Democrats in House wrestle with impeachment question

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WASHINGTON — For two House Democrats from different backgrounds, the searing debate over whether to impeach President Donald Trump prompted an identical question: What about my grandkids?

Rep. Daniel Kildee, who represents a blue-collar Michigan district that Trump nearly won in 2016, calls it the “Caitlin and Colin rule.” What, in a decade or more, would they read in their history books?

“There’s going to come a day when we all have to answer for what we did in this moment,” Kildee said, explaining his support for impeachment.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Methodist minister, former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, worried about a divisive president using the proceedings to further split the country — perhaps irreparably — and reached the opposite conclusion.

“That’s not healthy for my little 3-year-old grandson,” he said. “I would like to be able to say that I stood for maintaining the unity of the country.”

The debate over whether to impeach Trump, and thereby invoke one of the most solemn constitutional powers afforded to Congress, has placed House Democrats at the center of a visceral and highly charged fight that has quickly transcended traditional political alliances and calculations.

It is testing long-standing friendships, fueling emotional debates with family members and forcing lawmakers to navigate unfamiliar and competing forces. Many feel caught between party leaders fearful that impeachment will spark a political backlash and a growing sense that history will judge harshly those who chose not to act in the face of a norm-smashing president many Democrats believe has abused his power and broken the law.

This account of the unfolding drama among the rank and file of the House’s majority party is based on interviews over with past week with 45 Democrats spanning the caucus’ ideological, racial and generational divides. The conversations revealed the intense and highly personal nature of the debate taking place among members, often in private, and how some members were responding in surprising ways.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, considered the conscience of Congress for his history-making stand during the civil rights era, said he has made a decision but won’t reveal it out of respect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, D-Palmdale, is drowning in calls urging her to press for impeachment, even while representing a Republican-leaning district that is home to the Ronald Reagan library. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Florida, who served in the Clinton administration during the 1998 impeachment, has cautioned her fellow freshmen about rushing toward a decision based on politics.

The Democrats can be broken down largely into three categories.

There are the waverers — torn between leadership that opposes impeachment and a fiery base that demands it. There are the skeptics, echoing Pelosi’s fear that impeachment would only make way for a Senate acquittal and a political triumph for Trump. And there are the die-hards determined to press for the ouster of a president they consider a singular threat to the republic.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, a freshman representing a heavily Democratic border district, is emblematic of the personal and political struggle facing each member of the caucus.

“I am terrified of another four years of Donald Trump,” Escobar said. “But I cannot ignore the oath that I took to uphold the Constitution and to defend our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Nearly three weeks ago, Hill said she was “on the verge” of calling for impeachment after the White House blocked former counsel Donald McGahn, a star witness in Robert Mueller III’s report, from testifying to Congress. Infuriated by Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with investigations, a growing number of House Judiciary Committee members had become more vocal in calling for an impeachment inquiry. Hill said she “was hitting a point where I felt like, ‘How can we not?’ ”

During a private meeting, the freshman from a GOP-leaning district told her colleagues that she was willing to lose her seat if impeachment were the right thing to do. She then hesitated when a federal court ruled in favor of the Democrats over access to the president’s financial records, with Pelosi arguing that the victory proved the methodical approach was working and Democrats would ultimately be vindicated by the judiciary.

“That made me feel like the process that we’re taking now is one we need to go through and exhaust … before we end up taking the next step,” Hill said.

Dozens of lawmakers like Hill have found themselves torn between their constituents - and often, their own feelings — and leadership’s resistance. Hill said phone calls to her office favor impeachment by a 20-to-1 margin.

“We’ve been talking to everybody about, ‘What are you thinking on this?’ and just processing it, dealing with the personal struggle of: What’s our obligation?” Hill said.

But even Hill’s careful wording has prompted pushback from her party. After Hill appeared on CNN earlier last month and said her “red line” on impeachment was Trump defying a court order to comply with congressional investigations, her office got a call from a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee official, who cautioned her staff about Hill speaking in such definitive terms, according to an individual familiar with the warning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the conversation.

Mueller’s statement last month on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has pushed many lawmakers closer toward supporting impeachment. The former special counsel said his office could neither clear nor accuse Trump of obstructing his investigation, citing a long-standing Justice Department opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Since then, freshman Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Connecticut, said she has noticed an increase in the volume and intensity of pro-impeachment calls and emails to her office.

“There are many people who said, six months ago, ‘It’s harmful to the country.’ And today they’re saying, ‘It’s harmful to the country but for a very different reason.’ So there definitely is momentum,” said Hayes, who added: “We have to do something. I don’t know what that something is.”

Grappling with what to do, freshman Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, has reached out to pro-impeachment Judiciary Committee members to ask whether an inquiry would actually help Democrats obtain documents and testimony they have sought through the courts. Levin huddled with Kildee and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, a Judiciary panel member and former constitutional law professor, on the House floor last month, and Raskin told him impeachment would speed the process.

“Ultimately if (Judiciary members) believe that that’s what they need in order to most effectively conduct the investigations, then I would support that decision,” Levin said.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, is moving in the opposite direction. Even though Hillary Clinton carried his district with 84 percent of the vote and he voted for impeachment articles in the last Congress, he isn’t certain he would do the same now.

“It has to be ironclad, and it has to be a mountain of evidence,” said Gomez, who favors launching an inquiry. “It’s too serious of a step, and it can’t be done willy-nilly just because people want it.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, who was first elected in 1998 and hails from a liberal district, is balancing a pro-impeachment constituency with her longtime loyalty to Pelosi.

Pro-impeachment calls to her Washington office spiked from 130 the last week of May to more than 160 the first week of June, Schakowsky said. And during a recent meeting with senior Democrats, Schakowsky challenged Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, head of the campaign committee, and her claim that voters don’t seem to care about impeachment.

But while she has “absolutely no doubt that (Trump) has committed high crimes and misdemeanors,” Schakowsky said she is not there yet. “I think there may be just a bit more that we can do to make sure that we are traveling with the American people to that destination.”

What weighs on the minds of impeachment skeptics is a nightmare scenario: Democrats hurtle forward, launching a process that galvanizes their own party but otherwise does little to move public opinion. Party leaders are compelled to bring articles of impeachment, only to see the Senate swiftly reject them just months ahead of the 2020 election.

Trump, buoyed by the failed impeachment, rallies his conservative base and persuades enough independent voters to hand him a second term - and, with it, four more years of judicial nominations, regulatory rollbacks and other unilateral moves that a freshly neutered Congress would be hard-pressed to resist.

“Everybody should consider the end game,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-New York, an eight-term veteran wrangling with whether to support an impeachment inquiry. “Exoneration by the Senate is a huge victory, and you have to take that into consideration.”

Multiple Democrats said they find bracing lessons, or at least food for thought, in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. As House Republicans launched a breakneck process after the summer release of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report, the GOP raced toward impeachment, public opinion stayed with Clinton, and Democrats scored rare midterm gains.

After a Senate acquittal, Clinton emerged with some of his highest approval ratings.

Shalala, who served as Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary, said she has told fellow freshmen that if the decision is based on politics “that we are just going to be wrong, and the American people are smart enough to figure that out.”

Dozens of Democrats said similarly they were trying to set aside political considerations. Still, those lawmakers have ended up on all sides of the debate.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who has urged colleagues in private meetings to move with caution, said it has been difficult for Democrats to cast aside politics when a growing number of the party’s 20-odd presidential candidates have already come out in support of impeachment.

That contest to win the hearts and minds of party regulars is playing out in a largely separate universe from House Democrats, 31 of whom represent districts that Trump won in 2016.

“This has got to be seen as on the level,” Welch said. “They want to get the nomination, so they’re appealing to the base. Whatever we do has to be credible beyond the Democratic base.”

To many lawmakers, no single person will have more bearing on how things proceed than Mueller, who is so far resisting Democrats’ wishes to make him the star witness of a must-see televised hearing.

Others are thinking about process, not personalities — a point of view that many in the party leadership are avidly promoting. Gather facts, subpoena documents, win in court, and the impeachment question will answer itself, many Democrats insist — particularly the corps of new lawmakers who ousted Republicans to hand their party their majority.

“I’m thinking about the next 50 years,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a freshman representing the northern New Jersey suburbs. “As we look back on this process, are we doing the very best for the country? Are we making sure that the steps that we’re taking now are going to leave our democratic institutions in the best possible place?”

The most staunch anti-Trump Democrats are ready to charge into the impeachment battle, almost all fully cognizant that it might not make the most political sense and the odds are stacked heavily against their actually ousting the president.

But they are facing history’s judgment.

“It will probably fire up his base. And they’ll feel like he’s being victimized, especially if we cannot complete the whole process,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, an 18-year veteran from a district around St. Louis. He cannot sit by and watch Trump anymore. “It’s gotten to the point where we have to do something.”

On multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018, Trump threatened to interfere in the licensing deals for media companies he thought were not covering him fairly.

“The fact that he was willing to use an arm of the government to censor media to me was clearly an impeachable offense and an abuse of power,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, a former newspaper publisher in Louisville.

These members are part of a corps of Democratic early believers who say that Trump’s presidency poses an existential threat to the nation and that the party should look for ways to remove him from office at the earliest possible moment. They forced a vote in late 2017 on a resolution to impeach Trump over racially tinged remarks he made in the wake of the neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier that year, as well as several other actions, and 58 Democrats voted for the measure.

But several dozen of those Democrats were basically venting their anger, a free vote to protest Trump’s actions without actually beginning impeachment.

The issue took on real meaning with Democrats winning the House majority and the release of the Mueller report. The tide turned with the former special counsel’s 10-minute summation in late May.

More than a half dozen Democrats broke against Pelosi’s position in the past few weeks, many usually loyal to the woman who has led their caucus for 16½ years — Democrats like Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Back home in Mississippi for the Memorial Day recess, Thompson found everyone asking about Mueller’s findings.

“That’s all they were talking about in the barbershop,” he said, prompting him to publicly join the impeachment converts.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, a former CBC chairman, reached the same conclusion. “History is going to ask, ‘What were we doing when all of these things were going on?’ And I don’t want to be judged in history asleep at the wheel,” Richmond said.

In Philadelphia, Rep. Brendan Boyle, the son of an Irish immigrant father, said the “final straw” came watching Mueller on TV describing the report and, as Boyle saw it, making clear Trump would have been indicted if he were not the sitting president.

About 50 miles west of Boston, Rep. Jim McGovern’s mother spent two years badgering him with the same questions: “Have you gotten rid of him yet? Is he out of office yet?”

As chairman of the Rules Committee, McGovern is Pelosi’s handpicked parliamentary expert, a loyal lieutenant who executes her game plan on every key piece of legislation that reaches the House floor. McGovern said it was the “culmination of things” that left him unable to hold back. He announced his support for impeachment a day after Mueller spoke at the Justice Department.

“My mother is now happier with me than she’s been in the last two years,” he said.

These Democrats are grappling over which precedent would be worse: Not launching impeachment might signal to future presidents that such behavior will not result in any investigation, while an impeachment that ends in a deadlocked Senate might set a precedent that Trump’s behavior should not be considered worthy of removal.

“So I actually see risk either way you go,” Boyle said.

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