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Impeachment debate moves to center of midterm fight
Impeachment has moved to the center of the midterm debate following the remarkable assertion from Michael Cohen that President Trump orchestrated illegal hush-money payments through his former personal attorney to silence two women ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
The developments are leading to a scramble by House Democratic leaders to tamp down talk of impeaching Trump, even as Republicans seek to make protecting Trump a bigger part of their own message heading into the midterm elections.
But liberals who have pressed for impeachment see Cohen's guilty plea on Tuesday as bolstering their case.
"It does cause the countdown to impeachment to accelerate," Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) said Wednesday by phone.
Green, the sponsor of impeachment articles accusing the president of inciting racial divisions, has already forced two floor votes on the issue over the past year. The first, in December, was supported by 58 Democrats.
The number rose to 66 in the second vote in January - a bump attributed to Trump's derogatory comments about "shithole countries" made just a week before.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), another impeachment supporter, is also viewing the week's news as a potential turning point in the debate.
"This is not a witch hunt or fake news," Waters said in a statement. "These are real charges of criminal behavior. These are based on real facts, real evidence, and real testimony, and in the final analysis, all of this will lead to real articles of impeachment."
Cohen told a U.S. District Court judge on Tuesday that he'd paid two women, one a porn actress and the second a former Playboy model, at Trump's direction "for the principal purpose of influencing the election."
The declaration has fueled liberal efforts to oust Trump, creating a new challenge for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders, who have been largely successful in beating back the impeachment push since Trump took office.
Democratic leaders have long worried that talk of impeachment could hurt their party's chances of winning back the House majority this fall, fearing it could cost them support from independents while risking a higher turnout among President Trump's supporters.
Seeking to nip the debate in the bud, Pelosi on Wednesday quickly asserted that impeaching the president is "not a priority" for Democrats, who are hoping to flip the 23 seats they'll need to retake the lower chamber.
Instead, she's urging patience while special counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference, including possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump team.
"It's not a priority on the agenda going forward unless something else comes forward," she told The Associated Press.
Separately, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) offered a similar approach during a television interview, stressing to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell that it was important to let Mueller's investigation proceed.
In case the message wasn't clear, Pelosi also issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to her troops a few hours after her remarks to the AP, urging them to stay laser focused on bread-and-butter issues like wages and health care.
Cohen's guilty plea, Pelosi wrote, "implicates President Trump in a federal crime and raises serious questions regarding the motive behind his continued attacks against the Department of Justice."
But the best strategy for Democrats is not calls for impeachment, she suggested, but pressuring GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to launch investigations of their own.
Heeding the call on Wednesday, a pair of powerful Pelosi allies - Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), senior Democratic on the House Judiciary Committee - did just that.
The entreaties are part of the Democrats' strategy to portray Republicans as so fearful of the president that they're neglecting their oversight responsibilities.
"Ultimately this is a question for Republicans - are you so petrified of the president, are you so petrified of the base that you're going to stand by for this?" Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. "This isn't really a question for Democrats."
Green is also urging Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to examine Cohen's assertions.
But absent that, Green warned, he's eying the opportunity to force more votes on his impeachment measure.
"I have no reservations about the effort to bring the articles to remove an unfit president from office," Green said.
He did not say when.
The push for impeachment has ebbed and flowed since Trump took office, gaining momentum after particularly controversial episodes - like Trump's equivocal response to last summer's violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Va. - only to fade when those headlines dwindle.
Impeachment proponents see Cohen's plea - combined with the almost simultaneous conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, on eight counts of financial fraud - as another pivotal moment in the drive to oust the president.
"Walking through my district, everyone is so taken aback," Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), an impeachment supporter, said Wednesday by phone.
"This is a Watergate moment."
Espaillat is one of 18 Democrats who have endorsed a resolution, sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), seeking to impeach Trump on five separate grounds, including obstruction of justice and eroding press freedoms.
Espaillat said the bill's supporters will "regroup" when Congress returns to Washington next month to determine whether Michael Cohen's claims warrant a sixth article.
"This, obviously, has lots of traction in the district and on the ground," he said. "There's greater appetite in the population for this to occur."
But Democrats remain deeply divided when it comes to impeachment, especially in light of the upcoming midterms.
Multiple Democratic officials and operatives said that pushing impeachment would be particularly risky in Senate elections. Democrats are defending more than two dozen seats in 2018, including many in states that Trump won in 2016.
One Democratic official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy candidly, acknowledged that the party had no immediate plans to make impeachment a central part of its midterm strategy.
But the official held out the possibility that it could become a more prominent issue down the road.
"It may be that we address this obliquely; it may be that we address this directly at some point," the official said. "It sure as shit isn't bad for us."
Instead, Democrats are seeking to keep a focus on government accountability, more broadly. That includes a push to protect Mueller's investigation from potential interference by the White House.
One strategist working on House races waved off the notion that Democrats could face pressure to take a more aggressive stance on impeachment, arguing that candidates in swing districts simply aren't talking about the issue.
Ultimately, the strategist said, it would be up to Republicans to address the controversies mounting around the president.
"This is a cloud hanging over their heads and Republicans are forced to talk about this while Democrats talk about healthcare, taxes, protecting Social Security and Medicare," the strategist said in an email.
It was a view shared by Juanita Tolliver, the director of campaigns at the Center for American Progress, who said that the path to impeachment is "clear," but also argued that the ball is in the GOP's court.
"Honestly, I don't think it's going to fall to Democratic challengers once they take the House, but it's really on congressional Republicans right now, who are in those seats who have the opportunity right now to hold the president accountable, and really name and pin down this culture of corruption that he's perpetuating," she said in an interview with Hill.TV's Krystal Ball and Buck Sexton on "Rising."
Spokespeople for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP's Senate campaign arm, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, its House campaign arm, did not respond to The Hill's requests for comment.
For now, the divergent views among Democrats about how to handle any potential impeachment of Trump will likely continue.
Need to Impeach, the campaign launched by Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer to push for Trump's removal from office, is working on a new television ad as it seeks to seize on the news of Cohen's guilty plea.
Kevin Mack, the group's lead strategist, said Wednesday that by ignoring the issue of impeachment, Democrats are leaving the issues that their voter base cares about off the table.
"All of this is going to get worse over the next couple months," Mack told The Hill. "Impeachment is an unavoidable topic at this point. It's being discussed openly everywhere, so it's not something they can avoid talking about."