Dem lawmaker Swalwell makes his name in Russia probe
From freshman backbencher to a driving force in the Russia–Trump investigation, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) has come a long way in four years.
Since entering Congress in 2013, the fresh-faced 36-year-old has been chosen to steer the party’s millennial outreach campaign, and he earned a seat at the leadership table this year as co-chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
But it’s Swalwell’s role as a junior member of the House Intelligence Committee that’s getting the most attention.
The former college soccer standout has put his considerable energies into promoting an independent commission that would investigate Russia’s influence campaign in the 2016 elections as well as any ties between President Trump and Moscow.
It’s a high-profile effort that finds Swalwell penning legislation, lobbying Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), infuriating Trump loyalists and blanketing cable news shows in a bid to sell the public on the idea that Congress is too partisan to conduct a credible probe itself.
Nothing short of the nation’s democratic tradition, he says, is at stake.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to be a part of an effort to make sure we understand how we were vulnerable, to understand who attacked us and do everything we can to assure the public that it’ll never happen again,” Swalwell said in a recent interview in his office on Capitol Hill.
“Because my fear is that in a divided country like ours, in a divided Washington … adversaries that we have right now will look at this as an open season for future elections.”
Swalwell’s education on Capitol Hill began early. In 2001, nursing a sports-related injury and unsure of his future, he landed in the office of former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) as an unpaid intern, giving constituents tours of the Capitol by day and waiting tables at Capitol Hill mainstay Tortilla Coast at night to pay rent.
Then came 9/11, the event that Swalwell calls his political “awakening,” which led him to Congress and now drives his pursuit of the Russia probe.
“Then, I felt helpless, right? I was 20 years old,” he said. “Fast-forwarding 16 years later, I see it as our country, again, was attacked. … It wasn’t by a terrorist or a missile or a gun — it was electronic. But what was accomplished was a significant undermining of our democracy.”
In pushing for an independent investigation modeled on the 9/11 Commission, Swalwell has done his homework. To write his bill, he joined forces with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee who has years of investigative experience under his belt.
Cummings, who said he hardly knew Swalwell beforehand, was quick to praise the young lawmaker in an interview with The Hill as “very aggressive, very determined, very smart” and selfless in his pursuit of answers about the hacking of email accounts belonging to Democratic groups and operatives. U.S. intelligence agencies have pinned that hacking on Russia.
“He’s worked very closely with me and he consults with me constantly, which I like. It’s not he’s trying to act like he’s the big shot or nothing,” Cummings said. “I think the guy has a great future ahead of him.”
Cummings is not Swalwell’s only counselor. Indiana University professor Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who served in the House for decades before heading the 9/11 Commission, has also advised Swalwell throughout the process.
Those talks included an accidental Christmas Eve meeting at the university, where Swalwell had gone to do an MSNBC interview only to notice that the lights were on in Hamilton’s office.
“He’s tough-minded. He wants the Intelligence Committee to exercise robust oversight of what’s happening. He stresses to me the importance of getting the facts, and I think the facts lead the investigation,” Hamilton, now the director of the school’s Center on Congress, said Monday by phone. “So his instincts seem to me to be good. … I appreciate his understanding of the seriousness of the problem.”
Hamilton agrees with Swalwell’s call for an outside commission, emphasizing that lawmakers simply don’t have the time or the capabilities to conduct a thorough investigation of an event as complicated as foreign election interference while also performing their usual congressional duties.
Hamilton also said that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has proven himself too partisan to oversee a legitimate probe.
“This is a national security investigation, and you don’t want it driven by politics or a leader whose first instinct is to protect the president,” Hamilton said.
“I’m not critical of what he’s done; I think it’s a choice you make,” Hamilton added. “But having made that choice I think disqualifies him from conducting the kind of independent, truth-seeking, broad, highly visible, credible, legitimate inquiry that you need here.”
Swalwell has asked Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after revelations that the chairman briefed Trump on new developments while leaving other members of the committee in the dark. The episode has strained relations, Swalwell lamented, on a committee that prides itself on staying above the partisan fray.
“We’ve worked together well, the committee members have traveled together well … and you build strong relationships when you do that,” he said. “But I’m just afraid that we’re at a point right now where the chasm on this investigation, I think, is threatening to widen in a way that affects non-Russia related stuff.”
Nunes’s office did not respond to questions for this story.
Swalwell’s efforts aren’t lost on Trump allies. Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, hammered Swalwell last month over the question of whether Stone’s contact on Twitter with “Guccifer 2.0” — a person or group purportedly backed by Russia who helped disseminate stolen Democratic emails — qualifies as collusion.
Stone called Swalwell a “pretty boy” and “first term mannequin,” threatening to “deconstruct” the “lies” of the Democrats on the intelligence panel “and spank them like children.”
No stranger to criticism, Swalwell has a history of beating odds and toppling giants.
In 2012, he challenged powerhouse Democratic veteran Pete Stark, a 40-year institution of the House, and beat him in the election handily, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Swalwell’s challenge to Stark was not without controversy. Early in the campaign, a local Democratic official told him, “There’s a ladder for these sorts of things, to run for Congress, and you’re not even a rung yet on the ladder,” Swalwell said, recalling the unsubtle warning.
“I remember after that meeting thinking, ‘Jeez, am I crazy? Is this really a pursuit worth taking?’”
But if the party brass was critical then, that’s hardly the case now. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed Swalwell this week for an “energy and effectiveness [that] have made him … a strong voice on the importance of unearthing the truth of the Trump–Russia connection.”
“Eric’s strategic insight in articulating our vision to the American people, informed by his work with young Americans through the Future Forum, is a tremendous asset to our Caucus,” she said in an email.
Despite the GOP opposition to an outside investigation, Swalwell says he remains hopeful that increased public pressure will force Republicans to establish a commission, just as Congress did following the 9/11 attacks.
“The independent [9/11] commission did not happen on Sept. 12,” he said.