Tom Steyer was sitting on a plane waiting to take off from SFO to LAX last week when he got a text: The president had just tweeted about him.

For most people, having Donald Trump call them out on Twitter as “wacky & totally unhinged” — as the president did of Steyer — isn’t exactly a good way to start your day.

But for Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund chief and philanthropist running an $11 million ad campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment, that tweet was more than welcome — introducing him and his movement to the president’s 41 million followers.

“I think it was a kind of defensive reaction from a guy who under the surface knows he’s doing a terrible job,” Steyer said in an interview on Wednesday.

Steyer’s campaign has gathered steam: In 14 days, his petition calling for Trump’s impeachment has gathered more than 1.4 million signatures. His 60-second ad — which is playing nationwide on TV and online — argues that Trump has “obstructed justice” and “brought us to the brink of nuclear war,” as video rolls of North Korean President Kim Jong-un. It has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times on YouTube and 474,000 times on Facebook.

The campaign also drastically raises Steyer’s profile just as he’s considering challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein in next year’s election.

Some observers see his efforts more as self-promotion than anything else. Three-fourths of the ad features a denim-clad Steyer staring directly into the camera, with on-screen text introducing him as an “American Citizen.”

But Steyer insists that the campaign is “not about me.”

“I’m just the vehicle,” he said. “The American people are very scared by the behavior of this president.”

It was no coincidence that the ad was shown on “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite TV show — it’s aimed at reaching more than just the liberal faithful who already believe Trump should be kicked out of the Oval Office, Steyer said.

When the ad came on during several World Series games over the last week, Twitter lit up with people asking, basically, who the hell is Tom Steyer?

At the same time, popular support for impeachment is growing. A poll released Tuesday from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that 49 percent of Americans support impeaching Trump, a record high. Interviews were conducted before the indictments of several Trump campaign officials on Monday.

The impeachment debate is politically beneficial for both Trump and Steyer, said Dan Schnur, a former political strategist in California.

“Both of them can use this debate to get their respective bases excited,” Schnur said. “If Steyer does decide to run for Senate, this can’t help but help, but even if he decides not to run, it serves to elevate his stature within party ranks.”

Steyer, who lives in San Francisco, worked at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs before founding his own hedge fund. He stepped down from his company in 2012 to focus on politics and philanthropy, advocating for green energy and climate change policies. He is one of the top Democratic donors in the country, giving $91 million to the party’s candidates during the 2016 elections.

Michael Ahrens, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, called Steyer’s impeachment campaign a “baseless radical effort” by Democrats “to appease the far left and their liberal mega-donors.”

A handful of members of Congress, including Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, have tried to push forward articles of impeachment against Trump, but found little traction so far. Several other California House members, such as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, have already called for Trump to be removed from office through the 25th Amendment, a separate process that would have to be initiated by the president’s Cabinet.

Sherman emphasized in an interview that advocating for impeachment was a long-term strategy, and said just talking about impeaching Trump has helped constrain the president’s actions. He said Steyer’s campaign could be a powerful tool — especially if Steyer uses his 1.4 million-person list as the base of a larger movement, instead of just collecting their signatures.

“You gotta hand it to Tom, he moves big and quick,” Sherman said. “It’s nice to be a billionaire.”

Some Congressional Democrats worry that spending time on the question of impeachment takes away from their party’s larger economic message. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has told her caucus that Steyer’s ad campaign is a distraction, Politico reported Wednesday.

Steyer said he wants to marshal support for impeachment among the broader public, not just members of Congress — most of whom, he says, are too scared to come out and back impeachment even if they personally believe Trump should be removed from office.

“We’re not going to go to the elected officials who feel politically hamstrung from telling the truth about this,” Steyer said. “We’re going directly to the American people.”

While outside groups advocated for Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the ’90s, there hasn’t been a national pro-impeachment ad campaign of this scale, said Mark Tushnet, a political science professor at Harvard.

Trump’s tweet about Steyer “has a sort of amplifying effect,” Tushnet said.

Meanwhile, Steyer’s focus on impeachment also helps him draw a contrast with Feinstein, who has dismissed talk of impeaching Trump in the past. At a San Francisco event in August, she said that “this man is going to be president, most likely for the rest of this term,” eliciting boos from the crowd.

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is already running against Feinstein, has said that he believes Trump should be impeached. In addition to Steyer, Los Angeles entrepreneur Joe Sanberg and news show host Cenk Uygur are also considering jumping in the race.

Steyer said he has no “drop-dead date” for deciding whether or not to run, and he’s focused on the impeachment campaign instead of the Senate race.

“Someone has got to push on this,” he said, “and nobody else seems to want to push as hard as we do.”

Source: Casey Tolan,