House Democrats can’t stop talking about impeaching Donald Trump, yet they blame everyone else for their predicament.
Democrats slam Trump as “lawless” and “a threat to democracy” in one breath, then in the next say they won’t impeach him and knock the media for asking about it. They’re infuriated when Trump refuses to comply with subpoenas, saying he’s trying to “goad” them into impeaching him, yet refuse to do anything more than file another lawsuit. And party leaders repeatedly insist Democrats can “walk and chew gum at the same time” — investigate Trump while pushing their own legislative agenda — but there hasn’t been much walking or chewing lately.
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“Because you’re really interested in it and it’s a really hot-button item, I think you tend to overplay the status in the caucus,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) complained to reporters Tuesday when asked about impeachment.
But 15 minutes later, in the very same press conference, Hoyer conceded the obvious – the debate over whether to impeach Trump now dominates all discussion within the House Democratic Caucus and on Capitol Hill.
“We’re all talking about this, just as you’re all talking about it,” Hoyer admitted.
This is their life right now, and Democrats haven’t found a way out of their dilemma.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks impeachment is a bad idea without any GOP support — of which there is almost none – but refuses to shut the door on it entirely, fearing it will alienate the party base if she does. Other Democratic leaders, such as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, suggest impeachment is inevitable one day only to back away the next. Democrats’ internal polling shows it’s not a hot topic for voters, yet for outside activists, it’s the only issue, one they believe will define the party for years to come.
Pelosi’s hold on her rank-and-file Democrats remains strong, and there’s no sign that the divide among Democrats has damaged her position internally. Yet more than one-quarter of her caucus – almost 60 members – publicly supports opening an impeachment inquiry on Trump. And that number is slowly growing.
The challenge for Pelosi now has become whether she can keep her members in line while Trump continues to all-but-dare her to impeach him, a move Republicans — and some Democrats — are convinced will benefit their party, maybe even leading the GOP back to the majority next year.
“It would be disastrous — and Speaker Pelosi has hit on this — if we proceed with impeachment and we fail in the Senate just as people are going to the polls,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “That will be a vindication of Trump and it will help him in the final election.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) agreed, saying, “From the endgame point of view, if we move forward and impeach [Trump] and the Senate does not find him guilty then, I think we’ve helped his ability to win in next year.”
Democratic leaders are doing all that they can to hold the Pelosi “investigate, not impeach” line, which is in fact contributing to the Democrats’ impeachment problem.
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, touted new polling during a leadership meeting Monday night showing Democrats still have a sizable lead on the generic ballot and voters care significantly more about health care and jobs than impeachment, according to several sources.
And Pelosi tried to ease simmering tensions within the caucus during a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, urging lawmakers to be respectful of their colleagues’ differing positions on the issue.
“While we may have our differences on the timing and how we deal with holding this president accountable for his, in my view, criminal violation of the Constitution,” Pelosi told members, “we should not question anybody’s insistence on honoring our oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Pelosi sent a letter to her members later in the day urging them to focus on a different issue — health care — and to plan events centered around the topic on Flag Day next weekend.
“To succeed, we need to be fully prepared by the end of this week for what will be happening on June 14 — which is Flag Day, a day where we talk about liberty and justice for all,” she wrote. “Access to health care is an important part of that freedom.”
“Impeachment is not on the table, impeachment is not off the table, because we’re in fact-gathering mode,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), also a member a member of the Judiciary Committee. “That’s why we’re going to continue to pursue our constitutional responsibilities and do it in a thoughtful and responsible fashion.”
“We’re at the beginning of the process, not the middle or the end,” Jeffries added, although he noted “the overwhelming majority of the caucus” aren’t calling for impeachment yet.
Democrats have passed several major messaging bills — including the Dream Act on Tuesday — but nothing that will be considered by the GOP-controlled Senate.
But the pro-impeachment faction inside the Democratic Caucus — which hails almost entirely from safe Democratic districts — has painted the decision in starkly moral terms, casting it as an enshrined duty to hold the president to account.
“It’s, I believe, completely unacceptable” not to impeach Trump, said Rep. Jared Huffman, who hails from a deep blue district in California. “I just can’t get my head around how anyone could argue that even in the face of compelling, impeachable offenses and overwhelming evidence … that we would decline to do our job.”
“I think there’s three different groups,” added Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “Those that want to impeach now; those that are willing to do an impeachment inquiry — that’s what we’re talking about, an impeachment inquiry — they just want to have a couple more things locked into place; and a small but not very vocal minority that says, ‘No impeachment ever.'”
Others in the caucus, meanwhile, are staring down the reality of what they see as a path to the minority.
“I’ve heard enough of Mueller,” Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who represents a Trump district, said of the former special counsel. “The point is, the Senate’s not going to take it up, so, what does it accomplish?”
Moderate freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who said he’s spoken with Democratic leaders about tamping down talk on impeachment, stressed that discussing impeachment is fine but shouldn’t dominate every conversation.
“We need people to say look, we got this thing over here, but it’s not the only thing by far,” Van Drew said. “We need to get work done.”
But with Pelosi purposefully refusing to extinguish the idea all together, the debate that is causing a considerable rift within the caucus is sure to linger throughout the summer.
Mueller’s appearance before the cameras last week garnered a few high-profile impeachment converts, although most House Democrats returned to Washington firmly entrenched in their previous positions.
“If I was in Trump’s situation, of course I would want impeachment because it plays right into my messaging frame,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who predicted more Democrats will join the push to oust Trump while also praising Pelosi’s decision not to impeach him. “It’s become the preoccupation of the [political] arena.”
Laura Barrón-López and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.