Democrats take Trump impeachment case to voters

Democrats dove head first into an impeachment inquiry this past week. Now they have to convince voters it was the right call.

With the Ukraine controversy, Democrats think they have a clear-cut case that the public can digest much more easily than the 22-month Russia investigation that resulted in a 448-page report by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE.

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They argue that this time around it’s about President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE, not candidate Trump. And they say it’s unfolding in “real time,” creating more urgency with a focus on 2020 election interference instead of looking back at the 2016 contest.

“It’s explainable: It’s betrayal. People can understand betrayal, engaging with a foreign power to interfere in our democracy,” Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsBloomberg builds momentum on Capitol Hill with new endorsements Vulnerable Democrats fret over surging Sanders Democrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' MORE (D-Minn.), a vulnerable freshman who signed on to the impeachment push on Monday, told The Hill.

“People can understand, whether it’s implicit or explicit, withholding funding for a nation until it might investigate an American citizen who happens to be the political rival of the American president,” he added.

"This one is the most understandable by the public," Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMalaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations Pelosi warns allies against using Huawei Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE (D-Calif.) said Tuesday in an interview with The Atlantic, previewing the impeachment endorsement she would announce a few hours later.

Yet national opinion polls have shown that even with the recent momentum, there’s still more work to be done to win over a majority of voters on impeachment, meaning Democrats have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks and possibly months. Many in the party are acknowledging the weight of the task ahead — while voicing confidence they can bring enough voters over to their side.

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“I've always rejected [the idea] that the current political landscape, the current snapshot, is immutable and unchangeable. That's never been my experience in politics,” said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanAmerica needs a transformative transportation bill: It will take walking and biking to get there Overnight Energy: Trump credits economic progress to environmental rollbacks | Vote to subpoena Interior delayed by prayer breakfast | Dems hit agency for delaying energy efficiency funds Ex-Obama EPA chief expresses skepticism on carbon capture MORE (D-Calif.), among the most vocal impeachment supporters in the Capitol. “We can shape the polls, too.”

“This is the piece that that argument always ignores,” he added. “We are not potted plants. We have the ability to shape this story, to bring forward information to the American people that will, in turn, change the politics and change those polls. We've now committed to doing that.”

The full-throated embrace of impeachment carries plenty of risks for Democrats, who are fighting to retain their House majority, flip the Senate and replace Trump in the White House. Pelosi had resisted the move through her first nine months as Speaker, wary of a potential backlash in the battleground districts where Democrats are most vulnerable next year.

Then came the revelation that a whistleblower had raised concerns about Trump pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE and his son Hunter Biden, suggesting he would withhold U.S. military aid if Zelezsky did not comply. That prompted a wave of Democrats — including a number of moderates — to endorse impeachment at the start of last week. Pelosi followed a short while later.

“Last week, we saw something that removed all doubt as to whether we should move forward,” she said Thursday. “The president of the United States, in his actions in a telephone call with a head of state, betrayed his oath of office, our national security and the integrity of our elections.”

In a series of tweets, Trump has defended the phone call with Zelensky as “perfect” and “appropriate,” and he attacked the White House whistleblower as “almost a spy” who has committed treason.

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesLawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts On The Money: Fed chief warns Congress on deficits | Trump blames Powell after Dow dips slightly | Trump withdraws nomination of former US attorney for Treasury post Jeffries: Trump budget is a 'declaration of war on the American dream' MORE (N.Y.), chairman of the 235-member House Democratic Caucus, insisted the party is not weighing political considerations in its impeachment inquiry. 

“This has nothing to do with the implications,” he said. “We have a constitutional responsibility to deal with a matter of urgent national security concern.”

But he conceded that the success of the impeachment effort will hinge on whether the public jumps on board in greater numbers.

“We need to present this information to the American people,” he said, “bring them along with us based on the facts and the evidence.”

Congress on Friday left Washington for a two-week break, providing Democrats with their first opportunity to make their case for impeachment to constituents. Some Democrats had pressed leadership to cancel the recess, given the gravity of the impeachment effort. But House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi's staff huddles with aides in both parties on 'surprise' medical billing House panel approves bill to grant DC statehood Democrats bullish on bill to create women's history museum: 'It's an election year' MORE (D-Md.) rejected that proposal, arguing it was more important for lawmakers to explain their strategy to voters back home.

“This is a matter of grave importance, and the American people need to understand what is occurring,” Hoyer said.

Early polling, in the aftermath of Democrats’ risky move to launch an impeachment probe, indicates the strategy seems to be paying off.

A trio of polls out this past week revealed that support for impeachment got a big bump after the once-reluctant Pelosi provided her full-throated endorsement on Tuesday.

A Politico-Morning Consult poll on Thursday showed that 43 percent of voters think Congress should begin impeachment proceedings, a 7-point jump from just a few days earlier. An equal percentage of voters said they oppose an impeachment inquiry.

And a Hill-HarrisX poll out Friday showed that 47 percent of voters back the Democrats’ impeachment investigation, up a whopping 12 points from a similar poll taken three months earlier.

Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinThe Hill's Campaign Report: Buttigieg, Sanders ahead in Iowa debacle Vulnerable House Democrats benefit from fundraising surge amid impeachment Mixed feelings on war power limits: Lawmakers and vet candidates MORE (D-Mich.), one of seven moderate freshmen with a military background who endorsed an impeachment inquiry this past week in a Washington Post op-ed, said the best strategy for winning over reluctant voters is narrowing the focus of the impeachment probe to Ukraine while communicating how exactly it affects voters.

“We've had a drip drip drip of impeachment-related talk for two years. And so I know a lot of people have tuned out. They can't follow every in and out. I think it's difficult,” she told reporters. “What we need is to focus on the most are the most egregious concerns, the ones that are prospective, meaning looking forward to 2020. This isn't about looking backwards; it’s about looking forward in protecting our political process in the future. 

“The minute we're talking about the intricacies of process is the minute that we are losing people,” she warned.

Not all Democrats, however, believe it’s up to Congress to lead voters down the impeachment path. Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanUSDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid 2020 Democratic hopefuls focus on Iowa while making final pitches Sanders endorses 9 progressive House candidates MORE (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus and an early supporter of impeachment, said the whistleblower’s allegations are so damaging to Trump that voters will get there on their own.

“Clearly, I think this whistleblower is having all of the impact. I don’t think people care if members of Congress are raising this issue one way of the other,” Pocan said Friday during an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”

“Really, anyone who’s watched a 'CSI' episode can follow very easy steps like that, that this is something that’s wrong,” he added. “The American people are way smarter than the people in Washington are. They know when someone broke the law, and that’s why I think you’re seeing that support for impeachment.”