Tom Steyer, a progressive San Franciscan, entered the political arena in earnest about five years ago as a deep-pocketed Democrat focused on climate change. But over the last year, the former hedge fund manager has become synonymous with a hotter topic: impeachment.
Steyer, whom some style as a counterweight to the Koch Brothers, has topped lists of individual donors in recent election cycles and may prove the biggest spender in 2018. The $110 million he has committed so far this cycle has mainly gone to two initiatives, one to turn out young voters in battleground states — through his super PAC NextGen America — and his “Need to Impeach” campaign.
In August, he announced that he’ll be spending $10 million more to increase voter turnout among the 5.6 million people who have signed his petition to impeach President Donald Trump. It’s a group he believes could tip the scales in key congressional races around the country.
TIME caught up with Steyer, who has been traveling the country hosting town halls, to talk about his strategy, whether he has plans to run for office and why he’s not heeding warnings from top Democrats that pushing impeachment is politically dangerous.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How would you characterize the mood of the electorate, from what you’ve seen on the road?
We are certainly seeing a level of uncertainty and fear in Americans about their democracy. We are also seeing a level of patriotism in terms of people trying to rally together to protect democracy, to pull together at a time when they find the news upsetting on almost a daily basis.
Why did you decide to spent this latest $10 million?
We’ve always said we don’t think of impeachment as the solution to all our problems. We think it’s important to get rid of a reckless, dangerous and lawless president. But we know that we’re going to have make a sustained effort to get our country back on a just and prosperous path. We feel like this is just a gigantic opportunity to have a broader democracy.
Why do you think this money will be well spent?
Well, you never know until it’s over, but let me say this: we have 5,610,000 signatories to our petition and it turns out about two-thirds of them traditionally do not vote in a non-presidential year. But these are people who do care about politics. They’ve actually gone so far as to sign our petition. They are also people with whom we are in contact on a daily basis. And we believe, given those two facts, that should be a dramatic opportunity. That’s over 3.5 million people who could show up and vote who otherwise wouldn’t. If you do the math in your head and think about how many votes will separate people in these congressional elections on Nov. 6, those numbers are huge.
You appear to be the biggest spender on the left this election cycle. To you, what’s the significance of that?
I really don’t see it that way. I think we’re in a constitutional and political and moral crisis. So the question to me has always been: if the country is in this huge crisis, what is the solution? To me, what we’ve been trying to push is more democracy, where we somehow encourage and get more people to show up… That’s how we look at this, as this investment in a system we believe in, not just for 2018 but to try to push back against the cynicism and the sense of despair and abandonment that causes people not to turn out.
I can see how that applies to some of your initiatives. But Need to Impeach is more divisive. About 90% of Republicans disagree with that message.
We always say this is a question about patriotism, not partisanship. This literally can’t happen without Republican support. We don’t know which of the events will ultimately convince the broadest group of Americans that we’re right, but it’s a grassroots effort. It’s a petition drive to get Americans to sign up to end the administration of the most corrupt president in American history.
Have your feelings about impeachment – and rationalizations for it – evolved since TIME spoke to you in January? Back then, you were holding up the firing of James Comey as Exhibit A. (Note: This interview took place days before Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen implicated the President in campaign finance violations.)
I haven’t changed my opinion about obstruction of justice if that’s your question. I think there’s been a pattern of obstruction of justice that very much includes the firing of James Comey. I think the argument about corruption has been demonstrated over and over, because it’s specifically forbidden in the Constitution for any president to take any payments whatsoever from a foreign government, something this president does on a daily basis. The last time we talked, I don’t believe this President had gotten on a stage with Vladimir Putin and basically disparaged the United States of America and the findings of the entire national security apparatus, as to whether the election in 2016 had been hacked by the Russians and whether they’re trying to hack the elections in 2018, which I view as an abandonment of his job as Commander-in-Chief. I don’t believe the President and his administration had separated parents from their children at the border and tried to put them in interment camps.
Do you feel your argument is more justified now?
We always felt we had a laydown hand and we put that hand on our website with [the opinions of] 58 constitutional scholars. They had eight original criteria for impeachment they believed he had met. They updated it this summer to nine. So has it really changed? No. But we always felt the evidence would only become more clear. Sadly, we believe it will become even more clear. And the question is what will push the American people, as a group, beyond where they are now, which is kind of the level they were at when Nixon was removed. What pushes them to a point where they say this is beyond the pale?
You’ve mentioned that there is an overlap between the criteria on your website and the Mueller investigation. How much does the outcome of that investigation affect your crusade?
We are entirely supportive of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Any evidence that he brings that is helpful to our case, we welcome. And we think he’s doing a professional, thorough and objective job. But we also believe there is more than enough information in the public domain to impeach and remove this president.
What do you think of the debate the left is having about whether to go after moderate voters or move unapologetically to the left? Will divisions among Democrats undermine their quest to take back the House?
It’s normal for a party that is as out-of-power as the Democrats to be trying to find its voice. We [don’t control the majority] of governorships or state legislatures. We don’t control the Congress, the Senate, the White House, the Supreme Court. Democrats are out, and under those circumstances, it’s completely normal to be searching for our voice, and it’s a very healthy thing to be doing.
Do you see the impeachment issue as part of that soul-searching? Pelosi and other leaders have continued to say that it might galvanize Republicans and it’s not helpful to talk about it. You’ve continued to argue that it is.
First of all, this is the number one political issue in the United States. … So when we say we’re going to tell the most important political truth in America and someone says that’s not politically smart, we say, “You’re using the wrong framework.” Secondly, we heard her. We went and polled to see if, in fact, impeachment was something that was inflaming Republicans. It isn’t in the top three. And if you go and look at Republican ads, they’re advertising on immigration and taxes and the idea that Nancy will be speaker. You don’t see them running ads on impeachment. Because it actually doesn’t rile up Republicans.
What do you think would happen to the power of the presidency if Trump were actually impeached?
Let me put it another way. If the American people insisted, as they did in 1974, that we have an honest president who put the American people first, ahead of his own interests, every single time, what do I think that would do? I think that would restore us — not fully, but it would take a huge step back toward a just and prosperous America. It would be a great thing for our democracy and America if we stood up for the rule of law and insisted that our elected officials and our institutions lived up to the values that we’ve always professed.
You’ve sidestepped this question before. But you’ve been spending a lot of time on the road, including flipping burgers at a state fair in Iowa this week. Is a run for office is in the cards?
Let me say this. We are fully committed to Nov. 6. That’s why we’re doing Need to Vote. That’s why we’re running the biggest youth mobilization voter program in American history. … On Nov. 7, I will be fully committed to justice in America and I’ll try and figure out the most impactful thing I can do. My question for everybody is, over the next 83 days, we’re all in – are you all in?