Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment

Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment
© Greg Nash

Democratic leaders are racing to keep the impeachment genie in its bottle.

The release of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE’s mammoth report on Russia’s 2016 election meddling revealed a trove of details related to President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE’s handling of the investigation, lending a new boost to the small but vocal group of Democrats pushing to oust the president — and creating new challenges for party leaders advocating a more deliberative approach.   

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In a conference call with House Democrats on Monday, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUSMCA is nice but no model Anti-impeachment Democrat poised to switch parties Grassley urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks MORE (D-Calif.) and other party leaders sought to rein in the impeachment camp, warning that a rush toward ousting the president before pinpointing criminal wrongdoing — and securing some Republican support —  could harm the party at the polls next year.

“We need to hear from [Attorney General William] Barr and Mueller. And we need to see the unreacted report and the documents [that] go with it,” said House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCongressional investigation finds Coast Guard leadership fell short on handling bullying Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list Impeachment can't wait MORE (D-Md.), according to a source on the call. “We cannot allow this president to continue going down this course.”

But Democratic lawmakers on the call questioned that approach, arguing there’s plenty of evidence already to launch the impeachment process.

“I think we have great evidence that the president has blatantly violated so many laws. It’s just ridiculous,” Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsHouse Democrat calls on McConnell to recuse himself from impeachment trial Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers Impeachment inquiry enters critical new phase MORE (D-Fla.), a House Judiciary Committee member who hasn’t previously been vocal about impeachment, said during the call.

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“I think we have enough” to move forward with impeachment, Demings added, according to a source on the call.

Six key committee leaders briefed Democrats on their oversight efforts, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerJudiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers MORE (D-N.Y.), who issued a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn just as the call began.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersSupreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records Trump tweet mocking Greta Thunberg sparks backlash Melania Trump's 'Be Best' hashtag trends after president goes after Greta Thunberg MORE (D-Calif.) stood out, however, for making clear that she remains in favor of impeachment as her panel continues its investigations.

“Everybody knows I’m for impeachment,” Waters said, according to a source on the call.

The mobilizing call highlights the balancing act Democratic leaders and committee heads are attempting to manage in the wake of the report’s release. On one hand, they’re vowing an aggressive oversight regime that essential takes the investigate baton from Mueller to launch their own probes on Capitol Hill. On the other, they don’t want to be portrayed as conducting a purely partisan attack on the president, which could energize the Republican base heading into the 2020 cycle.

“We’re moving forward with hearings on what’s in the Mueller Report, just not formal ‘impeachment’ hearings. I think it’s a sensible middle option,” said a Democratic lawmaker on the call.

“I also think when Mueller testifies it will be the biggest event to date in all of this, even more so than Comey,” the lawmaker added, referring to former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeySunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — Judiciary Democrats approve articles of impeachment setting up House vote next week Huckabee teases Hannity appearance, says he'll explain why Trump is eligible for third term MORE, whose firing by Trump was one of the central elements of Mueller’s investigation into potential obstruction of justice.  

Pelosi stressed to Democrats that they should focus on their investigations before considering impeachment.

“We don't have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts,” Pelosi said, according to a person on the call.

“If it is what we need to do to honor our responsibility to the Constitution - if that's the place the facts take us, that's the place we have to go,” Pelosi said on the call, which lasted about 90 minutes.

Shortly before the call, Pelosi issued a letter to her troops, acknowledging the internal divisions over how to respond to Mueller’s findings while gently suggesting the appropriate avenue is vigilant oversight, not a rush to impeachment.

“While our views range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment, we all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth,” Pelosi wrote. “It is also important to know that the facts regarding holding the President accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings.”

Pelosi’s message on the call bore echoes of that message, according to several lawmakers who participated.

"The bottom line message is: proceed with caution, but proceed,” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyTrump abandons plan to dissolve Office of Personnel Management: report Democrats debate scope of impeachment charges House Democrats rebuke State Department for 'reversal' on Israeli settlements MORE (D-Va.) said after the call. “I think her view is: Why do we have to invoke the ‘I’ word when we have all these investigations underway? Why not let the investigations continue, and see where the facts take us?”

Connolly said Pelosi also rejected, in explicit terms, the notion that Democrats should decide a course of action based on the political implications it might have at the polls next year.

“She said that explicitly and said it in response to somebody who had asserted this should be purely and simply driven by election reality for next year,” he said. “It was rather pointed, as a matter of fact."

Yet Connolly was among those lawmakers who said the Mueller report is causing them to consider impeachment in ways they hadn’t previously.

“I'm not there yet. I'm not at the point where I can reach a conclusive judgment: this is the right course and this is what we have to do,” Connolly said. “But I have to admit that the Mueller report has shifted my views, and has forced me to reexamine an issue I thought I had pretty much come to grips with.”

Some progressives avoided the call altogether, calling it a waste of time.

“I don’t care what [Pelosi] says. This is not up to her or anyone else,” said one progressive lawmaker. “If enough of us feel that this is the best for the country, leadership will comply or be obsolete.”

Mueller’s report outlined 10 instances of Trump potentially obstructing justice, including firing James Comey as FBI director; directing McGahn to demand the special counsel’s removal and pressuring McGahn to deny media reports about it; and attempting to conceal information about the Trump Tower meeting in 2016 between campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising damaging information on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE. Mueller neither concluded that Trump committed obstruction nor exonerated him.

Since they gained control of the House in January, Democratic leaders have largely kept a lid on the impeachment debate. Pelosi and her top lieutenants, Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats get the health care fight they want with prescription drug bill Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal MORE (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), were all on Capitol Hill during the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. That process backfired politically on Republicans, who had secured virtually no support across the aisle, and Democrats don’t want to make the same mistake heading into the 2020 cycle.

While Rep. Brad ShermanBradley (Brad) James ShermanThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — GOP, Democrats square off at final impeachment hearing Live coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing Mnuchin expresses concerns about proposed taxes on financial trades MORE (D-Calif.) introduced impeachment articles on the first day of the new Congress, others who had sponsored similar legislation in the last Congress — including Reps. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenOvernight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week Democrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote Democrat suggests Republicans took acting classes based on ability to 'suspend disbelief' MORE (D-Tenn.) and Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Feehery: Losing faith in the people and the Constitution Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race MORE (D-Texas) — have thus far refrained from doing so.

Yet in recent weeks, the idea has gained some new momentum. Progressive freshman Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll MORE (D-Mich.) has unveiled a proposal requiring the Judiciary Committee to investigate whether Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Green is promising to unveil his impeachment articles — and force a floor vote on them as he did twice in the previous session of Congress when Republicans controlled the House.

“It's time for Congress to take a stand. I stand now where I stood on May 17, 2017 when I officially (on the congressional record) called for impeachment on the Floor of the Congress, after having unofficially called for it previously. Impeach Donald Trump,” Green tweeted on Monday.

Since the release of Mueller's report, those calls have only increased. Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, joined the push to oust the president last week; freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez to hold campaign rallies in Los Angeles, Las Vegas Overwhelming majority say social media companies have too much influence: poll MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE (D-Minn.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire Booker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair MORE (D-Mass.) quickly endorsed impeachment, citing Mueller's findings; and outside liberal groups like Indivisible are also launching lobbying efforts to win a vote on Tlaib's resolution.

But when asked Monday if he was worried about impeachment, Trump replied: “Not even a little bit.”

—Al Weaver contributed. Updated at 7:37 p.m.