As of this week, there are 76 Democrats calling to at least open an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. Impeachment looks to be getting more popular, particularly among Democratic voters. But don’t tell that to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders. They continue to tamp down impeachment fever as best they can while calling for more investigations that have thus far been fruitless.
Two months after the release of the Mueller report, Democrats are still trying to get the Trump administration to comply with its most basic subpoenas. Lawmakers haven’t heard testimony from a number of material witnesses involved in the potential crimes outlined in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, let alone the people involved with releasing the report. And Democratic leadership is advocating to stay the course.
On Tuesday, leaders held a closed-door meeting with Democrats and presented them polling from 50 battleground districts intended to underscore the potential peril in backing impeachment.
“For members that are looking to be cautious, certainly you’re going to find that in any kind of polling like that,” one Democratic member, granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting, told HuffPost. But this member added that, for the representatives who are looking to craft a message around “aggressive oversight and accountability,” there was evidence that voters even in those moderate districts also support that.
“Members will see in it what they want to see,” this lawmaker predicted.
For Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the polling underscored the importance of Democrats framing the investigations as more than just an attempt to “get” Trump.
“We needed to make sure that we talked about the investigations in a way that reflected our interest in national security, not just going after Donald Trump,” Yarmuth said.
But all of this polling misses how Democrats have contributed to the landscape. The immediate reaction from most elected Democrats after the Mueller report was released was a shrug, even though it detailed repeated efforts to obstruct justice. Most Democratic lawmakers said they wanted to continue investigating the president, which was tantamount to saying they hadn’t yet seen enough to warrant impeachment.
“The numbers for an impeachment inquiry would be much higher had we been more forceful in our messaging immediately after the Mueller report,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.
Huffman has been supportive of impeaching Trump for more than a year. And, although he has generally avoided criticizing Democratic leaders’ Trump strategy, he said Tuesday that one of the reasons more members keep coming out in support of an impeachment inquiry is the recognition that “the ordinary course of oversight is not getting this done.”
“We’re not getting anywhere,” Huffman said. “And we’re certainly not getting there fast enough. It’s frustrating.”
Time and again Tuesday, Democratic members seemed to acknowledge that Democrats were coming around to opening an impeachment inquiry in the face of more obstruction from the Trump administration.
“The numbers keep growing,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-Mo.), who came out in favor of launching impeachment proceedings last week. “They are not half of the caucus yet, but it is predictable that they will get to that point, and then that would ― I would think ― force the leadership to look at it in a different way.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who hasn’t yet endorsed impeachment, described it as almost inevitable.
“It’s a dam that could break at any minute,” Connolly said, describing Pelosi as the person plugging the hole. “We are one major explosive piece of testimony or evidence away from that dam breaking.”
The problem with that approach is that new evidence isn’t coming out quickly. Democrats are fast approaching a point in the election season where the pressure to “impeach Trump at the ballot box,” in the words of those who seem to write messaging for Democrats, will be overwhelming.
Even when new information does come out, such as Trump allegedly raping a journalist in the 1990s, the president and other Republicans reflexively dismiss it. Democrats consistently undersell the seriousness of allegations against Trump, and they’re quick to move on to the next crisis.
An irony of Democrats controlling the House is that Democrats may be more careful about coming out for impeachment, considering they now control what gets a vote.
“There is a recognition now that we are going to have to live with the consequences of whatever course we set here as the majority party,” Huffman said.
When we asked Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) where Democrats would be on impeachment if Republican Paul Ryan were still speaker, he was adamant that Democrats were much further along on opening an inquiry because they had the majority.
“No. 1, we’re actually using subpoena power, we’re actually having oversight, we’re actually trying to get information that we weren’t able to get when Paul Ryan was speaker,” Gallego said.
He said that the Intelligence Committee has more access to information now that Ryan isn’t assisting in former Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’ “cover-up.”
“I mean, Paul Ryan is probably the most gutless speaker of the House that we ever had in the history of the United States,” Gallego said.
“We’re not getting anywhere.”
As for himself, Gallego said he intended to make a decision about supporting an impeachment inquiry in the next couple of days, once he learns whether Mueller intends to testify.
“This is the first time that we actually have an administration that’s just outright neglectful of their responsibilities,” he said. “So I think ... this is new territory that a lot of us never thought we’d have to deal with.”
Democrats have struggled with compelling Trump administration officials to comply with subpoenas, and even though they’ve floated fining individuals or even jailing them under the “inherent contempt” powers of Congress, leadership and committee chairs have mostly looked to the courts ― a potentially long process that, again, may never bear fruit.
But that may be the point.
Public polling on impeachment suggests Democratic and independent voters may be gravitating toward impeachment, but support varies significantly depending on how the question is asked. When a survey gives voters a choice between impeachment or nothing, they may be more likely to favor impeachment. But if pollsters give the additional option of more investigations, a significant number select that option.
Launching an impeachment inquiry ― instead of just going straight to an impeachment vote ― could give Democrats the kind of flexibility that some voters seem to favor. It could be a middle-of-the-road approach that may ultimately lead nowhere. And several Democratic lawmakers like that idea.
“From there we could decide to file articles of impeachment against the president, we could decide not to, we could move to a censure. There are a lot of different things we can do,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former constitutional law professor who supports impeachment. “So launching an impeachment inquiry doesn’t put us on a path to one necessary destination.”
An impeachment inquiry would “allow for an airing of a lot of the facts that have been sort of buried in page 400 of the Mueller report or elsewhere,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a moderate Democrat who came out in favor of an impeachment inquiry this week.
“Some people think it’s a hoax, and there’s a lot of people in the middle who I think are confused about it, which is why I think an impeachment inquiry, which would be a very public treatment of the facts, would be a good thing,” Himes said.
Again, opening an inquiry may not lead to an impeachment vote in the House. But it would draw more attention to Trump’s actions.
With the current investigations seeming to go nowhere and more members coming out in support of an inquiry, it may ultimately be difficult for leaders to hold off on an inquiry. They certainly seem willing to try, however.
Pelosi told reporters last week that support for impeachment would have to “run deep,” among Democrats and Republicans, for her to support opening an inquiry.
“I don’t think you should have an inquiry unless you’re ready to impeach,” she said.
“I feel no pressure from my members to do anything. And I have no pressure on them to do anything,” Pelosi added.