Q&A with Norman Eisen ’91

On unexpected heroes, revenants, and being the ‘fun sponge’

An HLS education’s value for an author:

The Last Palace and the Next BattleOne of the things I first learned how to do at HLS was how to assimilate large amounts of evidence, gather them up, find the thread that runs through them and tell a story. My message to aspiring authors out there is, this is a good additional utilization of your legal training and career, to be able to assemble the materials and convey a sustained piece of narrative writing.

Now, I had to let go of my legal training to write the story in a way that was really convincing. When I wrote the first chapters, at one point, my editor said to me, “Norm, this is not a legal brief.” [But] another great thing HLS teaches us is adaptability. At some point in those first couple months, I sent in a batch of pages, and she wrote back, “You got it.” Whether you’re telling a story to a jury or in a book, storytelling is storytelling.

What surprised him most about Ambassador Shirley Temple Black:

I had no clue that Ambassador Black was anything like the hero, the genius of diplomacy, that she turned out to be. I didn’t fully appreciate, until I got a huge trove of hundreds of documents from her career declassified by the State Department, just how smart her personal guidance had been in helping the Czechs to peacefully end the Cold War. It really could have gone the other way.

The blood was spilled fresh on the pavement of Tiananmen Square when Prague happened, when Wenceslas Square happened. She really helped make sure that was a bloodless transition.

What he learned about his late mother while researching the book:

When I went out to document my mom’s stories, what I found was, they were corroborated, and she was incredibly accurate. She had always told me about how they all thought one of my uncles was dead after World War II—and he suddenly came back from the grave. She had been very specific. [It’s] an incredible story with some very specific details [and] you would have to wonder, honestly, after more than a half-century, could those details be accurately remembered? And I found documentation that proved it, that corroborated my mother’s exact recollection.

What his mother, who often warned him to “expect the worst,” would think of 2018:

My mother came to visit me one time, and we ended up bumping into a very prominent public intellectual here in D.C. who was arguing that the United States is special, that it’s insulated from the kinds of dislocations that so painfully overturned my mother’s life, as a survivor of both the Holocaust and Communism. My mother responded that that was naïve. “It can happen anywhere,” she said. She would be sorry to be right.

On his book’s message about this moment in the United States:

If you study the history of trans-Atlantic democracy over the past 100 years,
once [Woodrow] Wilson married American democracy to its European variants,
U.S. democracy became inextricably joined to that of Europe. We’ve never been able to isolate ourselves from what’s happening in Europe. We’re always drawn in. Here, the European illiberalism led by Putin has struck at us in a very profound way in the 2016 election attack. But every time, what’s happened is the defeat of the illiberal forces.

On the rise of authoritarian and illiberal governments and movements in Eastern Europe in 2018:

If you look at the lessons, not just of history, but political science, the structure of democracy, the evidence before our eyes now, this is not going to hold. The only question is how long? Hopefully, this will be a short counterattack. At times, as with Communism during the Cold War, it can be a very long counterattack. I’m hoping this will be a short one.

On meeting Barack Obama as an HLS classmate:

I met him when we were 1Ls in 1988. I’d been a civil rights organizer; he’d been a community organizer. We had a common friend, who had been a labor organizer, who introduced us.

On his work as President Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform:

I worked on the effort to make sure nobody in the Obama White House was subject to the kinds of investigations, prosecutions, convictions, guilty pleas that the people around President Trump have been afflicted with. President Obama has publicly revealed that my advice to him was, “If it’s fun, you can’t do it.” That led to one of my nicknames in the White House. They used to call me “Ethics Czar,” and “Mr. No,” and the “Fun Sponge.”

On his work suing President Trump over the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officials from taking payments or gifts from foreign governments:

I knew the emoluments law because I had to deal with those issues when I was working in the White House. As ethics czar, I had to pass on whether President Obama could accept the Nobel Prize. Was it an emolument or not? When President Trump announced he was going to keep his businesses, we were all stunned.

In Maryland federal court, we’ve won standing for our clients, the District of Columbia and Maryland. Lead counsel are the attorneys general of those two jurisdictions; CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics ] and I are co-counsel. We’re now driving toward discovery in the case. There’s no real question that Trump is violating the Constitution. So we’re going to prove that, and we’re going to endeavor to shut down his taking emoluments.

On debating Alan Dershowitz on CNN:

When I got my first criminal law job, my 1L summer, after finishing my first year, it was with Professor Alan Dershowitz. Among other things, I helped him on the Jonathan Pollard spy case. Alan used to say to me, “Norm, crime is like mother’s milk.” It’s true, and there’s a lot of it in the Trump administration in all of its different forms—at least, there are a lot of allegations. In a wonderful turn of events, I often debate Alan, who was my mentor in this work, but who I do not exactly see eye-to-eye with on Mr. Trump and his administration.