Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) finds himself at the most delicate point of his tenure atop the House Judiciary Committee.
With his star witness, Robert Mueller, having testified to less-than-stellar reviews, the longtime New York Democrat is pinched between a growing pro-impeachment chorus and a House Speaker hell-bent on pumping the brakes on such talk.
Publicly, his colleagues and his party’s leadership praise his handling of oversight into the Trump administration. But behind the scenes discontent is mounting over what some view as a less-than-smooth process in handling investigations into President Trump and his advisers.
“There is constant battling. The speaker is very much directing the major decisions,” said one Democratic lawmaker. “I think this is a strategy [by Nancy Pelosi] to try and slow-walk this process and shift some of the attention away from her not moving forward. She puts it on the Judiciary Committee, saying, ‘Oh they haven’t yet done all the investigative work yet. They are being meticulous and taking their time.’ It’s a way to slow-walk it.”
All committee chairs and House speakers have disagreements over jurisdiction, power, and strategic direction. But the relationship between Nadler and Pelosi is particularly sensitive now given the stakes of the issues they’re tackling. The special counsel’s office has closed, its report made public, and its director, Mueller, has testified on Capitol Hill about its contents. Now that the Russia investigation, as the American public understands it, has all but come to an end, both leaders are left answering questions about what comes next.
For Pelosi, the answer is simple: Stay the course. For Nadler, that course is becoming increasingly difficult to trek with members from his own committee, and constituents back home, calling not only for impeachment proceedings but for tougher posture toward a White House that seems hell-bent on making his oversight work impossible.
As more lawmakers have come out in favor of impeachment proceedings even after Mueller’s sometimes-shaky testimony, Pelosi has remained unmoved. After course-correcting the caucus on the impeachment messaging earlier this year, sources say the speaker is not ready to relax her watchful eye over Nadler’s committee, fearful the caucus could once again nosedive into chaos.
Those close to Nadler say the chairman works in tandem with Pelosi on strategy and messaging, often to the chagrin of his fellow committee members who wish he would act more forcefully on his pro-impeachment impulses. His defenders argue that talk of tension is overblown, fed often by aggrieved party members who dish to the press. They also say he has successfully balanced the demands of the Democratic base and the push by Pelosi’s office to implement a more methodical approach.
Former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) said she believes Nadler “would be in full impeachment mode” if he were just operating on his own. But he’s restrained himself, colleagues say, in order to help manage a caucus with diverse opinions on the matter.
“I think the chairman has been very meticulous in kind of a chess game strategy. He is working very closely with House counsel to make sure we are positioning ourselves in the strongest position; that we are doing it in a way that strengthens our hand in the litigation,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “From the outside that can look frustrating and maybe not everyone understands the legal intricacies. But I think the chairman recognizes that the Speaker’s instructions are to continue to hold the president accountable and to collect all of the information you need.”
The next steps in that accountability process are set to come soon, with Nadler’s team intensifying their efforts to get Trump’s former lawyer, Don McGahn, to testify. Following Mueller’s hearing Wednesday, Nadler said the committee was prepared to sue for access to the grand jury material related to Mueller’s report and to enforce a subpoena for McGahn. Two aides familiar with that effort said while the committee is in the throes of preparing the suit, it will also try to negotiate directly with McGahn about appearing in public for questioning.
But while Nadler is spearheading the committee process, he isn’t always the one in the driver’s seat.
Following the release of the Mueller Report in April, the Judiciary Committee began negotiating with the Department of Justice for access to the unredacted report and its underlying documents. During that process, according to three sources familiar with the situation, Pelosi stepped in, telling the committee it needed to fight to get those documents released to the entire House. Two of those sources said they believe that intervention led to the initial breakdown in talks between the Judiciary Committee and DOJ. (The committee ended up obtaining both the unredacted report and some of its underlying documents and members have viewed them over the last several weeks at DOJ).
Adding to the complexity of Pelosi and Nadler’s relationship is its history–or limitations thereof. A former lawmaker noted that when Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) helmed the committee for Democrats, he rarely pushed back against Pelosi’s agenda. Conyers left Congress in late 2017 during a sexual harassment investigation, and now Nadler has taken his place. The New Yorker, the lawmaker noted, is much pluckier than his predecessor.
The Judiciary Committee has been at the front lines of the fight between Congress and the Trump administration. But a host of other committees share executive branch oversight responsibilities. If impeachment proceedings began, all those investigations would move under House Judiciary. Instead, half a dozen other chairs–all with healthy egos–are in on the action, and see little incentive to fork over the spotlight to Nadler. People familiar with the Judiciary Committee’s inner workings believe Pelosi is not keen on consolidating work under one chair.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that Pelosi has resisted centralizing all of this under House Judiciary,” said an aide to a Democrat on that committee. “She’s made her position clear, although she’s never said it out loud: that impeachment would be a political loser for Democrats. And so she is very much in control of the caucus.”
Other Hill denizens view Nadler as frustrated, firmly under the thumb of Democratic leadership and unable to advance an impeachment cause he instinctively supports. Staffers and members close to the committee have frustrations too. Some say Nadler has been captured by shiny objects–trying to do too much with too little. Others fear that the chair is overly concerned with the threat of a primary challenger back home—from a challenger who has targeted him on his handling of impeachment
Three staffers who spoke to The Daily Beast over the last month said several lawmakers have expressed privately that they feel the committee is moving too slowly, and thus far failing to zero in on key priorities. Others point to episodes that, in retrospect, seem to be head-scratchers. At the top of the list is Nadler’s abortive effort to make Attorney General Bill Barr answer questions from committee staff rather than members. Barr refused point-blank, offering instead to come to a hearing before the full committee. Nadler refused, and the House moved forward to hold him in contempt.
In an interview, Cicilline defended the decision, saying it was important to establish that the committee controlled the construct of the hearings and not the witnesses. But months after the fracas, Barr still hasn’t spoken to the lower chamber and some wonder: What was gained?
“The whole thing about the staff interviewing Barr was stupid,” said the senior aide. “Was that a hill to die on? A hill that no one understands!”
While Nadler navigates the tricky politics of impeachment and intramural Democratic fights, he remains a perennial thorn in Trump’s side. On Wednesday night, several hours after Mueller finished testifying, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani sent The Daily Beast a garbled, unsolicited text message, complete with emojis, reading, “This is like a Grade B horror movie 🎥 🍿 with Nadler and [Adam] Schiff the stars. Remember the hand keeps coming up and you have to bat it down 4 or 5 times.”
Giuliani, who repped the president during the Mueller probe, would repeat this analogy—of Nadler and impeachment as the zombie hand popping out from the dirt—several times on Wednesday and Thursday, including in a Hannity segment that Trump would then tweet out.
Stressing that Trump’s legal team sees Nadler as a primary antagonist in this stage, Giuliani added: “Nadler played according to script and was arguing with Pelosi for impeachment. That’s the hand sticking out of the grave.”
The president, for his part, doesn’t expect the congressman to let up any time soon, either. In fact, he has nursed a personal grudge against Nadler for decades.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump would bring up Nadler in conversations without any prompting, just to trash him, per two people with knowledge of the internal discussions. In one instance, one of the sources recalled, the future president made a point of cruelly mocking Nadler’s stomach-reduction surgery.
With reporting by Sam Brodey