Liberal Hill Democrats Split With Leaders on Impeachment

Rank-and-file members are chafing at the idea that the party won’t band together to call for removing Trump.

Demonstrators hold up signs at a rally calling for the impeachment of President Trump in San Francisco on Oct. 24, 2017.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
April 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield said when he’s out in public in his district, his constituents do not usually buttonhole him to talk politics. That changed recently.

In his nearly 14 years in office, he said he has never seen the kind of response from citizens he represents to the conduct of President Trump. It’s not just Democrats, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus added: He is now regularly approached by white conservatives who want Trump out of office.

“Everywhere I go—the cleaners, church, restaurants, drug stores—everywhere I go people are pulling me aside, and I know what they are going to talk about before they speak. It’s the look in their eyes and their facial expression,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield is not alone. Across the Democratic Caucus, members say their constituents are calling for the impeachment of the president. That makes it all the more perplexing to some members that the Caucus remains unprepared to respond in one voice in the eventuality that Trump fires Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man with oversight of the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said the firing would spark a constitutional crisis and would be taken as an attack on Mueller’s probe. Yet she has stopped short of saying Trump should be impeached if he follows through on the firing. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called talk of impeachment “premature.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, meanwhile, took the rare step this month of counseling a group of House members not to call for impeachment, even if Trump fires Mueller. He told them it would be more shrewd to hold their fire for a one- or two-day cooling-off period to allow Republicans to join an effort to protect Mueller without feeling that the proceeding is a political sideshow.

Yet some in the party believe the reticence from leaders to call for impeachment is a political move in and of itself. Rep. Raul Grijalva said leaders probably think impeachment talk would give Republicans a midterm rallying cry: If you give Congress to Democrats, they’ll impeach your president.

“It’s more of a political calibration that they’re discussing: Does it help us or does it not help us? Will it rally more support around Trump?” said Grijalva, cochairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

There is some evidence of that. Republican Party higher-ups have already been using the threat of impeachment to galvanize Trump’s base, albeit in a limited capacity so far. A recent National Public Radio/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 47 percent of voters would vote against a candidate who favors impeaching Trump. More pointedly, 30 percent of Democrats would vote against such a candidate.

Yet even if it is more politically savvy, leaders may be engaging in wishful thinking to believe that they can keep a lid on impeachment calls.

For one thing, 66 House Democrats—about one-third of the caucus—already voted in favor of an impeachment resolution when Rep. Al Green brought it to the House floor after Trump was reported to have derisively referred to African immigrants’ home countries as “shithole countries.”

Grijalva, one of those members, said it would be foolish for leaders to think they can contain calls for impeachment if Trump fires Rosenstein or otherwise tries to hobble the Mueller investigation.

“The members that have already been calling for it in our caucus, I don’t think they’re going to comply. This would be a boldface move toward washing the investigation,” he said. “You’re going to hear impeachment. That’s one of the consequences if he were to be fired, and I don’t know how you control that.”

Another line of thought in the party is that calling for impeachment would be pointless because Democrats don’t have the power in Congress to do it.

“I won’t be calling for impeachment,” said House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, one of the few members of the Congressional Black Caucus who did not vote for the impeachment measure. “We only have 194 votes. You need 218, right?”

Still, other Democrats think Republicans would come around.

“I haven’t seen Republicans working with Democrats on very much of anything lately, but I think the deal is that if he fires Rosenstein there will be a very forceful response, and a bipartisan response because I think a lot of Republicans’ constituencies will be horrified by that too,” said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, who voted for the impeachment resolution. “This is a serious matter, and people have to say what’s on their mind and speak their conscience. But I think we need to be prepared for the possibility he will do this.”

Whether they are prepared is another matter. While constituents talk about it ad nauseam and members have had informal talks about it in small groups, Butterfield said the Caucus has yet to hold a formal discussion on the matter.

“I think there need to be some private conversations between the different constituent groups within the Democratic Caucus,” he said. “At this level, we would have to build a consensus. We must not go out divided.”

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