbes-estimated $1.6 billion net worth), he is a celebrity-businessman who has actively considered running for office himself.
This was for governor and senator in his home state of California, two prospective campaign ideas he ultimately rejected.
Yet, in an interview with The Daily Beast, Steyer refused to state unequivocally that he won’t consider declaring for president in 2020.
“I haven’t said anything about that,” he dodged, when asked if he’s keeping the door open for a possible presidential candidacy. “What I’ve said is I have no idea, and I’m not gonna talk about anything that may happen after November 6, 2018,”—the date of this year’s midterm elections in which the Democrats are hoping to sweep into the majority in the House of Representatives and possibly win the Senate as well.
“Because as far as we’re concerned, we’re all in.”
Pressed for more detail about his personal plans and dreams, Steyer demurred, “I don’t want to say one thing about anything after November 6… Because I don’t know what’s gonna happen on November 6. And you don’t know what’s gonna happen on November 6. I generally don’t talk about conditional outcomes, so I won’t say one word. We don’t know what the hell is gonna happen, or where it’s gonna lead us.”
Sounds like a definite maybe.
Back in November, at the climate change conference in Bonn, Steyer was with his 25-year-old daughter Evi, who works in London for Generation Investment Management LLP, a fund launched by Al Gore to support sustainable low-carbon businesses.
“I said to my daughter, ‘Let’s go over to Nuremberg to see where your grandfather was prosecuting Nazi war crimes,” Steyer, 60, told The Daily Beast, “‘and let’s take a look at the Nuremberg stadium where Hitler staged his Nazi rallies. Let’s see what really happens when your country goes to the dark side.’”
Tom’s late father, Roy Henry Steyer, all of 27 as World War II was ending, was a Navy lieutenant and freshly minted graduate of Yale Law School when he was tapped to assist the chief prosecutor, Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, at the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunals.
“My father was not big on talking about himself,” Steyer recalled, “but he did tell me about interviewing the top Nazis about what they did, and who was smart and who was disingenuous.”
Having polite if pointed conversations with the 20th century’s most efficient mass murderers must have been a surreal experience for the elder Steyer, who was Jewish.
This was a religious identity that didn’t hamper his success at an Ivy League institution which, typically in those days, was hardly welcoming to Jews and other minorities. “He aced Yale Law—he loved it,” Roy’s son recalled, noting that his dad was named editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.
“He interviewed all the top Nazis. He interviewed Hermann Goering [Hitler’s No. 2, who founded the Gestapo], and he felt he was really smart,” Tom Steyer said. “He interviewed Albert Speer [Hitler’s chief architect and the administrator of the Third Reich’s forced-labor camps], who was supposedly considered a better-type person. My father said Speer claimed he didn’t know he had 12 million slaves working for him. ‘He told me he didn’t know they were slaves.’”
Steyer said the example of his father, who went on to become a partner at the white-shoe law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, affording Tom the best private schools and Yale—from which he graduated summa cum laude—taught him that doing what’s right is always better than doing what’s expedient.
The younger Steyer added: “There’s no such thing as a good Nazi”—another lesson that was apparently lost on President Trump last August when he insisted there were “very fine people” marching with white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“But I never have compared Trump to Hitler,” Steyer said.
Indeed, during a recent town hall in Iowa Steyer carefully parsed the distinctions between Trump and Der Fuhrer after a lady in the audience suggested an invidious equivalency.
The town hall was one of a dozen Steyer has conducted over the past few months around the country (several in early presidential caucus and primary states) to push his $40 million “Need to Impeach” campaign and add to the 5.1 million names on his email list of impeachment supporters, all potential grass-roots volunteers and voters for the 2018 midterms.
“Mr. Trump,” Steyer told the Iowa crowd, “really is an incredibly skillful and talented communicator. He really is—which Hitler was, too. But I think the reason people push back against the Hitler comparison, regardless of any similarities, is Hitler ended up killing millions and millions of people. And Mr. Trump has shown a disregard for our law. He breaks the law. He has shown a disrespect for the idea of law. In many ways he has done things that we find—that I find—abhorrent. He hasn’t killed millions of people.”
And that is about the nicest thing Steyer can say about the current commander-in-chief.
The nicest thing Trump has said about Steyer, meanwhile, is that he is “wacky & totally unhinged”—a sentiment expressed in a tweet last October as the Fox News Channel was in the process of rejecting Steyer’s impeachment ads denouncing the channel’s most famous fan.
“I thought he was projecting, to be honest,” Steyer recalled. “But my feeling about this is if he wants to engage, it’s absolutely fine. From my standpoint, this is a guy who’s all hat, no cattle.”
Much to Steyer’s disappointment, Trump hasn’t risen to the bait again.
He lives in a San Francisco mansion with his wife Kat Taylor, a fellow MBA (and, unlike Steyer, a lawyer), who runs the community development bank they both launched in 2007.
On the night of Nov. 8, 2016, he was monitoring the election returns at the Democratic Party headquarters in the California capital of Sacramento.
When Trump narrowly beat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College, “I was definitely surprised,” said Steyer, whose investment career had given him a subtle and complex understanding of numbers, trends and risks. “If you had said to me, what’s the chance of that happening, I would have said none.”
A top staffer of NextGen America, Steyer’s millennial-focused grass-roots arm, was devastated and near tears, he recalled.
“But I had a different reaction,” Steyer told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘You know what? This means we’re in a big fight. It’s completely awful in every way but there’s no reason to feel down about it. Yes, it’s something really bad. But we’re just going to have to deal with it.”
After the dust settled, Steyer tried to pull his punches concerning the manifest deficiencies of Clinton’s campaign, yet he wished that she hadn’t taken six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other powerful Wall Street elites.
“I think Hillary is a very dedicated, hardworking person over decades,” Steyer explained. “I think that she gets way too much criticism as a candidate. I think she has been a dedicated public servant and a good person.”
Still, he added pointedly, Clinton’s acceptance of the high-dollar speaking fees, during the limbo between her tenure as secretary of state and the launch of her her second presidential campaign, was politically damaging.
It highlighted “the struggle between between corporate interests and the interests of the American people,” Steyer said. “For a lot of voters, they couldn’t understand how you could take money from big corporate interests and not be affected by it…I think it's how most Americans see the world – the financial system is rigged, the political system is rigged against them by these extraordinary rich corporate interests – and it’s something that hurt her in the election.”
Steyer said he agrees with the premise that the Democratic establishment—as arguably personified by Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—is disconnected from working people.
“Because they are disconnected,” he said, while being careful not to criticize any of the above.
Asked if Pelosi and Schumer are doing a good job, Steyer sidestepped, “It depends on how you define the job.”
Steyer’s diagnosis for the disconnect?
“You know, I have no bloody idea. I really don’t,” he said. “The question that we’re dealing with, which is so important, is how do we get back to defending the interests of working Americans, because they’ve gotten screwed for 40 years.”
Steyer said his drive to act on his social conscience developed gradually as his family grew (he and his wife have four children) and he began attending church (his mother Marnie, an educator, was Episcopalian). “There was no Road-to-Damascus moment,” he said.
The irony is not lost on Steyer that he spent much of his life amassing massive amounts of money and enabling some of the corporate interests he now denounces.
Indeed, until he retired from running Farallon Capital Management in 2012 and divested himself of his dirty energy holdings, the hedge fund had already “pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that operate coal mines and coal-fired power plants from Indonesia to China,” the New York Times reported in 2014.
Steyer’s business past has become an issue in NextGen’s $2 million campaign to pass a ballot initiative in Arizona this November that would close the state’s sole nuclear plant two decades ahead of schedule and require that 50 percent of Arizona’s electricity, instead of the current 13 percent, come from renewable sources such as solar and wind energy.
Steyer is well aware that neither Pelosi nor Schumer believes that his impeachment campaign—which they consider unnecessarily divisive—will be helpful to Democratic chances in November.
Steyer’s TV ads typically depict the 45th president as a “lawless,” “reckless,” incompetent authoritarian who has no use, and less respect, for the U.S. Constitution, and is using his high office, along with his family members, for personal financial gain.
Steyer said he would prefer Vice President Mike Pence as president, even with the latter’s hard-right ideology—although that isn’t his goal.
“The first point about impeachment is you’re not choosing a president,” he said. “Impeachment is the tool the founders gave us to get rid of a lawless, reckless and dangerous president—and that’s exactly what we have…So would I rather have a president whom I disagree with on virtually every policy issue like Mike Pence than the one we have now? Absolutely, because I believe that he is not a person who is against the rule of law and breaks the law on a regular basis and puts us at risk.”
A new best-selling book, To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, coauthored by Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, argues that an unsuccessful attempt—as Steyer’s baldly partisan effort is likely to become—could actually embolden a sitting president.
"If you’re going to shoot him, you have to shoot to kill," Tribe warned recently on CNN.
Former Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast that Steyer’s crusade “could help motivate the pro-Trump base to come out” and vote in November, and possibly diminish the enthusiasm advantage that Democrats currently enjoy over Republicans.
Steyer countered: “It also could have the effect of energizing the Democratic base that hasn’t been energized in ten years unless Barack Obama was the head of the ticket.”
He added: “In fact, in the 75 most flippable congressional districts, we have an average of 20,000 signatories [to the impeachment petition]—62 percent of whom don’t vote because they don’t believe either party is representing their interests. The question in politics is, when you have the majority party—which we do—are you trying to energize your base, or are you trying to make sure you don’t say anything controversial and make sure you don’t say anything that will upset a Republican?
“We’ve not taken the tack that we report to the Republican Party and have to clear all of our messaging with them.”
Nor does Steyer feel the need to obtain the approval of Pelosi or Schumer.
“Actually,” he said, “that’s a fair statement.”