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Dem leaders fend off calls to impeach Trump
President Trump's performance this past week aside Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki sparked outrage among congressional Democrats in all ways but one: There's been no surge in support for impeachment.
Instead, Democratic leaders have tamped down the impeachment push in the name of political pragmatism, fending off - for now - an effort by animated caucus liberals to escalate their oust-Trump campaign following his broadly maligned joint press conference with Putin in the Finnish capital on Monday.
Not only is impeachment highly unlikely under a GOP-controlled Congress, the leaders argue, but it could undermine the chances of Democrats winning back the House in November, when they'll need to flip seats in conservative-leaning districts where voters may be put off by an aggressive offensive to topple the president.
"At this point in time it would be a distraction. There will be time for that," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, who had moments before told reporters on Tuesday that Trump's actions were "treasonous."
"We need to get through this election; we need to deal with the economic issues; we need to deal with the health-care issues of the American people," Hoyer said.
The post-summit debate has highlighted long-standing tensions between liberal impeachment champions giving voice to the Democrats' anti-Trump base and party leaders warning that future efforts to check the president will be lost if Republicans keep the Speaker's gavel next year.
The divide has been fueled by liberal outside groups wary that Democrats have been too soft on the bombastic president and are at risk of deflating their core supporters - an argument underlined by last month's stunning primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) to an unapologetic activist, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backs impeachment.
"Shouldn't we put our democracy before party?" asked Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who's calling for impeachment. "Shouldn't we put our country before machinations we have about how this could affect [elections?]"
In the eyes of Trump's sharpest liberal critics, the president's remarks in Helsinki - where he appeared to side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies regarding Moscow's interference in the 2016 elections - were a pivotal moment reinforcing their belief that Trump is simply unfit to hold the office. And several Democrats delivered fiery speeches on the House floor to rally support for their ongoing impeachment campaign.
"I rise today to say to my colleagues: We have to act," said Rep. Al Green (Texas), who endorsed an early impeachment resolution more than a year ago. "Yes, we can talk about all of the atrocities imposed upon our society by this president, but that is not enough. At some point, we have to act, and more and more people are starting to say what that action is."
Gutiérrez, who has endorsed a separate impeachment resolution sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), said he's looking for ways to expand that proposal to include Trump's "betrayal" in Helsinki.
"As a body, we must take action to relieve the president of his duties," Gutiérrez said.
The calls for removing Trump from office began even before the president was sworn in. They were lonely at first, but grew louder in subsequent months, particularly following Trump's equivocal response to August's deadly white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va., and again in January after the president debased Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as "shitholes."
There's now evidence that the Helsinki summit is another decisive moment in the recruitment efforts of impeachment enthusiasts.
Cohen said a number of congressional Democrats approached him this past week about endorsing his resolution, which accuses Trump of obstructing justice and profiting from the presidency, among other charges. Cohen predicted "three or four" lawmakers would add their names to the bill this month.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Texas Democrat running to unseat GOP Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), also said last week that he'd vote for impeachment if given the chance.
Still, the support has come in drips. Cohen's resolution, introduced in November, has 17 co-sponsors within the Democrats' liberal-heavy, 193-member caucus. Only one, Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), has added his name since Monday's Helsinki summit.
The tepid support is some indication that rank-and-file Democrats, despite their virtually unanimous misgivings with Trump, are heeding the call of party leaders to channel their frustrations into less aggressive strategies for confronting the White House.
The more tempered approach was on display last week, as Democrats sought to increase funding for election security, force votes rebuking Trump's performance in Helsinki and subpoena his interpreter from the one-on-one portion of his summit with Putin. Democrats also introduced a package of bills designed to check Russian aggression across the globe.
"In the Congress, we want to stay focused on honoring our oath of office to protect the and defend the Constitution and our country," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week, dismissing the impeachment effort. "That's our fight."
Gutiérrez said he "fully" understands the balance party leaders are seeking.
"Two opposing positions can live together in the same caucus," he said.
Still, impeachment supporters say they're not going away. Gutiérrez said he's huddling with like-minded liberals such as Cohen and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) with designs to make "a more robust public pronouncement" on the issue this week.
"We should be gathering more steam," he said. "I took an oath to defend this democracy. ... If we don't fulfill our oath, America's just going to go down the drain."
Waters, echoing that message, said Helsinki should be a tipping point to end all doubts about Trump's fitness to serve.
"He is dangerous and ... he is aligned with Putin and the Kremlin - for whatever reasons we don't know," she said. "I'm hopeful that this will be clearer to some folks who may have thought that some of us who were accusing him of all of these things were not just making it up."