His son died. A week later he survived the Capitol riots. Now, he's leading the impeachment case against Donald Trump.
WASHINGTON – Less than a week after his son died, Rep. Jamie Raskin stood on the House floor to count Electoral College votes formalizing President Joe Biden’s victory.
Colleagues of both parties rose for a standing ovation to welcome his return. Raskin, an affable Maryland Democrat from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, wore a black ribbon on the lapel of his gray suit, having held a funeral for his son the day before.
As the applause swelled, he brought his right hand to his heart and thanked lawmakers “for all your love and tenderness, which my family and I will never forget.” He then launched into an argument for why Arizona's votes should be counted.
The moment informs the task now before Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager who will present the Democrats' case against former President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial this week – all while carrying the emotion of an immense personal tragedy.
Fellow lawmakers and colleagues said they are in awe he's willing to take on the job, while others point to his record as a tough and seasoned constitutional scholar.
"He's the perfect choice," Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who led the prosecution against Trump in his last impeachment trial, told USA TODAY. "There will not be a better constitutional scholar in the Senate the moment he arrives."
'My family suffered an unspeakable trauma'
Less than an hour after Raskin spoke, a violent pro-Trump mob breached the doors of the Capitol to halt the vote count. Lawmakers fled to secure locations before the Senate was occupied. A police officer shot and killed a woman trying to enter the House chamber.
Raskin had brought his younger daughter, Tabitha, and his older daughter’s husband, Hank, to watch the proceedings, but he became separated from his relatives, who hid beneath a desk in a room near the House floor.
The events of Jan. 6 led the House to impeach Trump for a second time, charging that he incited insurrection. Hours later, Raskin reflected on his family's loss and the divided nation.
“My family suffered an unspeakable trauma on New Year’s eve a week ago,” Raskin said early Jan. 7, after the vote count resumed and neared completion. “Let us stop pouring salt in the wounds of America for no reason at all. Let us start healing our beloved land and our wonderful people.”
Raskin takes high-profile role for Democrats
Like Schiff in Trump's last impeachment trial, Raskin becomes the face of the Democrats' effort to convict Trump and possibly bar him from holding future office.
In a trial likely to include constitutional arguments about free speech, it's no mistake House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped Raskin to lead the nine House Democrats acting as prosecutors in the trial, called managers. Not only did Raskin help investigate the first Trump impeachment from his perch on the Judiciary Committee, but he also taught constitutional law at American University for 25 years, and other lawmakers routinely seek his counsel or defer to him in debate.
Raskin was "deeply involved" in preparation for the first trial, Schiff said. Raskin was "extraordinarily valuable" in discussions of possible charges and drafting the articles of impeachment that determine how the case is presented, Schiff said.
"He has been a dazzling force for justice, demonstrating outstanding love of country, dedication to our democracy and loyalty to our oath as he works to ensure that no one is above the law," Pelosi told USA TODAY.
Dean: Raskin is 'not ivory tower'
Raskin's reputation in Congress can be traced to his years in academia.
“As a professor, he’s extraordinarily approachable, very popular with students and faculty,” Robert Dinerstein, acting dean of American University Washington College of Law, told USA TODAY. “He was really focused on teaching students and empowering them to go off and do great things.”
While teaching at American University, Raskin co-founded the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which encourages college students to teach high school students in marginalized communities
As a teacher, Raskin enlivened his courses with concrete examples. One section dealt with Tinker vs. Des Moines, a touchstone Supreme Court case about free speech for students. Raskin brought in Mary Beth Tinker, who as a 13-year-old student in 1965 was told not to wear a black armband to protest the Vietnam War, to help teach his class, Dinerstein said.
Raskin dedicated an academic paper about the case to Tinker and his daughter, Tabitha, who was sent to detention for objecting to "silent lunch" on behalf of all her classmates.
“It’s an indication of the kind of professor he was, which was not ivory tower,” Dinerstein said. “He’s a true public intellectual, somebody who obviously cared about issues beyond what goes on in the classroom.”
'Tough as nails'
Raskin also sought to educate students about practicing law in the real world. He recruited college students to work in his office in the Maryland state Senate. And he created a program called Democracy Summer, encouraging high school and college students to get involved in politics.
"He's been a fabulous mentor and very generous with his time and insights," said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., who was joined by Raskin and Democracy Summer students in canvassing for her first race in 2018.
Since winning her race, she has joined him on the Judiciary Committee working on fair elections and investigating Trump. Even though the riot was televised, she said full-day coverage of what led to the violence and its aftermath could affect viewers like coverage of the Vietnam War did.
"People saw what was going on and said this was not acceptable and we got out," Scanlon told USA TODAY. "This is basic civics: Insurrection 101."
Despite his affable reputation, Scanlon says, Raskin is no pushover. He remains unperturbed during chaotic hearings when lawmakers sometimes heckle one another.
"He's tough as nails," Scanlon said. "It comes from pure civics, patriotism."
Raskin has earned the respect of lawmakers from both parties. When Congress convened Jan. 3, lawmakers approached Raskin on the House floor to offer condolences for the death of his son days earlier.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, asked on the House floor for Americans to “pray for his family as they deal with the devastating loss of a son.”
As the Rules Committee debated the impeachment resolution more than a week later, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., opened by saying all Republicans on the panel grieved for Raskin’s loss.
“We don't always agree on the issues, but there's nobody I admire more as a person and who has set a better example for how to carry on under the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances than the gentleman from Maryland,” Cole said.
Historic second trial
Raskin's task will be to persuade at least 17 Republicans to join Democrats in convicting Trump. But Schiff said Raskin will be arguing for two audiences.
"We realized we had two juries. We had the Senate and the American people," Schiff said of the first trial.
House Democrats are expected to use video of Trump's speech right before the mob occupied the Capitol, Trump supporters' march down Pennsylvania Avenue, the storming of the Capitol and the occupation of the Senate chamber to illustrate their case. But the managers will also chronicle Trump's baseless claims of election fraud and his pressure on Georgia officials to change the outcome.
"This is not simply about that one terrible day, but everything that led up to it and everything since," Schiff said. "The great majority of the jurors were living through the events at the scene of the crime."
Trump's defense team led by Bruce Castor Jr. and David Schoen contends the trial is unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office. His speech near the White House before the crowd laid siege to the Capitol was protected by the First Amendment, his lawyers argue.
The Senate hasn't decided yet whether to hear from witnesses, which lawmakers on both sides said could greatly prolong the trial. Raskin asked Thursday for sworn testimony from Trump, but the former president declined and his lawyers called the request a publicity stunt.
"Despite his lawyers’ rhetoric, any official accused of inciting armed violence against the government of the United States should welcome the chance to testify openly and honestly – that is, if the official had a defense," Raskin said. "We will prove at trial that President Trump’s conduct was indefensible."
Grieving the loss of his son
Raskin plunged into the impeachment trial after his son’s death, saying he wouldn’t lose his son one year and his country the next. Colleagues said keeping busy could help him deal with the grief. But they also wondered where he found the strength to prosecute something as complex and high-profile as impeachment.
Days after Tommy Raskin died at age 25, the lawmaker and his wife, Sarah Raskin, published a public remembrance, pointing out everything proud parents would. They described how he created a tutoring program for peers in high school and donated his college pay as a teaching assistant to combat malaria and hunger. He also persuaded dozens of people to become vegans and played jazz piano as if he belonged on Bourbon Street, they said.
Tommy Raskin had graduated from Amherst College and followed in his father's footsteps to Harvard Law School. But as the couple put it, he began to suffer from "blindingly painful and merciless" depression that became "overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable."
In a New Year's Eve note, he asked his parents to “look after each other, the animals and the global poor for me.”
Friends aren’t sure how Raskin copes with the loss in such a high-pressure arena.
“I really don’t know how he’s able to do it,” said Dinerstein, the American law school dean. “I really do believe, as he’s says, that he’s channeling his lovely son as he does this work and somehow has managed to be on top of such an important issue as impeachment.”
Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., lost her longtime partner in 2019 to suicide and said that while their situations are different, she has tried to offer words of comfort to the Maryland Democrat.
"Unfortunately, we're now in a club that neither one of us ever wanted to be in," Wild said in an interview.
Wild said she wrote Raskin a letter and had a lengthy talk with him on the House floor. She noted that after the death of her partner of 17 years, Kerry Acker, she put all her energy into work.
"I remember having a feeling that work was going to save me when I went through it myself and it did in many ways," Wild said. "That purpose for being here, the bigger picture, the busyness, all of that was very, very helpful."
Wild said after the trial is concluded, she hopes Raskin will have time to heal.
"I did urge him, you know, not to let work take over the need for the grieving process, the therapeutic process of support. I know he's very, very busy right now, because of the impeachment proceedings, and he has been a wonderful leader for us," she said. "But once this chapter is over, I hope he will really take the time that he needs to process it, not just for himself, but for his family."
Contributing: Christal Hayes