Norm Eisen was in the room where it happened
Norm Eisen describes himself as an optimist. It’s that positive thinking, he believes, that kept him from deep disappointment after President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate in early February on two articles of impeachment resulting from issues of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Eisen, the White House special counsel for ethics and government reform under President Barack Obama, wasn’t surprised by the decision to acquit the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But he does take comfort in the idea that the vote — which presented a unified Democratic front, and a bipartisan effort on the charge to remove Trump from office — presented a strong case for voters to consider when they head to the polls in November.
In a new book out today, A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump, Eisen offers an exclusive look at the behind-the-scenes discussions and deliberations — as well as his conversations with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the only Republican to side with the Democrats on one of the charges — he had as the majority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial.
“One of the few things that everyone agreed on in the impeachment trial was that whether to convict or to acquit the president was up to the American people,” Eisen said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “The House managers and we, the lawyers, felt that the Senate should have taken that responsibility. But since they didn’t, it was now a case for the American people. And that is why I wrote the book, so that the job that I helped begin can be completed when all Americans vote on the president’s behavior in November.”
Eisen, a lifelong Democrat, goes to great lengths to illustrate that he was originally hoping he could be an asset. Eisen details the help he provided to Chris Christie in the summer of 2016, when the former New Jersey governor served as head of the Trump transition team, as well as to the senior team at Trump Tower after the November election. “I was doing my part to help Donald Trump prepare to take the reins of our government, and side by side with my sadness, I felt some measure of hope that he might do a good job,” he writes.
“I was not a ‘Never Trumper,’” Eisen told JI, using the term to describe Republicans who refused to support Trump’s candidacy, even after he was declared the party’s nominee. “I tried to help. I have had dinner with the president. I found him to be personable and engaging at the time. I am acquainted with his daughter [Ivanka] and his son-in-law [Jared Kushner]. Once he was elected, he was going to be the president of all of us, and I was prepared as a patriotic American to do what I could to help.”
The gesture blew up in Eisen’s face as he watched the first post-election press conference, in which Trump declared he would not divest from his businesses. “That press conference was the moment when my hope for the Trump presidency was lost,” he writes. From then on, Eisen was a vocal critic of the president and his family over ethical transparency and conflict of interest matters. “That was the breaking point for me,” he said.
Over the course of the Trump presidency, Eisen has seen a spike in Twitter followers — now at 271,000 — attributable to his frequent media appearances and outspokenness on rule of law. “But I would gladly go back to 5,000 Twitter followers to get rid of [Trump],” Eisen told JI.
In February 2019, Eisen, who was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, was hired as the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel building the case for the impeachment of Trump. Eisen questioned witnesses in committee hearings, helped to draft the articles of impeachment, and assisted Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) and other House managers during the Senate trial.
Eisen reveals in the book that, working with Nadler and co-counsel Barry Berke, the team had prepared 10 articles of impeachment against Trump, but in the end settled on just two in order to get the requisite support from legislators. “I believe that gave the country a structure to understand Trump’s bad actions,” Eisen told JI. “Often I get asked, wasn’t it a mistake to do impeachment since he was acquitted? Absolutely not, because you wouldn’t have the third stage of the rocket most fundamentally, you wouldn’t have the American people fully understanding what’s happening now.”
The decision to move toward impeachment following the 2019 Ukraine scandal, Eisen told JI, wasn’t a rushed one. While he was disappointed with the outcome of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Eisen believes the Mueller findings helped the House committees demonstrate a pattern of presidential misconduct. According to Eisen, 135 Democrats supported impeachment by the end of the August recess, up from 95 following Mueller’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee in July.
“Think of the impeachment as a rocket that has three stages. There was the booster rocket — the Mueller report. Ukraine was the second stage that pushes you further along, and this book and the national debate that the nation is having now about the president’s response to coronavirus is the third stage,” he explained. “But all three stages are the same. Instead of working for American interests, to save American lives and help our country, it’s all about what’s good for the president’s personal and political interests.”
Eisen, who served as ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, said that he was very careful to avoid contact with foreign officials and with some of his colleagues in the diplomatic corps during the trial. But now that the trial is over, “many people around the world have said to me, ‘America is so strong because you can still hold your president accountable.’ A president cannot do this kind of thing and just get away with it like in other countries,” he said. “Foreign leaders were very impressed with the effort.”
“So even though the work is not done yet, it will be finished,” Eisen said, with hope in his voice. “It won’t be a success unless it has the right outcome of impeaching him, the people impeaching him in November.”
In the book, Eisen describes Nadler as a ‘mensch’ and details the close friendship the pair developed in recent years, including a shiva call in the fall of 2018 when Eisen mourned the death of his brother. “For all his haimish (down-home) ways, from our earliest conversations it struck me that Jerry was exactly the man to take down Trump for his constitutional violations, if anyone could,” Eisen writes.
“This book has the most Yiddish in it of any impeachment book ever written; maybe the most Yiddish book ever written about the inner workings of the American government,” Eisen quipped, “because Jerry Nadler and I are shtemming from similar roots.”
In the interview, Eisen used a unique Yiddish term to describe Nadler’s overall approach: yo yo, nisht nisht — which translates to “you either do it or you don’t.”
“He’s not ‘waffly,’” Eisen told JI of the longtime New York congressman. “He makes up his mind, what is the right thing. If it’s right, yes. if it’s wrong, no — and he drives forward. I felt comfortable with that kind of a strong moral compass. He’s a straight shooter. I felt at home.”
Among the details of the impeachment process, the book is also a reflection of Eisen’s personality. Throughout the book, Eisen details his own thinking and offers a personal look into his work. “The book is full of my own mistakes,” he said. “I think you should not write a book that talks about other people unless you write about yourself. You should be toughest on yourself [out] of everybody.”
Eisen said that as a public figure taking on Trump, he felt targeted for being Jewish. He pointed to comments made by Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) during an inquiry hearing last December, referring to Berke as a “New York lawyer,” which was perceived at the time as an antisemitic dog whistle. Eisen said the remark had “a demeaning effect that caused me to stiffen. That can be a common code word, as in ‘New York Jewish lawyer.’ I shrugged it off the first time, but when he did it again my temper flared up,” he writes.
Eisen, who along with Nadler and some of the House managers are Jewish, suggested that “the mere presence of any single Jew, no matter how large the crowd is, the antisemites are always going to seek him or her out, and that happened.” Eisen said.
“That being said, in this beautiful mosaic of America, there is a role for the Jewish people,” he said. “Baruch Hashem we have a very active [role] to play in America and that is, we make a big contribution. I’m very proud of that. I am proud of my Jewish identity.”
Looking back, Eisen believes Romney’s vote for one of the articles of impeachment made the Senate vote on Trump’s impeachment a truly historic moment for the county. “I did not feel sad,” Eisen said of the president’s acquittal. ”I don’t think people would be awake the way they are to what’s happening without all of the warnings.” But he added that it took Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic for public opinion to turn dramatically against the president. Eisen compared the situation to a person waking up only after the third alarm rings in the morning.
Commenting on the 2020 presidential race, Eisen said Jewish voters shouldn’t judge Trump just by his pro-Israel record, particularly given Biden’s longstanding support of Israel. “I feel that the president’s pathological selfishness also represents a danger to the State of Israel, because this is somebody who’s fundamentally interested in only himself,” he explained. “So for the moment, Israel suits his interests and serves his interests, but he could turn in a moment. Look how he’s turned off some of the people around him. If he felt it turns against his interest, I believe he would sacrifice Israel in a heartbeat.”