Prosecuting the President

East Bay Congressman Eric Swalwell is among a group of Golden State ex-prosecutors who are connecting the dots in the Trump-Russia case.


Photo by D. Ross Cameron

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During the 2000s, Eric Swalwell was one of the first prosecutors in Alameda County to discover that some criminals were dumb enough to post incriminating photos and videos of themselves on social media. His boss and mentor, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, recalled that in one case, Swalwell scoured the web, uncovering a video that a defendant had posted of himself holding a .25-caliber handgun. That damning piece of evidence clinched a conviction.

“When he was trying cases here, he was advanced technologically—using Google Maps, YouTube, social media,” O’Malley said, adding that she and other prosecutors used to sit in the courtroom gallery as the twentysomething Swalwell displayed his flowcharts and multimedia presentations to the jury.

But the young prosecutor didn't rely on technology alone. A son of a retired cop, Swalwell gained a reputation in Alameda County courthouses for using detective skills to build ironclad cases, unravel alibis, and guide jurors through a maze of circumstantial evidence.

O’Malley recalled that in an East Oakland murder case in which the young victim was wrongly mistaken for a gang member by the assailant, Swalwell uncovered surveillance video that law enforcement overlooked, helping secure a swift conviction. News accounts described it as “a stunningly quick verdict,” O’Malley recalled.

Less than a decade later, Swalwell is employing the same skills he honed in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to publicly lay out the Russia collusion case involving President Donald Trump, his family, and his former campaign surrogates. An outspoken member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Swalwell has become one of the most sought-after figures on cable news. He has made nearly 200 national television appearances this year and has deftly used social media to assemble a large following on Twitter.

It turns out that being an ex-prosecutor-turned-Democratic-politician is the perfect career path in this moment of U.S. history, a time when a deeply unpopular Republican president is ensnared in a wide-ranging criminal investigation that grows more complex each day. In fact, Swalwell is among a group of four California ex-prosecutors now serving as Democratic members of Congress who have grabbed the national spotlight during this year’s sprawling Trump-Russia saga: Rep. Adam Schiff, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee; Rep. Ted Lieu, an ex-military prosecutor from Southern California; and Sen. Kamala Harris, a former California attorney general, San Francisco DA, and onetime colleague of Swalwell in the Alameda County DA’s Office. The four have become prominent leaders of the Trump Resistance.

“Being a former prosecutor is a huge advantage at this point,” said Ace Smith, a veteran California political consultant who has long advised Kamala Harris. “Especially since Trump might be tried in front of the U.S. Congress.”

Smith tells Democratic politicians that it’s impossible right now to be too critical of the president, particularly in California, where Trump and his agenda have record-low approval ratings. “Any politician who is cautious about going after Donald Trump is making a serious mistake,” he said. “It’s one of those rare instances where it’s both good policy and politics.”

Although Swalwell was among the first Democrats to start connecting the dots between Trump and Russia, he’s no political firebrand; he doesn’t hurl scorching one-liners à la Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles. Instead, during his cable news appearances and televised congressional hearings, Swalwell reverts to his calm, steady, folksy oratorical style, meticulously explaining the Russian collusion connections to viewers much like he used to do in criminal cases when talking to jurors.

“Being a former prosecutor has helped me in ways that I never imagined for this job,” Swalwell said during a July interview at Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland. “Piecing together a lot of different types of evidence and explaining it to jurors in a way that’s relatable.

“Prosecutors also have a sense of justice and ethics,” he continued. “We can also call ‘bullshit.’ We know what rings of truth.”

But Swalwell—a Democrat from an all-Republican family who often appears on Fox News because it’s the news channel his parents watch—is also quick to point out that he has no interest in rushing to judgment. “I want to be fair and not draw conclusions yet,” the 36-year-old said of the Trump-Russia criminal probe. “This could just be the worst case of campaign judgment we’ve ever seen.”

Eric Michael Swalwell inherited his sense of justice and ethics from his father, Eric Nelson Swalwell, an Alameda native. After the elder Swalwell retired from his post as an Alameda County sheriff’s deputy, he decided to move his family to the Midwest, taking a job as police chief in Algona, Iowa. Algona residents were hungry at the time for a tough law-and-order man, but they had never met a cop like Swalwell.

The new chief quickly drew ire from citizens and bar owners when he cracked down on drunken driving and scorn from City Hall when he refused to fix parking tickets for the mayor and his cronies, according to a copy of an early 1980s news article in the Des Moines Register that his son gave to the magazine.

Eventually, the town council fired Chief Swalwell, even though the local press portrayed him as a sort of anti-establishment hero who treated everyone equally under the law. “I remember him saying, ‘No one gets special treatment,’” the younger Swalwell said of his dad. “He was a stickler for the rules.”

After the family returned to the East Bay, Eric Michael caught the political bug at Dublin High School. His history teacher during his senior year was Tim Sbranti, who would later become the mayor of Dublin and a longtime friend and mentor. “It was clear from day one he was going places,” said Sbranti of the teenage Swalwell. “He’s a natural, thoughtful leader.”

Swalwell attended the University of Maryland, where he interned for then-East Bay Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher after 9/11 and worked in her office while she helped form the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. “That was a turning point for him,” said Sbranti, who, in a role reversal, now works for Swalwell as his deputy chief of staff and district director. “He really felt the calling.”

But the former cop’s son also felt a calling for the law, so he enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Law. He said one of his proudest moments was when he landed a law clerk’s job at the Alameda County DA’s Office.

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