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 MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s mammoth report on Russia’s 2016 election meddling revealed a trove of details related to President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA 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 PelosiHouse Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Trump: I don't have a racist bone in my body Ocasio-Cortez responds to fresh criticism from Trump 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 CummingsHouse poised to hold Barr, Ross in contempt Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid 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 DemingsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Acosta resigns amid controversy over Epstein plea deal The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Democrats rush to support Pelosi amid fight with Ocasio-Cortez 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 NadlerTrump knocks Mueller after deal struck for him to testify House Democrats request briefing on Epstein, Acosta Nadler apologized after repeatedly calling Hope Hicks 'Ms. Lewandowski' at hearing 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 WatersDemocrat Sherrod Brown torches Facebook at hearing: 'They broke journalism, helped incite a genocide' House Democrats mull bill to ban Facebook cryptocurrency project Fed chief basks in bipartisan praise as lawmakers dismiss Trump attacks 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 ComeyHannity invites Ocasio-Cortez to join prime-time show for full hour The Hill's 12:30 Report: Acosta under fire over Epstein plea deal White House repeatedly blocks ex-aide from answering Judiciary panel questions 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 ConnollyFour heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities Ex-ICE chief blasts House Democrat after tense hearing: 'He ran out of there like a little girl' Live coverage: House Oversight examines Trump family separation policy 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 ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm 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 HoyerOcasio-Cortez responds to fresh criticism from Trump House Democrats introduce resolution condemning Trump for 'racist' comments Feehery: Trump inspires temporary House Democratic unity 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 ShermanFacebook's crypto experiment will languish on Capitol Hill Who are the House Democrats backing Trump impeachment? Lawmakers reintroduce bipartisan IRS bill with 'Free File' provision removed 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 CohenHouse Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting House Democrats introduce resolution condemning Trump for 'racist' comments Ted Cruz blasts Tennessee GOP governor for declaration honoring early KKK leader MORE (D-Tenn.) and Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenDemocrats erupt over Trump attacks #RacistPresident trends amid criticism over Trump tweets Al Green to force impeachment vote following incendiary Trump tweets 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 TlaibScaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' 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 WarrenWarren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' Trump says administration will 'take a look' after Thiel raises concerns about Google, China Thiel calls Warren the most 'dangerous' Democratic candidate MORE (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential hopeful, joined the push to oust the president last week; freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezGeorge Conway calls Trump a 'racist president' in new op-ed House Democrats introduce resolution condemning Trump for 'racist' comments Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarScaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting Black Caucus leader calls Trump's attacks on minority lawmakers 'despicable' MORE (D-Minn.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyKellyanne Conway: 'I totally disagree' with husband's op-ed calling Trump racist Scaramucci calls Trump tweets 'racist and unacceptable' House Democrat pushes for censuring Trump in closed-door meeting 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.