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Democrats face Catch-22 with Trump impeachment strategy
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) near-term effort to tamp down talk of impeaching President Trump could have the paradoxical effect of building support for that very step.
Pelosi and Democratic leaders this week launched a series of aggressive investigations into the myriad allegations facing the president, many stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's recently released report on Russia's 2016 election interference.
The strategy is designed, in part, to dampen the growing calls for impeachment - a move Pelosi considers premature - by assuring her troops that party leaders have no intention of letting Trump off the hook. The Catch-22 for Democratic leaders is that the more dirt the investigations uncover, the louder the impeachment drum will sound.
"There is the likelihood that as the hearings are being conducted, impeachment fervor may grow, because people are getting information," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who supports Pelosi's cautious approach to impeachment, said Tuesday by phone. "But that's organic. It's the natural flow of things."
For Pelosi, the strategy is on brand. The Speaker frequently pulls a page from Abraham Lincoln, arguing that "public sentiment is everything." And she and her top lieutenants were all on Capitol Hill in 1998 when Republican leaders moved forward with impeaching former President Clinton without the support of either the public or Democrats in Congress - and suffered the consequences politically.
Pelosi and her leadership team are fighting to avoid the same mistake, frequently noting that impeachment without GOP buy-in is a futile cause while Republicans control the Senate.
"I do believe that impeachment is one of the most divisive forces, paths that we could go down to in our country. But if the facts, the path, fact-finding takes us there, we have no choice. But we're not there yet," Pelosi said Tuesday at the Time 100 summit.
"But as I say, impeachment is a step that you have to take bringing the American people with you, again, without prejudice, without passion, without partisanship, but with a presentation of the facts," Pelosi said.
Democratic leaders believe Mueller's report hands them a roadmap to continue their investigations - and launch new ones - into the president's conduct both during the 2016 campaign and since he took office.
While Mueller found no evidence of criminal conspiracy between Trump's team and Moscow, his report laid out a network of interactions between the president's inner circle and Russian figures, including the campaign's willingness to accept dirt on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Mueller also declined to exonerate Trump for obstructing the investigation, outlining 10 episodes of potential obstruction he examined, while explicitly highlighting Congress's authority to probe further.
Democrats have been happy to take the baton. On Tuesday, six key committee heads outlined their plans to conduct further investigations into Trump's actions, including associations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, allegations of ill-gotten loans from Deutsche Bank and Mueller's ambiguous conclusion on the obstruction question.
Pelosi and Democratic leaders have been concerned that talk of impeachment would politicize those probes, to Trump's political advantage. But they also think the public exposure will almost certainly build their case that the president is unfit to hold office - a case that could lead to impeachment.
"What we could be talking about is much worse than obstruction of justice, and we can't be distracted with an impeachment process from answering those questions," a senior Democratic aide said Tuesday. "In the end, obstruction could be small potatoes compared to the possibility of a foreign adversary having leverage over the president of the United States. This has implications for U.S. policy and our national security.
"That's the case we're going to have to make."
Cleaver noted that Trump's approval ratings have dropped, in some polls, since the release of the Mueller report. And he predicted the numbers would continue to fall as the Democrats' investigations take off.
"I think we go in, let the committees do their jobs. We will then depend on the American public ... to come to their own conclusions," he said. "And they very likely will come down on the side of impeachment."
But some Democrats also worry that opting not to impeach immediately could send the message that Trump won't face consequences for his behavior.
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who has long advocated for impeachment, said that if lawmakers don't take that route, they "will also say to this ruthless, reckless president, 'There are no guardrails. There are no boundaries for you. Do with this country what you may, because we who hold the authority under the Constitution to do something about it, your behavior, are looking the other way.' "
Green said Democrats already have enough evidence from Mueller to begin impeachment proceedings.
"The committee can investigate until the next election. Dr. King called that the 'paralysis of analysis.' So, we can always find more to investigate. The question is, does the committee have enough evidence to open an impeachment hearing? Clearly, it does," Green told The Hill.
Still other Democrats are weighing their constitutional responsibilities to check a president they deem erratic, even dangerous. Some who had squarely opposed impeachment prior to the Mueller report are now reconsidering.
"I don't think this is as clear cut as it was a week ago," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "In 400 ugly pages a very, very disturbing picture of the occupant of the Oval Office emerges, and I think confronts members of Congress with a moral and constitutional challenge as well as a political one. What is my duty here?"
"The Mueller report for many of us elevates that analysis," he added, "and frankly complicates our lives."