WASHINGTON (JTA) — You’re going to hear a lot in the next year or so about Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a congressman from a New York City district that encompasses Manhattan’s West Side and a chunk of Brooklyn that includes Borough Park.
Now that his Democrats again control the US House of Representatives, this lawyer who has long championed civil rights has his dream job, chairing the Judiciary Committee.
Except his priority likely won’t be civil rights: Nadler is the House’s top cop at a time when Democrats are itching to investigate whether the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.
Nadler, 71, is among the Democratic elders advising the caucus’s left (and not coincidentally, its younger members) that talk of impeachment is premature.
But he’s not holding back: This week Nadler issued requests to 81 individuals, government agencies and businesses seeking a broad range of documents about the Trump administration’s dealings.
Nadler and other key House chairs have made clear that Trump’s legal troubles will not end even if he gets a pass when special counsel Robert Mueller completes his investigation into allegations of improprieties by the Trump 2016 campaign and the presidency.
“Over the last several years, President Trump has evaded accountability for his near-daily attacks on our basic legal, ethical, and constitutional rules and norms,” Nadler said Monday when he sent the letters that he said would turn into subpoenas if his requests did not meet a two-week deadline. “Investigating these threats to the rule of law is an obligation of Congress and a core function of the House Judiciary Committee.”
Nadler immediately came under fire in the media and by Trump for overreach.
“Today, Chairman Nadler opened up a disgraceful and abusive investigation into tired, false allegations already investigated by the special counsel and committees in both Chambers of Congress,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Monday evening.
Trump and several others on Nadler’s mailing list (including the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner) have said they are not going to cooperate.
But don’t underestimate Nadler, who’s been a congressman since 1992: He has a reputation for doggedness and getting results, particularly in maintaining voting rights and advancing LGBT rights.
Here are seven Jewish things to know about Nadler.
He quotes Talmud on the job
Nadler was raised Orthodox and attended yeshiva until high school. In a floor debate on the death penalty when he was a New York state assemblyman, he and conservative Democrat Dov Hikind rattled off passages of Talmud from memory.
“It was much to the chagrin of the Assembly stenographer,” his old friend Richard Gottfried, a fellow assemblyman, told The New York Times in 1992 when Nadler was elected to Congress.
He’s the son of a failed chicken farmer
Nadler began taking an interest in politics at 7 years old when his father lost his struggle to maintain a New Jersey chicken farm during the Eisenhower administration.
“I started becoming politicized when I was growing up because there were two names that were never pronounced except with disdain,” Nadler told The Times in the same article. “One was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the other was Ezra Taft Benson, his secretary of agriculture. I didn’t know what they did, but whatever they did made it impossible for chicken farmers to produce eggs without losing money.”
He was a pivotal Jewish vote on the Iran deal
Nadler’s Jewish cred made him a top target for persuasion by the Obama administration ahead of a key September 2015 vote to affirm the Iran nuclear deal. He was clearly anguished about the decision and sat on it for three weeks until he joined the first members of Congress’s Jewish caucus to announce their support on August 21 — and then only after a personal letter from President Obama answering his questions. Nadler’s hechsher cleared the way for the majority of Jewish lawmakers to back a deal reviled by Republicans and, significantly, Israel’s prime minister.
In an op-ed two weeks earlier for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Nadler described the dilemma he faced.
“This is a decision that weighs heavily on all members of Congress — particularly on Jewish members,” Nadler said. “To make this decision properly requires consideration of what has led us to this point, a sober understanding of the reality we face and a determination to find the most responsible course of action given the options available.”
His civil rights record helped win him the Judiciary Committee chairmanship
The Judiciary Committee is at the forefront of advancing civil rights, especially in a Democratic-held House. According to the scuttlebutt, Nadler was not a shoo-in for the post, even though he was ranking member. The Congressional Black Caucus was angling for one of its members: Retired Rep. John Conyers of Michigan was the last Democrat in the post, from 2007 to 2011, and there was talk of Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, getting the job now.
If there was any hesitation about naming Nadler to the job, his record in passing laws protecting voting rights and women’s and LGBT rights put it to rest. And despite the front-page focus on his forthcoming tussles with the Trump administration, he has kept the Judiciary Committee busy looking at civil rights, scheduling recent hearings on the Voting Rights Act and efforts to roll back limitations imposed on it by the Supreme Court in 2013. He has also advocated for the Violence Against Women Act and “Dreamers,” undocumented migrants who arrived in the United States as minors.
(The last Jewish chairman of the committee, Democrat Emanuel Cellar of New York, helmed it from 1949 to 1972 and helped usher through the historic Civil Rights Act.)
He’s not easily rattled
Nadler hauled Matthew Whitaker, the then-acting attorney general, before his committee last month to ask him about alleged Trump administration improprieties, particularly allegations that Trump tried to obstruct justice and interfere with Mueller’s investigation of ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign and presidency.
Whitaker was a difficult witness, interrupting Democrats, and tried to pull a fast one on Nadler, invoking the five-minute limit on member questions when Nadler asked him if he was asked to interfere in the Mueller inquiry.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” Whitaker said. It is the chairman who enforces the five-minute rule; jaws literally dropped and lawmakers gasped when Whitaker tried it.
Not Nadler, who chuckled, reminded Whitaker that he was in charge and asked the question again. (Whitaker denied being asked to interfere.)
He advocates for easing restrictions on Jonathan Pollard
Nadler is among a cadre of civil rights Democrats who long saw the life sentence for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as excessive and retributive. Since Pollard’s conditional release in 2015, Nadler and Rep. Eliot Engel, a fellow New York Democrat, have advocated for easing the conditions.
He lent weight to Chuck Schumer’s 1998 Senate win
Nadler’s then-House colleague, Chuck Schumer, made what at first seemed a quixotic run for the Senate in 1998 against popular incumbent Al D’Amato, a moderate Republican with a solid pro-Israel record and a reputation for working with Democrats.
Schumer, hammering D’Amato as a liar, started gaining on him with the help of Nadler as a proxy. A rattled D’Amato told a meeting of Jewish leaders that Schumer was a “putzhead” and mocked Nadler, who at the time was notably overweight, as “Jerry Waddler.”
The exchange was leaked. D’Amato at first denied the allegations, then copped to them. He issued a public apology to Nadler (but not Schumer) at a Jewish day school, but the damage was done. Nadler revved up his attacks on D’Amato, the “liar” narrative was reinforced and Schumer is now minority leader in the Senate.
Yiddish-inflected insult politics didn’t unseat Nadler in 2016 when his primary opponent got comedian Jackie Mason to record a robocall deriding Nadler’s Iran vote — and his weight. Nadler won in a landslide.