'Carrying Tommy in my heart': Amid personal tragedy, Raskin leads House's impeachment case
Posted January 25, 2021 4:42 p.m. EST
CNN — Rep. Jamie Raskin fled the House chamber on January 6 alongside his colleagues as a mob was gaining on the Capitol, but his mind was focused on the office down the hall where his daughter and son-in-law were in hiding.
Just a day earlier, Raskin's family had buried his 25-year-old son, Tommy. Raskin's daughter Tabitha, 23, and his oldest daughter's husband, Hank, had accompanied the Maryland Democrat to the Capitol that Wednesday to watch as he defended President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College win on the House floor.
Now his family was in danger, hiding in Majority Whip Steny Hoyer's ceremonial office as insurrectionists surrounded the House chamber. Raskin's chief of staff, Julie Tagen, who was with Tabitha and Hank, barricaded the door and grabbed a bronze bust as a weapon in case anyone broke in.
It was roughly an hour before Capitol Police rescued them and they were reunited with Raskin, he said in a wide-ranging interview. The ordeal only added to the trauma that the Raskin family has endured since his son Tommy died by suicide on December 31.
For Raskin, the unimaginable personal tragedy is coming at the exact moment of his biggest professional triumph in Congress. Raskin was one of the Democrats House Speaker Nancy Pelosi picked to defend the certification of Biden's victory, and following the House's impeachment of former President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol, Pelosi named him as the House's lead impeachment manager.
The events that led to the President's second impeachment are personal to Raskin.
"I picked a helluva time for take your daughter to work day," Raskin said, recalling the events of January 6. "After an extremely long and dreadful day I was able to send Tabitha and Hank home after 9:30 or 10 p.m. I hugged them and said to Tabitha, 'I promise it wouldn't be like this the next time you come to the Capitol.' And she said, 'Dad there isn't gonna be a next time.'"
Raskin paused for a long moment, collecting his thoughts.
"These people have poisoned something precious in our political system," he said, "and we have to recapture and defend democracy with everything we have."
'We are going to see this through'
On Monday evening, Raskin will lead the nine impeachment managers across the same corridor in the Capitol that was filled with ransacking rioters earlier this month. He will walk onto the floor of the Senate and present a single article of impeachment: incitement of insurrection.
"It's a solemn, awesome ability," Raskin said of his role. "It was also something I had to discuss with my family. But we are going to see this through."
Raskin's success in making a case to Republicans remains to be seen. Seventeen Republican senators would have to vote to convict Trump to keep him from ever running for office again. And it's not clear that any case -- no matter how it is prepared -- would be enough to convince them. Many Republicans have already argued that a former President can't be convicted once he's out of office -- which Democrats and many legal experts say is not the case.
Raskin has tried his best to keep focused on the task in front of him since his son's death. Lawmakers and aides who have worked closely with Raskin say that Tommy's memory has provided a kind of fuel for the congressman to keep going through hours-long prep sessions, votes and floor debates. After Tommy's death, Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, wrote a moving tribute to Tommy and all the people he had inspired. Tommy was "an anti-war activist, a badass autodidact moral philosopher and progressive humanist libertarian, and a passionate vegan," they said.
In his 20s, Tommy suffered from "a blindingly painful and merciless 'disease called depression,'" Raskin and his wife wrote. "He left us this farewell note on New Year's Eve day: 'Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.'"
Raskin would have been forgiven for stepping away after his son's death, even with his role defending the Electoral College a week away. But Raskin said he's taken his son's departing message to heart to help him push forward.
"Tommy left us a note," Raskin said. "He didn't have anything in there about take some time off."
The outpouring of support the family has received has been overwhelming, Raskin said. They've heard from Tommy's former classmates at Harvard Law School and Montgomery Blair High School about what a vibrant force he was, even at a young age. They received calls both from Biden, who lost his son Beau in 2015, and Vice President Kamala Harris. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Republicans like Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan and Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien all called and described how they were touched by the life Tommy led.
"I was carrying Tommy in my heart the entire time," Raskin said of his work on January 6. "Because of that, as terrified as I was for the kids and our republic, I felt emboldened and encouraged by the strength and the values of my son."
From law professor to congressman
The role of lead impeachment manager is one Raskin has prepared for his whole career. Raskin was a constitutional law professor at American University's law school for more than two decades before turning to politics. He served first as a state representative in Maryland and then was elected to Congress in 2016.
Raskin said that his decision to first get into politics in 2006 was a family one: Everyone took a vote. His kids, he said, were a big part of his campaigns.
In Congress, Raskin played a significant role in the first impeachment of Trump in 2019 as a member of the Judiciary Committee, including filling in for House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler to defend the impeachment resolution before the House Rules Committee when Nadler had a family emergency. But Raskin wasn't among those chosen as a manager to prosecute that case against Trump in the Senate the last time around.
Rep. Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat and one of the nine impeachment managers, said it was fitting Raskin that is a manager for the upcoming trial instead of the first one, because there's more of a focus now on the constitutional issues that are in Raskin's wheelhouse.
"To experience the kind of grief and loss that he experienced, and still have the same core drive and sense of purpose to save our republic is just incredible," said Neguse, who is close to Raskin. "It's inspiring -- it's inspired me, it's inspired the fellow managers and I certainly think it's been an inspiration across the country, certainly to members on both sides."
Still, the rigor in which Raskin has pursued this round of impeachment has left his colleagues worried for their friend. The bond between impeachment managers is beyond just professional. Several of the members are close personal friends with Raskin. Some of them served as witnesses to Raskin's grief in the days just after his son had died.
When the new Congress was sworn in January 3, three days after Tommy's death, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a close friend of Raskin's, didn't want to let Raskin out of his sight. Along with Neguse, the three men spent the afternoon in Hoyer's ceremonial office where members shuffled in to pay their respects.
On a few occasions, Cicilline said he thought maybe he'd leave to give Raskin some space, but he said he couldn't stand the idea of leaving Raskin alone. In the hours that unfolded, Cicilline watched as Raskin recounted one story after another about Tommy, telling his colleagues that Tommy had been both brilliant and too good for this world, a teacher and a student of the world. Tommy had been teaching a course and at the end of his semester, he had graded papers and written to each student that he had made a donation to a charity aligned with something each student had been interested in.
"In those moments when Jamie broke down, and you just realize that all the brilliance of Jamie Raskin and all the dedication to the Constitution and the responsibilities we have as members of Congress -- none of that can soothe his pain," said Cicilline, another of the nine impeachment managers.
'I worry about him'
Behind the scenes, those working closely with Raskin describe a driven but democratic leader. People close to the process describe prep sessions that include Raskin starting with staff first before moving to members. Meetings always end, sources say, with Raskin thanking everyone for their around-the-clock work.
Raskin is used to being busy in Congress. He serves on five committees -- far surpassing most members' assignments. But leading an impeachment trial amid a personal tragedy is a new challenge.
"That kind of pouring yourself into this important work for our country, at a time when you could be focused on your own incredibly (speechless) heartbreak, tells you all you need to know about him," said Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, another Democratic impeachment manager.
Still, those involved told CNN that Raskin has maintained his zeal for intellectual curiosity, running meetings like breakout sessions in a law seminar. At one recent trial prep session, Raskin requested staff look up the philosophical origins of labeling a crowd a mob, knowing off the top of his head the author who had led the research.
"We end up having so many very, very intense discussions, the nine of us, all of us being lawyers, and I almost get a feeling the same way I did in law school," said Del. Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands, another impeachment manager -- who also was one of Raskin's students in law school. "He's able to really tease out people's thoughts, contextualize them, summarize them, put it back out to the group and see what their thoughts are."
Plaskett said Raskin is one of the reasons she's on the House's impeachment team: He played a significant role in her decision out of law school to become a prosecutor rather than take a higher-paying job, which ultimately led her to Congress.
In the days since Tommy's death, colleagues say they have made it clear to Raskin that at any point if he feels overwhelmed by the task ahead, they are ready to step in.
"The thing I worry about is below all that courage and strength and intellect is a man who lost his son," Cicilline said, adding that he personally told Raskin to call on him if and when he needs a moment to breathe. Ahead of his testimony before the House Rules Committee last week, Raskin took Cicilline up on his offer, asking him to speak instead.
"I felt very honored," Cicilline said. "I worry about him as a friend."