Old grudges die hard and Donald Trump and Rep. Jerry Nadler have been stoking theirs for decades. The two New Yorkers with a history of mutual dislike are preparing for another rumble in the new Congress, when Nadler takes the gavel as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. After years of back-and-forth, Nadler may get to land the ultimate punch on Trump by controlling the first step in an impeachment process.
Unlike other New York Democrats who have tried over the years to ingratiate themselves with Trump for campaign donations, Nadler has tried a different tack. For the last 30 years, he’s consistently attacked Trump, which has elevated the congressman’s profile among liberals in New York and Washington.
The two have been trading barbs since the late 1980s when Nadler was in the New York State Assembly and Trump was developing the Penn Rail Yards into an apartment complex and park in Nadler’s district on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Using his now-familiar rhetorical style, Trump called the project the “greatest ever” and the “most important project” needed for New York City. He wanted one of the buildings to be taller than Chicago’s Sears Tower so it would be the tallest building in the U.S., which he said was a distinction that should belong to Manhattan.
The original plans for “Trump City” included a television studio, shopping mall, massive parking structure, and private park — and it involved moving a highway. This would be a major change to the neighborhood. Nadler aligned with community groups who opposed the development, which they called “the phallic symbol,” “tacky” and “overbearing.” By the early 1990s, Trump was having financial difficulties and just wanted to get the project approved and built.
At one point, he wanted federal highway funds for the undertaking, which Nadler, who by then was serving in Congress, managed to kill. Nadler also convinced then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo to stop Trump from getting a federal mortgage guarantee for his project, which the real estate mogul wanted to categorize as blighted land. “This was an area in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the country, which Trump was calling blighted in order to receive federal funds,” recalls Nadler spokesman Daniel Schwarz. “Donald Trump has a long history of trying to take advantage of the system to help himself. Congressman Nadler has always stood on the other side.”
In the end, Trump got his project built, which transformed the Upper West Side with new housing and a park. Aiding Trump along the way was the newly elected Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Yet the drama also benefited Nadler, turning him into an Upper West Side folk hero as a fighter against the powerful. Recently Trump and Nadler saw each other in Washington, and Trump reminded the 14-term congressman that they had once “worked together” on the westside development project. Nadler quipped, “You were for it, I was against it.”
The mutual acrimony never went away. After Nadler managed to strip funding for the undertaking from the congressional appropriation, the future president recommended that the then-corpulent congressman go on a diet, while also calling him “dumb.”
Nadler’s spokesman responded in kind. “If Mr. Trump thinks Mr. Nadler is so dumb,” he told reporters at the time, “we would ask why Nadler never went bankrupt and had to spend his father’s fortune to keep his family’s business afloat.”
Later, in “The America We Deserve,” Trump’s 2000 book, Nadler was one of a handful of politicians earmarked for special denigration. He was described in those pages as “one of the most egregious hacks in contemporary politics.” Nadler apparently did not forget it.
During the 2016 presidential election, he issued a scathing letter about Trump receiving a $150,000 grant intended for small businesses struggling in lower Manhattan after 9/11. Pointing out that the Trump Organization is hardly a small business, Nadler called on Trump to return the money or donate it to a 9/11 charity. “You claim to be one of the biggest, richest, most successful developers in the city – yet you took taxpayer money from a grant program designed to help the ‘little guys.’ Do you really consider yourself a small businessman?” The letter went on: “Of course, without releasing your tax returns, the true size of your success will remain a mystery. We should all expect better – especially from someone running to be our president.”
Throughout the 2018 midterm season, Nadler followed the Democratic leadership’s playbook by saying that it’s premature to discuss impeachment before Special Counsel Robert Mueller issues a report on the Russian collusion investigation. Nadler also has clearly stated his views that impeachment cannot be seen as a partisan take-down — that it must include convincing Republicans this is the right path.
Nearly 20 years ago, as a junior member on the House Judiciary Committee during the crucible of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Nadler emerged as one of the president’s leading defenders. He argued that Clinton’s consensual sexual relationship with his intern was unbecoming but did not rise to the high standard needed for impeachment, even with perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Nadler has been asked about this a lot recently. His responses have been prudently calibrated. “If the president perjured himself about colluding with Russians, that would be worthy of impeachment,” he has said. “Perjury about some real estate deal that happened 10 years ago that the Trump Organization took, that would not be an impeachable offense. It would be a crime.”
While waiting for the Mueller report, however, Nadler has signaled an interest in holding hearings on various aspects of Trump’s empire, ranging from his tax returns, the fundraising practices of his inaugural committee, and whether his ongoing business activities violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Despite Nadler’s statesman-like tone now, he’s been an active voice in the “Resist Movement” for two years now. “We cannot wait four years to vote Mr. Trump out of office,” he posted on his website after Trump was elected in 2016. “So we must do everything we can to stop Trump and his extreme agenda now.”
Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.