Rolling Stone: Can a Freshman Congressman Prosecute Trump for High Crimes — and Still Keep His Faith in Humanity?

February 14, 2020
In The News

A few hours after the U.S. Senate voted to acquit President Trump, bringing a swift end to the third impeachment trial in American history, a pair of armed police officers escorted Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado for the last time back to his Capitol Hill apartment. As one of the seven House impeachment managers, Crow had spent the last three weeks making the case to senators, and to the American people, that Trump should be removed from office. He had stood in the white-hot center of our politics. The scrutiny, he’d expected. The death threats, not so much. Hence the security detail. 

Now, with the trial over, the Capitol Police officers would report back to their regular posts, and Crow would return to his life as just one of 435 members in the House of Representatives. As they said goodbye, one of the officers told Crow, “Don’t forget about us.”

Sitting in his office the next morning, bleary-eyed and drinking from a Big Gulp-sized iced coffee, Crow chuckled as he told this story, humored by the thought of anyone asking a lowly freshman congressman to remember them. He could’ve asked them the same thing.

Prosecuting a sitting president for high crimes and misdemeanors is generally not on the to-do list for a first-term member of Congress. I had come to see Crow, who turns 41 next month, because I wanted to know what it was like to experience an impeachment trial through the eyes of a newcomer. They say it takes a freshman six months to learn your way around, decorate your office, and hire your staff. By the end of year one, you’re lucky if you understand how a bill becomes a law, let alone pass one yourself. “I can’t imagine in a million years doing [an impeachment] as a freshman,” says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led the House’s impeachment team and chairs the Intelligence Committee.

For Jason Crow, the three-week trial had felt like three years. What I wanted to know was this: How had those week-years changed him? What had he learned? Would he ever look at his Republican colleagues in the same way?

A former Army Ranger and corporate lawyer, Crow had challenged a longtime Republican incumbent named Mike Coffman in 2018. Soon after he declared his candidacy, he had a conversation with a woman while out knocking doors. After he told her about his working-class upbringing and military service, she said: “I like what you have to say. You seem like a really nice guy. But I don’t think it’s going to matter. The system’s too broken. You’ll just get sucked into it. Nobody can make a difference anymore.”

The conversation stuck with him. He decided to campaign on fixing the structural inequities plaguing our democracy — the tidal wave of “dark money” sloshing through politics, the use of gerrymandering to preserve the power of those already in office, voter suppression laws. He preached a message of hope and reform: Don’t succumb to cynicism or resignation. The country could still be saved. He won in a landslide, becoming the first-ever Democrat to represent Colorado’s sixth congressional district. 

Crow told me that he went into his role as a House impeachment manager with that same spirit of optimism in mind. As he put it, “Can you step into that role and do it in such a way that you can move people?”

By the end of the trial, a different question came to mind: Can a freshman congressman take on such a contentious role and not lose faith when his colleagues choose party over justice? 

They call themselves the G9 after a Politico story nicknamed them the Gang of Nine. The moniker refers to a group of first-term House Democrats who previously served in the military or an intelligence agency. The G9 members share a group text chain, work together on bills, serve together on committees, eat together, drink together. They’re more of a squad than the Squad.

Many of these national-security freshmen — which includes Crow — flipped seats held by Republicans and played a key part in winning back the House majority for the Democratic Party in 2018. Given the make-up of their districts, they came into office wary of impeachment and the potential blowback back home. It wasn’t until the release of the intelligence-agency whistleblower’s complaint last fall that changed their calculus. If Trump had withheld military aid for Ukraine in exchange for a political favor from Ukraine’s president, that went too far. “It had crossed a line,” says Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), one of the national-security freshmen and a former Navy helicopter pilot.

The weekend after the whistleblower complaint emerged, the national-security freshmen consulted with one other and decided to write an op-ed that supported a formal impeachment investigation. The G9ers each added their own notes and ideas to a shared Google Doc; Crow, the former litigator, helped shape that material into an actual argument. The final op-ed carried the bylines of seven national-security freshmen and took as its theme the oath of office taken by those members during their military service. (The two who didn’t sign on, Max Rose of New York and Jared Golden of Maine, issued their own statements.) “Everything we do harks back to our oaths to defend the country,” the op-ed read. “These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect.”

The op-ed was a turning point in the decision of whether to pursue impeachment. Less than 24 hours after it appeared, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment investigation.

After the House voted to impeach the president for abuse of power and obstructing Congress, Pelosi had to choose her seven impeachment managers to argue the case in the Senate like prosecutors in a criminal trial. Crow was one of her first picks. She offered him the position earlier than most of the other managers because he didn’t serve on any of the committees — Intelligence, Judiciary, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight — that worked on the House impeachment investigation. He would need extra time down in the Intel Committee’s secure office space (affectionately known as the Bunker) to get up to speed on the underlying evidence in the case.

“I wasn’t lobbying for it,” Crow told me. “We knew there would be some downsides.” The “we” here refers to him and his wife, Deserai. When he talks about deciding to run for office or accepting Pelosi’s offer, he says “we” because he and Deserai made those decisions together. The couple have two kids, Anderson and Josephine, and Crow and his wife knew he’d be away from the family for weeks or months if he told Pelosi yes. They wound up in the same place on impeachment as they were when they decided whether he should run for Congress. “If we can show to [our kids] that the country is worth fighting for and people are worth fighting for, that example is more powerful than anything we could ever tell them,” Crow says.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, says Crow had a preternaturally calm presence during the endless hours of trial prep. He would pop in his Apple earbuds and listen to songs on his “Chillin’ ” playlist like Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” and hits by Journey and Foreigner. (Eighties hair-metal rock, he told me, was the “pinnacle of American music.” Really.)

Each member of the House’s impeachment team filled a role. Crow’s was to make the case — drawing in part on his time in the military — that President Trump not only put Ukraine’s safety at risk by illegally withholding $391 in military aid appropriated by Congress; he also put American national security at risk with his reckless and corrupt acts. To bring home the reality of denying badly needed security money to an ally fighting a war, Crow told a story about how as an Army officer in Baghdad in 2003 he’d scavenged for scrap metal to bolt to the side of U.S. trucks unequipped to protect against roadside bombs. “When we talk about troops not getting the equipment they need when they need it, it’s personal to me,” he said on the Senate floor.

He also used his time on the floor to make the argument that American engagement in the world still matters. As he told me, if the American government isn’t out there building the case for international treaties and collaboration on security and climate, then what fills the void is the dark nationalism and phony populism of autocratic leaders at home and abroad. 

“One of the things we’ve stopped doing as leaders and as a country is, really since the end of the Cold War, we’ve stopped making the case as to why American engagement matters,” he says. “When you stop making that case, it allows people to say, ‘Let’s just look out for our own interests.’ Some folks don’t understand that our interests are engagement in the world. If our partners in Europe are secure and strong and safe, then we are, too.”

Schiff says Crow was an asset to the House impeachment team in part because he represented a district where 40 percent of voters don’t belong to either party, far from the liberal coasts. “We were always trying to calibrate our arguments to the four senators and 40 million people who were undecided,” Schiff tells me. Crow “understood that intuitively in a way that people from overwhelmingly liberal districts might not.”

It didn’t work on the four senators. And it’s too soon to say for sure how well it worked on the 40 million Americans. Crow told me about a text he received near the end of the trial from one of his best friends from college who is now a lawyer living outside Milwaukee and a moderate Republican. The friend had just watched an interview Crow had given. “I talked about the goodness in America and how I still believe in optimism,” Crow told me. “[My friend] has teenage daughters. He said he forced them to watch that interview. He wanted them to see what we’re capable of being.”

Talking with Crow in his office the day after the vote to acquit the president, I asked him if he felt different on this side of the impeachment trial than when he started, and I could tell he’d only begun to process the trial. “I think a lot of us have struggled to some extent with what this means,” he told me. 

Most members of Congress will never go through what he’d just experienced. He’d had a front-row view of the polarization and fragmenting that defines our current-day politics. What he’d seen had left him shaken. “The divisions and the factionalism that have gripped the country are a big challenge, and I struggle with that like I think everybody else does,” he said. “How do we break through that issue? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure that out.”

He told me he’d just read a new piece published in the New York Times by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Brown described how Senate Republicans had told him in private that they disapproved of Trump’s actions but refused to hold him accountable in public. The root cause was fear — fear of the president, fear of a backlash from the voters back home, fear of losing their seats. “Fear does the business,” was how Brown put it. 

What was worse, I asked Crow, members of Congress saying one thing in public and another in private? Or complete servility to a corrupt and reckless president? 

“If somebody acknowledges that something isn’t right privately and then is a different person publicly, that’s troubling,” he told me. “What it shows to me is a kind of a moral flexibility that means you’re willing to do what’s necessary to keep your own job and to protect yourself instead of doing what you’ve sworn an oath to do.”

Straightening up in his chair, he went on: “It makes me angry, actually. And the reason it makes me angry is because I’ve seen people who have taken the harder road. That have sworn the oath and given everything — everything — to keep it.”

I asked him if he thought differently about his colleagues on the other side of the aisle after watching all those Republican senators cast votes to block new evidence and witness testimony and then acquit a lawless president. 

“There are certainly some of them that I’ve struggled with,” he said. But he wasn’t ready to write them off. The impeachment trial had tested his optimism and shaken his hope, but it hadn’t extinguished them. He still believed in the power of individual connection, even if it hadn’t worked during the impeachment trial. He still believed the individual connection was the only way out of the darkness and the dysfunction of this chapter in American history.

Since he got elected, Crow gets messages from people he served alongside in Iraq. They still call him “sir” despite being out of the military for 15 years. Many of them are supporters of the same president Crow had said should be removed from office. Crow thought back to one such guy who’d contacted him. “He was like, ‘Listen, sir, I don’t agree with your politics, and I’m a supporter of the president, but I still trust you,’ ” Crow recalls. ” ‘You always took care of us, and I’ll never forget that. I trust you and I wish you luck.’ “

No matter how visceral or tribal politics gets, that connection still matters. That’s what Crow took away from the story. “If you can make an individual connection with folks, and if they trust you — not the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, not whatever — that is still more powerful than anything,” he told me. “I disagree, you disagree, but maybe there’s still something bigger that connects you. That sense feels like it is seeping out of our society — that maybe bothers me the most.”

He went on, “Donald Trump is not going to be president of the United States forever. When this is done, we have to figure out how we rebuild, how we move forward. And the only way we do that is if we have relationships and connections that survive this. And I’m just not going to walk away from that.”