'The moral centre'

How Jamie Raskin dominated the stage at Trump's trial

JamieRaskin was a professor of constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law for more than a quarter of a century


Jamie Raskin had finished a face-to-face interview with the Guardian and was on his way home. It was late on Saturday night in October 2018. But then he thought of a point he hadn’t made and, ever fastidious, restarted the conversation by phone. “Straight white men are already a minority in the Democratic caucus but when the big blue wave hits, we’re going to be moving much closer to parity in terms of women and men, at least on the House side,” he said, a prediction that came true a month later in the midterm elections.

He had only taken office himself in January 2017, representing Maryland’s eighth congressional district. Just four years later, the proud progressive finds himself lead prosecutor in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Senators, pundits and millions of TV viewers have heard his deceptively soothing tones eviscerate the former president.

They were doubly awed when he wove together the political and the personal to share unfathomable grief: his 25-year-old son, Tommy, killed himself on New Year’s Eve after years of struggle with depression. Tommy was buried on 5 January – the day before a violent mob mounted a deadly insurrection at the US Capitol.

Raskin, 58, also told how his daughter Tabitha and son-in-law Hank accompanied him to the Capitol that day – and had to hide under a desk.

“They thought they were going to die,” he said, his voice cracking as he recalled apologising to Tabitha, 23, for putting her in danger. In a trial focused on the excesses of a would-be strongman, Raskin’s very human displays of vulnerability have the quality of redemption.

Jared Huffman, a co-founder with Raskin of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, said: “Who knew that almost immediately after that tragic day he would get this assignment and pretty quickly begin working full time on something of such historic importance?

“Maybe that has helped him to cope with the loss but I think the concern for those of us that are friends with Jamie is that, when this is all over, there could be a pretty hard fall back to grief and he’s going to need a lot of support.”

Raskin has politics in his blood. His father, Marcus Raskin, was a young aide in John F Kennedy’s White House, a fierce activist against the Vietnam war and co-founder of the progressive thinktank the Institute for Policy Studies. His mother, Barbara Bellman, was a journalist and novelist.

Raskin graduated from Georgetown day school in 1979 then studied at Harvard and its law school, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and his teachers included Professor Laurence Tribe. Tribe recalls that Raskin and his wife, Sarah, met in his class on the constitution.

“He is one of the most impressive students that I have ever come to know and is also an extremely impressive human being,” he said.

“The courage that he has shown in the face of unthinkable personal tragedy has been something to behold. As the lead impeachment manager he couldn’t possibly have done a better job. I’ve taught quite a few impressive people, like President Obama and Chief Justice [John] Roberts and Justice [Elena] Kagan, and he is right at the top of the students that I feel very proud to have played at least some small role in educating.”

Tribe remains in touch with Raskin, who told him he feels his late son is “with him” during this effort.

“He is fully aware of the enormous historical import of this trial and the weight he carries on his shoulders and he’s carried it with grace,” Tribe said. “But for his awareness of that, I think he would be spending more time with his family because they’re still in mourning.”

Raskin was a professor of constitutional law at American University’s Washington College of Law for more than a quarter of a century. All those years studying and lecturing are paying off at the trial – if not in the minds of Republican senators, then at least in the writings of future historians.

Allan Lichtman, a friend and colleague at the university, said: “Twenty-five years ago, I just presumed he would continue his academic career. I didn’t necessarily expect him to take the political route but he certainly has been incredibly successful at it.”

Lichtman described Raskin’s showing as lead impeachment manager as “incredible”, admitting: “I’m an old curmudgeon. I go all the way back to the Eisenhower administration and I don’t cry a lot but his final presentation that first day when he made it so personal and so poignant moved me to tears.”

Raskin ran for the Maryland state senate in 2006. He was advised that his proposal to legalise gay marriage was unrealistic and made him sound “extreme”. Less than a decade later, the right of same-sex couples to marry was upheld by the US supreme court. Raskin served three terms and become majority whip.

Susan Turnbull, who was a local Democratic official, described him as a “wonderful legislator” who also plays piano and writes song lyrics.

“One of the things about Jamie from the moment you meet him is a recognition of how smart he is, how he cares about institutions and understands the difference between right and wrong,” she said.

“As a constitutional law professor his love of country, of history, of human value has been something that everyone has always seen in him from the moment you meet him. I don’t know a single person who has ever had a bad word to say about Jamie Raskin.”

That includes both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Turnbull, formerly chair of the Maryland Democratic party and vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, added: “Jamie is known for bringing freshman congressmen from both sides of the aisle to the US Holocaust Museum to see what happens when government goes wrong.”

Raskin won election to Congress in 2016 after a tough nine-way primary in his deep blue district. He and Sarah, a former deputy secretary of the treasury, live in Takoma Park with their dogs Potter and Toby. He has risen fast in the House and established a reputation as one of the nice guys of politics. His appointment as lead prosecutor of the article of impeachment put him centre of the national stage.

Huffman, his colleague in Congress, said: “It is unusual for a member who’s only been here for a little over four years to have such a prominent assignment but this is a moment that is just uniquely suited to having Jamie in the lead.

“It has been described as the worst constitutional breach in our history by a president. Who better to make that case, to remind us what the constitution calls for, than our foremost constitutional scholar? Jamie said on one of our caucus calls a few days ago that Donald Trump doesn’t know much about our founders, but our founders knew a lot about Donald Trump.”

Huffman noted Raskin’s admiration for Thomas Paine. Raskin closed the prosecution case by quoting the political philosopher and revolutionary but updating him in the interest of gender quality: “These are the times that try men and women’s souls.”

Thomas Raskin was named after Paine. Tommy, as he was known, had been studying at Harvard Law School when he took his own life. He left a note that read: “My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me.”

In a wrenching 1,700-word tribute, Raskin and his wife wrote of their son’s love of playing jazz piano, writing and performing one-act plays and “teaching our dogs foreign languages”. But they also noted that he “began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless” depression.

“Despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable,” the couple wrote.

Then, in a haunting CNN interview ahead of the trial, Raskin said simply: “I’m not going to lose my son at the end of 2020 and lose my country and my republic in 2021. It’s not going to happen.”

What is next for Raskin? After Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic primary, the Maryland congressman’s allegiance to the left of the party might be seen as an impediment to one day winning election as House speaker, or as a senator, or even president.

Alan Dershowitz, a prominent civil liberties lawyer who taught Raskin at Harvard Law School (and defended Trump in his first impeachment trial), said: “He’d be well advised to move to the centre if he wants to have a political future. There’s no future in national politics at the extreme left of the Democratic party.

“You can get a lot of attention by being on the left, but you get nominated for being at the centre. I think his goal obviously is to become a senator and then perhaps higher office but he’s going to have to move to the centre on that.”

Raskin, however, is determined to follow his own path. In his 2018 interview with the Guardian, he explained: “It’s not my ambition to be in the political centre, which blows around with the wind. It’s my ambition to be in the moral centre and that’s why I call myself a progressive because I think our job is to find what’s right, the best that we can, and then bring the political centre to us and that’s what makes politics interesting and meaningful.”

The impeachment trial has given him stature in many eyes as a defender of the constitution, democracy and moral integrity – in short, an anti-Trump.

Huffman added: “I think the sky’s the limit. Politics is a difficult long-term weather forecast. It depends a lot on factors no one can control but I would think Jamie would be in the mix for all sorts of things and frankly, our country is the better for it. Having someone of his calibre available for whatever big opportunities open up is a great thing.”

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