SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. – Rep. Susan Wild, a freshman Democrat elected to a blue-tinted swing seat representing the Lehigh Valley, knew the question was coming.
“Congresswoman, why have you not come out for impeachment?” the president of a local community college, serving as the event’s moderator, asked Wild.
“Any of you who ever heard me on the campaign trail heard me say I’m not going to jump on a bandwagon on any issue,” Wild told the crowd of about 200, before citing her 30-year career as a litigator. “You don’t want to try a case where the facts are not all lined up and you’re ready with all of your evidence that you’re going to introduce. I don’t believe we are there at this point in time.”
Her answer, which she had given before, was met with a smattering of light applause.
Similar scenes have played out across the United States during the August congressional recess. A coalition of progressive groups kicked off Congress’ month-long break by promising an “Impeachment August,” aiming to break through Democratic congressional leadership’s refusal to start the process of removing President Donald Trump from office. Their position ― that Trump’s behavior, outlined in the public eye and the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is equal to obstruction of justice or worse, and that he should be removed from office ― has the backing of a majority of the House Democratic Caucus, and most of the leading 2020 presidential contenders.
As Congress prepares to return to Washington and legislative work this month, they’ve made some progress ― 23 additional House Democrats have come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry since the start of recess ― but the type of groundswell necessary to put impeaching the president at the top of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda has proved elusive. (In total, 134 House Democrats, plus Republican-turned-independent Justin Amash, support starting the impeachment process Trump, according to HuffPost’s tally.)
Some of those members who have newly embraced impeachment, like Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood, come from House Democrats’ vaunted freshman class, and are the Republican targets who moderate Democrats claim would face political danger in 2020 if impeachment went forward. (Underwood and New Hampshire Rep. Chris Pappas are the only two Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2016 who support launching a formal impeachment probe.)
Another member, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, is the highest-ranking member of the House to support the effort. (Lujan, the assistant speaker, is fourth in Democratic leadership.) Others, including Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin and Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, specifically said they were supporting impeachment because their constituents wanted it.
“You’re starting to see people who are a little more cautious, a little more moderate, and I think that’s a bit of a breakthrough for this movement,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, the director of democracy policy at Indivisible, one of the groups behind “Impeachment August.”
Even if activists weren’t able to convince their representatives to back impeachment, just showing up at town halls counts as a victory, Hatcher-Mays said: “Being there at all is the most important thing, because that eliminates the excuse that ‘I’m not hearing from my constituents on this’ or ‘this isn’t important to my district.’”
But there are still plenty of members, like Wild, who are resisting a call for impeachment ― and only facing minimal blowback from voters so far. Maine Rep. Jared Golden, a freshman elected to a rural district in Maine won by President Trump, told a local paper that he held a town hall where no one asked about impeachment, which he called a type of “BS that I think drives the silent majority of Americans absolutely insane.”
Wild wasn’t quite as caustic about impeachment supporters, and acknowledged she received frequent calls and emails pushing her in that direction. But she said she’s typically able to satiate impeachment backers with her answer.
“Usually, I get very positive responses when I answer exactly the way I did, which is, ‘You know, I don’t think we’ve got the facts lined up, I don’t think the evidence is there,’” she said. “If we’re going to go through this process, we have to have enough facts and evidence that we at least convince the court of public opinion that the impeachment route was the right way to go. I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Wild could, in theory, more easily come out for impeachment than many other freshman members. While her seat is not entirely safe, she won her 2018 race by 10 percentage points and has embraced other progressive priorities — like “Medicare for All” — but has so far declined to back impeachment.
A Monmouth University poll conducted during recess backs up much of Wild’s read on the situation. While Trump remains broadly unpopular ― just 40 percent of American adults approve of his job performance ― there’s little evidence of popular demand for impeachment. Just 35 percent of Americans say he should be “impeached and compelled to leave the presidency,” compared to 59 percent who think he should not. Those numbers indicate a dip in support for impeachment since March, when 42 percent said he should be impeachment and forced to leave office, and 54 percent said he shouldn’t.
And while both progressives and Republicans have suggested moderate Democrats could face electoral peril depending on their stance on ousting Trump, the same poll also showed a plurality of registered voters said how their member of Congress voted on impeachment would have no impact on whether or not they would back that member in 2020.
Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig, another freshly elected Democrat, held a town hall in a high school lecture hall in Lakeville, a suburb some 30 miles south of Minneapolis. She said she was “incredibly concerned about the obstruction of justice detailed in the Mueller report,” but still wanted to see more information.
“I want to reserve the right to calmly and dispassionately look at all of the information and if someone asks me to take a vote, then I’ll take a vote,” Craig told HuffPost. “But I think my district is best served by remaining focused on health care, infrastructure, helping our family farmers and advocating for special ed.” (Wild similarly told her constituents she was focused on “what some people would call more mundane issues.”)
Still, some attendees of Craig’s town hall were hopeful they could persuade the congresswoman, who defeated Republican Jason Lewis, a frequently controversial former radio host, in 2018 after losing to him two years earlier.
“This is part of what I was afraid of ― that she would try and be more centrist than I like,” said Laura Morton, a physical therapist who questioned Craig on impeachment during the town hall. Morton said she voted for Craig in the general election after backing a more progressive candidate in the Democratic primary. “I’d like her to be more public and more vocal and take a stand in support of a formal impeachment inquiry that would lead to televised hearings.”
Rep. Andy Kim, who won a district covering a broad swath of southern New Jersey by just 4,000 votes, held a town hall the day after Wild and Craig held theirs. In a middle school auditorium, the only signs of the divisions and buzzwords shaping national politics were a row of single-payer health care activists holding “Fight to Win Medicare for All” placards and a man wearing a red “Make America Great Again” baseball hat.
That was all right with Kim, a former Obama administration national security official who said his constituents in the South Jersey swing seat are frustrated as much by partisan gridlock as advancing any particular legislative priority. The town hall was dominated by discussion of decommissioning the town’s Oyster Creek nuclear energy plant, and impeachment never came up.
“A huge part of this district on both sides of the aisle, they want adults back in the room who can talk to each other and deal with issues of people’s daily lives and understand full well that they’ll leave that room without 100 percent of what they wanted going in,” Kim told reporters after the town hall. “It’s more the atmosphere in Washington, the lack of progress, the fact that they just can’t depend on anything getting done.”
Hayley Miller, Daniel Marans and Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.