By Michael McDowell
From a pandemic that has killed nearly 22,000 New Yorkers, to citywide protests many have compared to the marches of the 1960s, epochal change has coincided with the start of a new decade in New York City.
The Rag spoke with Congressman Jerry Nadler, who has represented the Upper West Side in the House for nearly 30 years, about the death of George Floyd, how the federal government can support the City’s recovery from coronavirus, and his plans to investigate (former?) President Trump in 2021. Nadler is facing a rare primary challenge from two contenders — Lindsey Boylan and Jonathan Herzog — on June 23.
This conversation has been condensed and edited. It’s the first of two parts.
WSR: Before we get started, at the Rag we’re all wishing your wife [who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer] a swift recovery. How’s she doing?
JN: Thank you. Well, she’s got chemotherapy every couple weeks, it knocks the heck out of her, but that will be finished at the end of July and hopefully she’ll be somewhat better then. Hopefully the chemotherapy is working, you can’t really tell—the side effects are very rough and she’s been going through that since early February.
WSR: George Floyd’s funeral was Thursday. In terms of legislative steps toward police reform, what do you have to say about banning the use of chokeholds, ending the Defense Department practice of giving surplus military weapons to local law enforcement—
JN: We’ll be announcing some legislation probably Monday in Washington, and we’ll hold a hearing on Wednesday. I look forward to moving the legislation to the floor of the House the week of June 22nd. The legislation, which I’m developing—working closely with the Black Caucus—will ban the use of chokeholds. It will also ban the militarization of the police, which is what you were just referring to.
It will do a lot of other things. It will develop a national registry of police officers, so that someone can’t be fired or disciplined in one place and then get hired in another, because they don’t know that he’s a veteran cop that was fired for bad conduct or disciplined. We’ll probably be ending the doctrine of qualified immunity, which prevents police from being held legally accountable when they break the law.
All of this will be in the legislation that we’ll be talking about next week and hopefully enacting, at least in the House, by the end of the month, and then we’ll have to try to push it through the Senate.
WSR: Closer to home, the NYPD budget has grown to about $6 billion. There have been calls to defund or cut the NYPD budget. Is that something that you would be in support of?
JN: Yes, it should certainly be cut. The City’s needs at this point are much more in terms of social services, jobs, feeding people, education, and health, and much less in police, especially during this pandemic, which unfortunately is going to be with us for awhile. We’re spending too much on the police. There should be substantial cuts to the police budget and a reallocation of those funds to where we need them.
WSR: We’ve seen a lot of talk about rent strikes, but residential and commercial landlords have mortgages and city taxes to pay. Many would argue that the federal government is the only entity that can run a deficit to absorb the economic impact of the coronavirus calamity. How will Congress save city and state budgets, as well as renters and mortgage holders who live in the district?
JN: That’s entirely correct. The federal government is the only entity that can run deficits. Almost all the states, certainly New York, have constitutional provisions in the state constitution that they must run balanced budgets. The federal government can run a deficit, can run a limitless deficit, and in this time, we ought to run very high deficits.
We passed the Heroes Act in the House about two weeks ago. The Senate Republicans haven’t started negotiating on it yet, though I’m predicting they will. It would give a huge amount of money—$1 trillion (and $3 trillion altogether)—to state and local governments, so that they don’t have to cut their expenditures to balance their budgets, number one.
Number two, it would have about $500 billion in it that is for payment of rent, and payment of mortgages and property taxes. I was one of the authors of this bill, which we’re trying to get passed in the Senate now.
WSR: On the subject of recovering from coronavirus, who will rescue the MTA?
JN: Well, again: only the federal government has the money to do that. In the Cares Act, which we passed about a month and a half ago, we provided $4 billion to the MTA, In the Heroes Act, which is the bill I was just referring to, we provide another $4 billion for the MTA. We may have to increase that. Under the Heroes Act that I mentioned, $1 trillion in aid goes to state and local governments. New York State would get about $34 billion of that. New York City would get about $17 billion of that. The MTA would get about $4 billion of that.
WSR: How do Democrats in Congress plan to protect the November election?
JN: That is a very serious question. There are several things we have already done and other things we have to do.
First of all, given the pandemic, you don’t want to force people to choose between their health and their vote. In the Heroes Act that I mentioned, we mandate that every state have total mail-in balloting, as an option. People could still go and vote if they wanted to, on Election Day or early voting, but every state would have to provide for total mail-in balloting.
We also provide $4 billion dollars in that bill for the expenses of the states in instituting mail-in balloting, because it takes time, and time is starting to run out to order paper ballots—among other things. That’s the main thing we have to do.
There’s another thing that we have to do, and that is cybersecurity for hacking attacks against the voter base or against the elections, by Russia or someone else. We passed legislation in the House to do that last year, but Senator McConnell and the Republicans refused to do it, maybe because they know that the Russians helped Trump last time and they want to enable them to help him again. That’s a separate danger.
WSR: If Biden wins in November, and Trump disputes the result or refuses to leave the White House, what will you do in Congress?
JN: You can’t really tell, until you see what Trump or [the Trump Administration] does. I think the biggest danger is that they screw around with the voting totals, perhaps electronically, and try to then contest it, saying this state is very close, that state is very close. All you can really do on that, besides providing cyber protection, is have a corps of lawyers in every state, ready to go, and to keep an eye on what they’re doing.
The worst-case scenario is that Trump simply refuses to leave the White House and tries to declare the election null and void somehow, and then it becomes a question of force. The armed forces have to obey the Constitution and not the incumbent president at that point.
WSR: Thinking about federal agencies that serve New Yorkers who live in the 10th, from the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission, to the Environmental Protection Agency, do Democrats in Congress have a comprehensive plan to address what the Trump Administration has done to federal agencies and the bureaucracy?
JN: Well, we’re going to have to approach it agency by agency. I don’t know if you can talk about a comprehensive plan, because they’ve done so much damage to so many different agencies. There are certain things that they’ve done across the board that we’ll have to deal with across the board, and we are preparing for that. Unfortunately, as long as Trump is president and you have a Republican Senate, we’re not going to get any of this through.
Come January, God willing, when we don’t have a Republican Senate and we don’t have Trump, we’re teeing up a lot of legislation and proposals to undo the damage, to restore civil liberties, and to restore due process. For example: to say that the president can’t fire inspectors general except for cause, one thing, and to get around the administration’s thumbing its nose at congressional subpoenas, so there’s a lack of accountability.
This Justice Department—which is really Trump—[determined] that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted, which is why Mueller, in the Mueller Report, said he couldn’t consider an indictment of the president.
I think we should re-examine that. I think that is wrong, and we should, as a matter of law, change that. The president should not be above the law. Any president.
Secondly, I think once Trump is out of office, then we’re going to have to indict and prosecute him for all of the crimes he’s committed, and let that set an example for future presidents.
WSR: If Biden is elected in 2020, you would move to investigate Donald Trump in 2021?
JN: Well I certainly think it ought to be done.
Look, Michael Cohen was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney in New York, for in effect paying off Stormy Daniels, which is an illegal campaign contribution. The Mueller Report said that he was ordered to do so by Person 1, whom they didn’t identify, but which is obviously the President.
If Michael Cohen was guilty and is in jail, the President was part of the same crime. And he ought to be prosecuted for that. He wasn’t prosecuted only because the Justice Department takes the position that you can’t prosecute a president, which I think is wrong. The president has obviously committed many other crimes, and no person is above the law.
I would think he would be prosecuted. That’s after the election because obviously he won’t permit the Justice Department to prosecute him.
Part two of this interview will feature Rep. Nadler on the issues. We’ll be checking in with Nadler’s challengers too. More information on voting and voter registration is available here.