WASHINGTON — On the last awful day of the brutal year 2020, Tommy Raskin, a 25-year-old Harvard University law student, social justice activist, animal lover and poet, concluded that the pain of the world was too deep for him to be in it anymore. He left his parents an apology, with instructions: “Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me.”
Tommy Raskin was buried last week in a simple Jewish graveside service. The next day, his father, Rep. Jamie Raskin found himself hiding with his House colleagues from a violent mob incited by President Donald Trump, and fearing for the safety of a surviving daughter, who had accompanied him to the Capitol to witness the counting of electoral votes to seal Joe Biden’s victory.
Within hours, Raskin was at work drafting an article of impeachment with the mob braying in his ear and his son’s final plea on his mind. (It was introduced in the House on Monday.)
“I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to live up to those instructions,” the Maryland Democrat said in an interview Monday, reading aloud the farewell note as he reflected on his family’s grief and the confluence of events. “But what we are doing this week is looking after our beloved republic.”
Raskin likes to say that “change is made by people who show up.” When the House convenes Wednesday to consider impeaching Trump for a second time, he will have to draw on every ounce of strength he has just to be there.
The slightly rumpled former constitutional law professor and son of a well-known liberal intellectual and anti-war activist has been preparing his entire life for this moment. That it should come just as he is suffering the most unimaginable loss a parent can bear has touched his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
“I’ve been in awe of the personal strength and character he has shown through all of this, and we’re all supportive of him as a person and his family,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, who voted with 146 other Republicans to block certification of Biden’s victory. He added that Republicans regard Raskin as “a delightful human being.”
Raskin is also a member of the Rules Committee, the 13-member panel with vast power to set the terms of debate on the House floor. On Tuesday, the two men clashed as the panel met to debate a resolution written by Raskin calling on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment to strip Trump of the presidency.
“My personal opinion is: ‘With seven days to go, why do you need this?’” Cole said in an earlier interview.
To that, Raskin has a short answer, and a long one. First, the short answer: “The people who are saying why impeach now really should be asking: Why does he continue to commit impeachable offenses up until the very end of his term?”
The long one, which Raskin, who has written two books on Supreme Court cases, intends to deliver Wednesday on the House floor, begins this way: “We came very close to experiencing a coup in America. It was like an attempted coup wrapped inside a violent riot wrapped inside some cosmetic protests on the outside.”
He went on: “And the president gave all kinds of aid, comfort and exhortation to the mob. That is intolerable. It takes us in a profoundly dangerous direction as a society. America is a country built on common sense. And we have to use our common sense now to recognize a lethal danger to our people, our Congress, our leaders and the whole nation. This president is a clear and present danger to our country.”
Raskin, 58, is an instantly recognizable figure in the Capitol. He was once described as looking like a mad scientist, though he began slicking his hair down after that. He has an infectious enthusiasm for the Constitution and American history. He has been steeped in liberal activism since he was a toddler.
His father, Marcus Raskin, who died in 2017, was an aide to President John F. Kennedy and a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War. In 1970, the elder Raskin received part of the Pentagon Papers, the classified study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, from its author, Daniel Ellsberg, and helped get them to the reporter Neil Sheehan of The New York Times.
The younger Raskin keeps a 1964 clipping from The Washington Post with a photo of him as a 2-year-old toting a placard at a protest. When he was 6, his father took him to the first Freedom Seder, a Passover meal that brought Jewish and Black people together a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Thomas Bloom Raskin, named for the Revolutionary War figure Thomas Paine, was an heir to this legacy. He was the only son and second child of Jamie Raskin and his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, a deputy treasury secretary under President Barack Obama and former member of the Federal Reserve Board. They also have two daughters, Tabitha, 23, and Hannah, 28.
Days after Tommy’s death, his parents released an extraordinary, wrenching statement and photos of their son. He began life as a “strikingly beautiful curly-haired madcap boy beaming with laughter and charm,” they wrote, who grew into “an anti-war activist, a badass autodidact moral philosopher and progressive humanist libertarian.”
He “hated cliques and social snobbery,” and “never had a negative word for anyone but tyrants and despots,” they wrote, in an apparent allusion to Trump — a point that was not lost on those watching the congressman fight the president with so much zeal. Tommy persuaded his parents to become vegans to spare the lives of animals, majored in history at Amherst College and went off to Harvard Law School, his father’s alma mater, in 2019.
But he “began to be tortured later in his 20s,” they wrote, “by a blindingly painful and merciless ‘disease called depression,’” that became unbearable for him, despite “very fine doctors and a loving family.” In his brief note to his parents, the younger Raskin wrote, “My illness won today.”
In the days since, the congressman said, he has found it difficult not to wonder what he might have done differently.
“I feel Tombo is very much with me and my heart, and I’m living very much in his life and in his spirit,” he said, using his nickname for his son. “But it’s tough. I mean, you get drawn into a thousand questions about, ‘Well, maybe we should have done this, maybe we should have said that.’ And it’s just a painful process, ultimately futile.”
On Wednesday, the day after Tommy’s funeral, Congress was to vote to certify the Electoral College results. Raskin’s daughter Tabitha begged him not to go. Instead, he invited her and Hank Kronick, husband of his other daughter, Hannah, to come along for what he expected would be “a crazy day outside the building” but a historic one inside.
His colleagues were not entirely surprised to see him, said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a close friend of Raskin’s who worked with him on the impeachment article. Democrats, he said, rely on Raskin as their in-house constitutional scholar.
“I think he believes very deeply in what he has dedicated his life to,” Cicilline said, “and that is the pursuit of truth and justice and the defense of our Constitution.”
Raskin arrived at the Capitol that day wearing a black mask to protect against the coronavirus and a slightly torn black ribbon on his lapel, the sign of a Jew in mourning. His House colleagues gave him a standing ovation as he rose to speak shortly before 2 p.m.; he patted his hand across his heart, and went on to quote Abraham Lincoln. Then, he said, he heard what sounded like “a battering ram” at the House door.
Twelve hours and a lifetime later, at shortly before 2:30 in the morning Thursday, Raskin rose to speak again, this time decrying “the baseless attack” on the Capitol, which, he said, brought to mind his son’s namesake.
“Paine said, ‘In the monarchies, the king is the law,” Raskin told his colleagues. “But in the democracies, the law will be king.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.