Transcript: Billionaire activist Tom Steyer on ABC News' 'The Investigation' podcast

PHOTO: Tom Steyer, co-founder of NextGen Climate Action Committee, listens to a question during a town hall event in Ankeny, Iowa, on Jan. 9, 2019.PlayBloomberg via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Billionaire activist: "I'm spending 100% of my time' on Trump impeachment efforts

Hedge fund billionaire and progressive activist Tom Steyer sat down for an interview for the latest episode of “The Investigation," an ABC News podcast focused on the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. A transcript of Steyer's interview as it appears in the episode of the podcast follows here:

ABC NEWS' KYRA PHILLIPS: Welcome to the investigation I’m Kyra Phillips with my co-host Chris Vlasto, senior executive producer of our investigative unit and senior editorial producer John Santucci. We’re bringing you new episodes of the investigation every day this week and so far we’ve heard from people who’ve played various roles tied to President Trump’s legal team during the Mueller probe. And today we’re going to hear from someone who has spent the last year and a half publicly advocating for Donald Trump to be impeached. Tom Steyer, he’s a billionaire, former hedge fund manager, a philanthropist, environmentalist, liberal activist and fundraiser and in October of 2017 he started spending millions of dollars to run ads like this one. Tom Steyer has launched a number of similar ads as part of his “Need to Impeach” campaign a fight that he is not giving up on. Tom thanks for coming in.

TOM STEYER: Kyra thank you so much for having me.

PHILLIPS: All right so you have dumped millions of dollars into this effort to impeach the president. I'm just curious. Easy answer. Why?

STEYER: Well what we are and what I have been doing for the last six years is a grassroots organization. And what we're doing around impeachment has been trying to empower and enable the voice of the American people. And so when you look at what we've done and what I've been working on in this area it's been entirely consistent with the idea of a grassroots organization that believes in the power to the people of the people and by the people and that is looking for justice in America. So if you look at our movement we have seven point seven million people who've signed a petition about impeachment. We do town halls to go and talk to them and hear what they're worried about and hear about their concerns and we try and have their voice be heard in Washington D.C. and across the country. We try to make sure that the American people's attitudes and opinions and desires are listened to. And so from our standpoint what this is entirely consistent with the idea of taking power away from the elites that of returning democracy to the people and having their voice be listened to above and beyond anything else.

VLASTO: But don't you think though you want to - you wanted to impeach Donald Trump almost since the day he walked into office. Is that kind of election nullification? I mean in the sense of not accepting the democracy, not accepting the will of the people.

STEYER: Well if you look at what we've actually done, Chris what you'll see is we started this petition drive on October 20, 2017. And what we were saying is we have the most corrupt president in American history. And here's somebody who we've we had seen clearly at that point with someone who was corrupt who was breaking his oath to the American people in the Constitution and that we thought that he would continue to do so and the evidence would become more and more clear.

VLASTO: But don't worry people will lose faith in the system don't you. I mean we live in a democracy whether we like the person or not. Impeachment shouldn't be a weapon. Right? I mean shouldn't we just go to the ballot box? I mean we lived through it. Did you think Bill Clinton should be impeached?

STEYER: I did not think that Bill Clinton had done anything that rose to the level of impeachment. But let me throw this back on you. In the constitution the remedy that they give us for a corrupt president is impeachment. So do I think that it is a high bar to reach? Yes I do. But it is directly in the constitution as a remedy for a corrupt president. And I believe this is the most corrupt president in American history. And we're actually seeing that, I've seen as a Democrat I have heard people say Trump doesn't tell the truth we shouldn't tell the truth. I mean there is no question in my mind that when you decide that the laws aren't enforceable they're no longer laws. And I think there's a question here very much about elitism about accountability and about justice regardless of who you are. If you're the president of the United States does that mean you are no longer subject to the Constitution and the laws of the United States? If you want to make that statement that to me seems like a gigantic leap from where we started and where we should be.

ABC NEWS' JOHN SANTUCCI: So in October of 2017 this is when you launched the “Need to Impeach” effort. Was that because of Robert Mueller's growing investigation at that point he had only been appointed in May just a couple of months prior. What was it? Was there a singular act that was the impetus for you?

STEYER: It's ironic you'd ask that because we from the beginning said this is not about the Mueller report. What we've said is that this is about corruption and obstruction of justice. So if you go back to October 20, 2017. We knew at that point that Mr. Trump had refused to divest himself of his real estate interests. And we also knew at that point that he'd fired the FBI director for pursuing the Russian investigation. One of the things that's going on here has been a question about what is a criminal violation and what what rises to the level of breaking your oath to the Constitution and the American people. This is a question there are many things that aren't criminal that would be impeachable and there are things that are impeachable that aren't criminal.

PHILLIPS: Well you even --

STEYER: So actually what we're asking for is to get this evidence in front of the American people through public hearings so that in fact we can hear it directly on TV, public hearings, so we can get a chance to make up our mind so we can see what's been going on and that has been buried for years. The American people have been left out of this conversation. We have -- If you look at what we do broadly we're a grassroots organization. When you look at 2018 what you saw was we did the biggest voter youth voter mobilization in American history. The places where we were people between 18 and 30 turned out more than double what they turned out in the previous midterm election. What we believe in is an actual revitalization of American democracy which involves the people getting the truth.

SANTUCCI: Sounds like if I'm listening to what you just said is that OK, we need more people here who agree with our efforts to have hearings and impeachment. It sounds like, from what you just said, those people don't exist right now that are members of the United States Congress. So I'm going to spend my time and efforts. I'm going to get more people that see likewise with me elected and then do it. So I guess my question is then are the next 18 months give or take until the 2020 election sort of like we've got to wait. We really can't do anything as far as actionable items in Congress until we have more of our people there?

STEYER: No I don't believe that. Look if you look what we've done with this list, this list in 2018 voted at an 80 percent rate we had at that point six point two million people. We now have seven point seven million people we had about 10,000 people a day.

SANTUCCI: I get the people but what I'm saying to you though, you're saying you need hearings on Capitol Hill. Who are the people on Capitol Hill when you have the speaker of the House calling it a waste of time and money that are going to commission those hearings?

STEYER: Well I think actually we're going to continue to ask for the direct Mueller report. We're going to ask for the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to get the president's tax returns which he has an absolute right to. We're going to ask for hearings on the crimes in which Mr. Trump has been implicated in the one day of hearings that we had with Michael Cohen. We're going to ask in fact that the American people can get the truth directly because when in fact it happens what you're going to see is the Americans will be absolutely enthralled. We have had two real hearings in the last year. One of them was Brett Kavanaugh one of them was Michael Cohen. Both of them were explosive. Both of them brought the American people into the conversation.

PHILLIPS: Question about the money that you're putting in this “Need to Impeach” movement. OK to date, because I see there's numbers all over the place. To date, how many millions have you put into this effort?

STEYER: I don't know exactly what we said --

SANTUCCI: That means you need a new accountant Tom.

STEYER: Excuse me?

SANTUCCI: That means you need a new accountant.

STEYER: What I would say is what we said last year is that we would spend $30 million dollars organizing this voice going out to people getting our list and also activating the list. I mean from our standpoint the question is not just how many people are on the list but what are they willing to do?

PHILLIPS: OK. But out of your money, out of your money. You're a billionaire. How much money do you think you have put into this as this effort so far? Just give me a give me a good guesstimate.

STEYER: More than $30 million dollars.

PHILLIPS: More than $30 million? Would you say more than $60 million?

STEYER: No.

PHILLIPS: OK. So why not take that massive amount of money and put it toward a Democratic contender that people are talking about?

STEYER: So Kyra, let me say this, during 2018 what people said to me was why are you spending time on impeachment instead of organizing around the flipping of the house? And I said in 2018 you know that's really interesting because we're doing more efforts directly on flipping the house than anyone else in the United States. That in fact we're doing this historic youth voter mobilization. Actually we're a grassroots organization including this list which is a group of people who desperately want Mr. Trump to be impeached and removed from office and who will continue to have those feelings and will continue to be incredibly involved politically. So actually this is a movement of people who will continue regardless of whether the House leadership is willing to hold hearings, regardless of whether we get the tax returns. Regardless of whether the Mueller report ever is available to the American people.

STEYER: -- in the meantime we're going we're going to demand it.

VLASTO: But let's talk Bob Mueller. But-- do you accept the conclusion that there was no conspiracy to collude for lack of a better term that the Russians didn't conspire with or collude with the Trump campaign? Do you accept his determination?

STEYER: I would like to see the Mueller report.

VLASTO: No I understand that. You have said that he's a fine prosecutor, Robert Mueller. Even before the report came out.

STEYER: Yes.

VLASTO: So do you accept his conclusion without seeing it? Do you think that conclusion, that quote is, true. Do you accept that?

STEYER: I would believe that he made a correct decision on a criminal basis. I would like to see the evidence I would like the American people to see the evidence so we can see exactly what he's saying. And so to ask me do you definitively conclude something without getting the facts, I would like to see the facts before I definitively conclude something.

VLASTO: OK let's let's play the hypothetical out. Now you see the facts and you see that oh he came to a conclusion. You're going to accept it?

STEYER: I mean I would like to see the evidence. I mean you keep trying to get me to say something and I'm going to say it again. We believe that the American people are due the facts. We believe they're due public hearings. We believe this is the most corrupt president in American history. We believe that he is obstructing justice. We believe if you put those facts in front of the --

VLASTO: Obstructed justice how? By firing James Comey?

STEYER: I think that if you've watched his behavior over months that's the most obvious thing. But I think that he's done a number of things about this investigation to try and dissuade it from going forward or to prevent it from being effective. And so, but we have a someone who has collected information on this assiduously that we haven't seen.

VLASTO: Okay, so, but okay then let me let me let me let me I asked you briefly about Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton they put out the whole report. Bill Clinton they found committed perjury and obstruction of justice and put all the evidence out there. You don't believe he should -- he was impeached. He was acquitted. Don't you think that was deserving or not?

STEYER: I think that there's a question here about does the, do the facts rise to the level of impeachment. Is there something here that's important enough to impeach the president of the United States? We know from what Mr. Cohen said that apparently he broke the law committed a felony in the White House.

VLASTO: About sex which actually, it was basically he was trying to hide a sexual relationship right.

STEYER: No that's not right.

VLASTO: It's an exact parallel.

STEYER: Actually what he did was he made an illegal campaign contribution to cover up a previous sexual alliance. But what the actual law he broke was not by having sex, but what he did was he committed a felony while in the White House.

VLASTO: And Bill Clinton had his friend Vernon Jordan try to get him a job and that appeared to obstruct -- Monica Lewinsky filed a false affidavit at the direction of Bill Clinton. That's in the Monica Lewinsky impeachment. What's the difference?

STEYER: The question in all of this is does it rise to the level of removing the president of the United States? And my point was that I believe this is the most corrupt president in American history. I think that what happened with Bill Clinton is that the American people got the information and decided it didn't come close to rising to the level of impeachment.

VLASTO: But don't you worry about the same thing? Don't you worry about the same thing of fighting a battle now. And this time it's in an election year and a very important election year that people will kind of have the same back. Oh come on guys in Washington you guys are just using investigations. Bill Clinton's popularity went up to like 98 percent after the impeachment. He was more popular when he left. Couldn't you have the boomerang effect with Donald Trump too?

STEYER: I don't believe it's comparable. I think that you want to compare it to Bill Clinton. But I think that what's much more comparable is President Nixon that in fact we had a corrupt president surrounded by corrupt people that in fact his personal corruption slopped over into everything that he did. And that as more information has come to light subsequently we can see that in fact that the corruption was at the heart of that administration and that is our point here. Let's, you keep comparing it to the Clinton administration. We don't have the information here. We have not been we have not gotten a report. We have not had hearings. We've had one hearing with regards to Mr. Trump. We had a hearing every single day with regard to Mr. Nixon and what happened was instead of getting one day's testimony from one person who is going to jail as a result of the things that he did with Donald Trump, in the Nixon administration we got to hear every single person come forward and what we got was a much broader picture of corruption in what was going on.

VLASTO: Is a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud violation of which Donald Trump is listed as Person number one is that act, is that scenario in and of itself to you an impeachable offense?

STEYER: But that is that is a question that you're asking a single act in the context of corruption. Is there any one act in the context of corruption that in and of itself to me rises to the level of impeachable if that's the only act. Your implication is that's all it is. But that is an implication with which I profoundly disagree. My point is we have a culture and a tradition and a value system based on corruption. And the American people need to see that in a broad based way not with one incident and say oh you know happened one time. You know it's excusable. The question is do we have a broad based system of corruption that is in fact leading this president to break his oath to the American people and the Constitution? And I believe that if you put that pattern…

VLASTO: You have to put them all together…

STEYER: If you put that pattern in front of the American people and say is this who we are? Is this who we are? If you're rich enough and powerful enough then you get a walk. And that's the point about impeachment--is equal justice before the law. We are not going to take some poor kid who breaks the law and put him away for 20 years and let the president the United

SANTUCCI: We've heard from the DOJ that it's a matter of weeks, not months, until Congress gets the Mueller report--some version of it. If we get that public version and it's heavily redacted, doesn't include every detail. What is Tom Steyer’s plan of action? Do you join a lawsuit to get the full release of the report?

STEYER: Look I--you know that's a hypothetical…

SANTUCCI: We like those.

PHILLIPS: We like to look into the future.

STEYER: I believe that the Democratic Congress will sue if we don't get the report.

SANTUCCI: But would you join that lawsuit?

STEYER: I’d be behind it.

PHILLIPS: So Tom, it's interesting looking at the tweets between you and the president. So he has mocked you as a stumbling lunatic. He has said weirdo Tom Steyer doesn't have the guts or money to run for president. He's all talk. So let me ask you, you do have the money. You're telling me right here you've got the guts, you're passionate. Why don't you run for president? You sort of floated it, they you pulled out . Then you talked about it again--why aren't you, what are you afraid of? Why aren't you running for president?

STEYER: I'm not afraid.

STEYER: --that what we've been doing which is basically grassroots organizing is the most direct positive contribution I can make.

VLASTO: You’re a billionaire. You were a hedge fund trader. Would you release all your tax returns. Would you want everyone to see every trade that you did back when you ran a fund…

STEYER: Well first of all if you follow the way the SEC works that stuff is public knowledge anyway.

VLASTO: But would you want to put your taxes out?

STEYER: I’m not scared about my taxes at all. I pay really high tax rates. So if you're asking me am I embarrassed about what I make, how I make it, or what I have paid—no.

VLASTO: Or how about—the SEC doesn't look at every trade. If you ran for president they would look fine tooth comb through every trade in your hedge fund, every single one. Would you want to be scrutinized?

STEYER: There's nothing that isn't in the public record that I'm worried about. OK. That's your question. Is there something that’s not in the public record that I’m worried about? No.

PHILLIPS: So billionaire to billionaire, why isn't Donald Trump releasing his tax returns?

STEYER: Because I believe there's criminality exposed in those tax returns—because what Michael Cohen said…

VLASTO: Or do you think he is insecure that he is not really a billionaire?

STEYER: What Michael Cohen said was he used his tax returns in one way to minimize taxes. He used his asset estimates in another way to raise loans from banks. That's a felony. And I think that he has not released his taxes because there was an inconsistency in his behavior that is illegal and in fact you go to jail for.

VLASTO: Accept Michael Cohen is a liar, we have to just say he is an admitted liar. So we have to take everything he says with a little bit of a grain of salt. No?

STEYER: Chris here's what I would say. What we've been saying is give us the tax returns! We have not said you know, we understand that Michael Cohen was sent directly by God with you know, the truth. We've said give us the tax returns so the American people can see.

VLASTO: Do you think he's a billionaire?

STEYER: You know honestly I don't know what Mr. Trump is worth. And that's never been the question for me.

PHILLIPS: Do you respect him as a businessman?

STEYER: Absolutely not. He's a failed businessman. He's a great reality TV star. He had an absolutely successful TV show. He is a incredibly successful and effective communicator. But if you look at his record in business, he took a huge inheritance and blew up a series of projects and went bankrupt and got bailed out by the banks. So if you ask me do I think--do I respect him as a businessperson. No, he's a failed business person but he is a hell of a communicator and one hell of a reality--He had a ton of people watching The Apprentice. It's you know, when I talk about Donald Trump at our town halls, I say look do not underestimate his talents. They're very real. They're not as a business person, his pattern is…

PHILLIPS: So he didn’t master the art of the deal?

STEYER: He didn't write the art of the deal. He doesn't know the art of the deal. Here's what he does--and this is what he's doing to the United States of America. This is his pattern in real estate. Over promise. Over borrow. Blow it up. Walk away. OK now let's look at the United States of America: Over promise. Over borrow. Blow it up and walk away.

SANTUCCI: So if you Tom were an investigator right now and everything going on, you've got obviously I think we're up to a little over half a dozen congressional committees looking into the president and his family. You've got prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. You've got about four AGS up there I know I and you in your greatest hits list here for you.

STEYER: [Laughter] John. Let ,me just ask you—I’m the one saying he’s the most corrupt, you guys are pushing out…

SANTUCCI: I’m just…

PHILLIPS: He’s just laying out the facts…

SANTUCCI: But going through that list, going through that list--which one do you say that's the one that's the case, that’s the one we have to focus on?

STEYER: Now but that's what I'm saying. What I've been saying from the beginning is it's a question about corruption and it’s a question about obstruction.

SANTUCCI: And I get—[Crosstalk]

STEYER: What he is asking does this one case prove your point. And I said no. This is a pattern.

SANTUCCI: So you think all of these should keep going on? You think that the more the better, you don't think if we get rid of some of them focus on one singularly—this would be the silver bullet.

STEYER: I think that for the sake of the American people, what I've been saying all along is we should be focusing on corruption and obstruction…

SANTUCCI: So out of the cases that are existing right now, out of all the list I just went through. Which one do you look at and say that's the one?

STEYER: But let me put this back at you. I am not--we were not waiting for the Mueller report. We're not waiting for the Southern District of New York. Those are criminal prosecutions of criminal behaviors. My point is this is a political question.

PHILLIPS: Bottom line this country voted him into office. They voted him to be the president of the United States. So if what you're saying about all these people that you are galvanizing, that they don't want him, and they want they want to impeach him he's so corrupt--and there's a pattern of corruption, you keep saying pattern of corruption. Why was Donald Trump elected to be the president of the United States?

STEYER: So let me make two points. One is the whole point of the Constitution and impeachment--within the Constitution is if you elect a president who is corrupt that there is a remedy for that problem. I think there's no question that the underlying impetus to the Trump supporters is almost 80 percent of Americans--that means by definition people of both parties and independents overwhelmingly believe that this system has been purchased by powerful interests who don't have their interest, the people's interest first. And if you listen to what Trump supporters say you hear that. And he was playing to that,

VLASTO: What’s Nancy Pelosi afraid of?

STEYER: I think that the congressional leadership believed that this was a persuasion election, that in fact what happened was that the Democratic Party, by talking about issues where we have a huge advantage like healthcare and education. They believe that we persuaded Americans in the middle to leave the Republican Party, and Donald Trump and vote for us and we believe that what happened was it wasn't persuasion it was turnout. So if we tell the truth to those people, if we are as straightforward and candid as possible that they will believe that someone's in their corner and they'll show up because they believe it's important to show up because they believe the system is now working. We're trying to say look we want a just America with a positive vision of the future for everybody together. That's what we're pushing for. And when we see impeachment I mean you guys see this political punching match, we're saying no, we want a positive America where we recognize what other people have given to the system.

PHILLIPS: And absolutely 100 percent. You are not going to run for president. Absolutely 100 percent. You're not going to throw your hat…

STEYER: This is what we're doing. And you know—

PHILLIPS: Just a yes or no!

STEYER: And what I'm saying to you is this is what we're doing but you know you guys keep asking me all these conditional questions what I've said is this is what we're doing.

PHILLIPS: Okay but it's possible you could you possibly could decide you're going to go for it.

STEYER: What we've said is I'm spending 100 percent of my time on this. You want me to answer condition questions and I will not.

VLASTO: No We're just looking for a headline.

STEYER: I didn’t say that.

PHILLIPS: Tom, thank you.