WASHINGTON — On Manhattan's Upper West Side a few weeks ago, when a few elected officials held a pop-up town hall in front of a Fairway grocery store, voter after voter had the same question for Rep. Jerry Nadler: Why are you here?
“I was really struck by how many people came up to him and said: ‘What are you doing here? You've got to be in Washington to save the democracy,’” said Scott Stringer, New York City’s comptroller, who was 20 when he began working for Nadler, then a New York State assemblyman representing the Upper West Side.
"‘I'm leaving. I'm leaving Monday morning,’" Nadler told the questioners, said Stringer. “Literally, people would say, ‘Why don't you go now?’”
The 14-term Democrat has been preparing for this moment since the House impeachment inquiry was formally announced in September. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler is on deck to lead the next phase in the process of determining whether President Donald Trump should be impeached.
Nadler, in a statement last week, said that his committee’s first impeachment hearing on Wednesday will “explore the framework put in place to respond to serious allegations of impeachable misconduct like those against President Trump.”
In a letter to the president last week that made clear Trump and his counsel can attend, Nadler wrote, “We will also discuss whether your alleged actions warrant the House’s exercising its authority to adopt articles of impeachment.”
The White House said Sunday that it would not participate in Wednesday's hearing.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee plan to begin reviewing a staffer-compiled report Monday evening that summarizes evidence collected by Congress so far concerning the Ukraine case at the heart of the inquiry. The panel was expected to vote Tuesday evening on the report and advance it to the Judiciary Committee.
It isn't Nadler's first brush with presidential impeachment: He was a member of the Judiciary Committee, and a vocal defender of President Bill Clinton, during the process that ultimately led to Clinton's impeachment in the late 1990s.
Twenty years later, Nadler, 72, who has a law degree from Fordham, has been clear about his view that this time, the 45th president appears to have committed impeachable offenses. Nadler has repeated that view for months, saying over the summer that there is “very substantial evidence that the president has committed multiple crimes and impeachable offenses” — a statement made even before the revelations concerning Ukraine surfaced publicly.
“All of us are feeling the weight of history,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of Nadler's Judiciary Committee.
“This is the moment he’s prepared for all his adult life,” Stringer said. “He took on Trump when he was trying to ram through his development projects over community concern. And now we have Jerry as Judiciary chair who will be in a position to save our democracy.”
The long-running feud between Nadler and Trump dates back more than three decades.
It began during Nadler’s 16-year career as an assemblyman, representing a seat he was elected to in 1976. In 1984, Trump purchased a 76-acre property along the Hudson River for $95 million. He proposed that it be called “Trump City,” and include what would then have been the world’s tallest building — a 150-story skyscraper — along with more than 7,000 apartments and a shopping mall, spanning 13 city blocks from West 59th to 72nd Streets.
Nadler, who wanted the land to be used for a transportation terminal, was among a number of officials who staunchly opposed Trump’s plan. Trump sustained numerous setbacks to the project, eventually shifting his efforts to a smaller development called Riverside South. Nadler targeted the plans for that development after winning a special election to Congress in 1992, eventually scoring a provision in a federal appropriations bill to block funding for Trump’s plan to tear down and rebuild a portion of the West Side Highway that would have obstructed site views.
The loss prompted Trump to launch ad hominem attacks against Nadler that continue to this day.
“If Nadler spent more time in a gymnasium losing weight, he would do the voters a bigger service. He needs to lose about 200 pounds," Trump said in July 1995; for more than two decades, he has referred to the congressman as “fat” and “stupid.” Nadler himself largely avoids punching back in kind — but his staff has looked to hit the president where it hurts.
“If Mr. Trump thinks Mr. Nadler is so dumb, we would ask why Nadler never went bankrupt and had to spend his father's fortune to keep his family's business afloat," said spokesperson Brice Peyre.
Trump himself referred to the "Trump City" spat in a sequence of tweets earlier this year in which he said Nadler “fought me for years” on the planned development but noted that he “got along very well with Jerry during the zoning and building process.”
“Then I changed course (slightly), became President, and now I am dealing with Congressman Nadler again. Some things never end, but hopefully it will all go well for everyone. Only time will tell!”
Those who know Nadler well say he’s not a “fancy guy,” doesn’t like small talk and is a “process junkie.” He doesn’t sit around thinking about his image — he's a “serious, up from-the-grassroots, bare-knuckle New York politician,” Raskin said.
“You know his idea of a good time on a Friday night is reading a biography of a president,” said Brett Heimov, who worked for Nadler for 12 years, including during the Clinton impeachment, and eventually served as his Washington chief of staff.
“Jerry Nadler may very well be the smartest member of Congress,” Stringer said. “I’m not kidding. He is a scholar on so many levels.”
The first impeachment hearing on Wednesday will follow 17 closed-door interviews and public hearings with a dozen of those witnesses called by Rep. Adam Schiff’s., D-Calif., chairman of the Intelligence Committee. It hasn’t been decided yet how many hearings Judiciary might hold or what charges potentially might be wrapped into articles of impeachment. Some lawmakers have recently raised the possibility that other cases could be considered such as those stemming from the Mueller report.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee, commended Nadler’s leadership as chairman, noting that for every hearing, Nadler has shared “the strategy and the game plan” with the rest of his members regarding “the purpose of a particular witness or a particular hearing.”
“I think he’s thoughtful and deliberate and very principled," Cicilline said, "And I think he has a long history of really demonstrating courage in the face of really difficult moments, that I think this is."