Special Counsel Norman Eisen discusses experience in politics, role in Trump’s impeachment trial

Norman Eisen is pictured. US Department of State / Wikimedia Commons

Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment and trial of President Donald Trump from 2019–20, addressed the Tufts community on Nov. 9 in a webinar. The event was co-sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the Department of Political Science, JumboVote, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Pre-Law Society.

Following an opening statement by senior Joseph Berrafati, Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College, moderated the conversation.  

Eisen mainly spoke about his role in Trump’s impeachment trial, which is also the subject of his new book, “A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump” (2020). The book focuses on the impeachment case, which Eisen brought before Congress.

Solomont began the conversation by asking Eisen to explain his childhood and the circumstances that eventually led to his career in politics. 

Eisen described his childhood as “a very typical immigrant story.” Before he was born, Eisen’s father immigrated from Poland, and his mother from Czechoslovakia. At 5 or 6 years old, he worked alongside his parents and siblings in their family hamburger stand.

Eisen remarked on one of his earliest memories. 

“I remember watching those Watergate hearings with my father on our tiny little grease-splattered, black-and-white television and … my dad saying to me, ‘Those are American heroes. That’s the meaning of our country, what’s going on, holding people accountable,’” Eisen said. 

After graduating from Brown University, Eisen worked for the Anti-Defamation League before attending Harvard Law School. At Harvard, Eisen met fellow student and future President Barack Obama.

After graduating from law school, Eisen worked for 20 years as a criminal defense attorney before transitioning to work on Obama’s presidential campaign.  

“The event campaign was so wonderful,” Eisen said. “It was an underdog campaign, you know the people were not joining that campaign because they wanted to win … [it was] because they believed in the mission.”

After Obama’s presidential win in 2008, Eisen acted as special counsel and special assistant to the president for ethics and government reform. 

Eisen said he has maintained a tough stance on ethics rules.

“I was [nicknamed] the White House ‘epic czar,'” he said.

Later, he became involved in facilitating the transition of power from Obama to the 2016 president-elect, Donald Trump.

However, it was during this transition of power that Eisen recognized problems with Trump that would eventually culminate in his role in the president’s impeachment trial.  

“I was helping on the Trump transition and then Donald Trump announced … that he was going to take unconstitutional foreign payments, so-called emoluments, [which] is the one ethics rule that the founders and the framers [of the United States were] so worried about,” Eisen said.

Eisen described Trump’s presidency. 

“Donald Trump has betrayed the constitution and his oath … through a pattern of radically radical selfishness of putting his own interests first to the detriment, the neglect and end the positive suppression of the interests of the American people,” Eisen said. 

Eisen originally drafted 10 articles of impeachment, which were ultimately shortened to two before the trial was brought before Congress. 

“[The first article outlined] the underlying wrongdoing in Ukraine, for the quid pro quo. We titled that abuse of power and that was in the original articles. The second article was for obstruction of justice, and a third article for the Mueller investigation for obstruction of Congress,” Eisen said.

The second and third articles were eventually merged.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump. However, the Republican-controlled Senate voted to acquit him.

Eisen pointed to the Senate’s refusal for witnesses to be called as one of the reasons Trump was acquitted.

Eisen spoke on behalf of himself and his co-counsel, Barry Burke, about the importance of hearing witness depositions in a case.

“We’ve probably done hundreds of trials and one thing we know is no matter how hopeless a trial is, you never know [the verdict] until you put the witnesses on the stand and you examine them,” Eisen said. “It was a terrible [suppression] of justice, that the Senate did not allow [us to call witnesses].”

Although Trump was ultimately acquitted, Eisen did not regret the work he invested in the trial. He believes that the trial allowed the American people to “wake up” and recognize Trump’s patterns of abusing the trust of the American people.

Eisen said the impeachment trial played an important role in Trump’s election loss.

“The totality of the case is one that seems to have persuaded the American people in this very important election that they’d had enough of Donald Trump,” Eisen said.

He concluded by remarking on the importance of the trial and stating that he would contribute to an impeachment process again.

“[This trial] sent a message to America and the world that in the United States, no one is above political law,” Eisen said. “And I would do it again in a heartbeat … we had to do this, it was the right thing to do.”