NORTH PLAINFIELD, N.J.—The latest battlefield in the impeachment fight between House Democrats and the Trump administration isn’t in the halls of Congress or a courtroom.
The two-week recess has seen the melee spill into the community centers and coffee shops of Democratic-held swing districts as lawmakers meet with constituents.
For many of the vulnerable, so-called “frontline” Democrats, it was a crucial moment, a chance to hear from voters for the first time about the impeachment inquiry into President Trump for allegedly seeking a deal with the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on a political rival.
“This president brought this moment onto himself; he has no one else to blame but himself,” Rep. Max Rose of New York told a politically diverse group of about 100 constituents at a Friday town hall. “And the startling thing about the last few weeks and days is the unadulterated deflection and obstruction practiced by this administration.”
At town halls across the country, Democrats are rolling out their playbook for talking to constituents about impeachment. And for freshmen who unseated Republican incumbents, it can be a precarious position as the emerging GOP counterattack has them in crosshairs.
Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey didn’t start his Tuesday town hall talking about impeachment; instead he pointed out House Democrats’ legislative work such as passing gun-control bills, the Dream Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and election-security measures. It’s a messaging tactic that’s being deployed across districts to combat Republican accusations that House Democrats are solely focused on impeaching the president.
“You’re going to hear a lot in the coming weeks about how, ‘Oh, the Congress isn’t doing anything,’” Malinowski told attendees, who largely backed an impeachment inquiry. “Well, we know that’s a load of BS. We have been doing nothing but passing legislation in the House of Representatives since the day I got there.”
Malinowski was the first swing-district Democrat to come out in favor of impeachment, announcing his support in May, before the Ukraine scandal broke. Malinowski won his district in 2018 by 5 points over five-term incumbent Leonard Lance. Republican state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.—the son of former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean—is aiming to challenge him in 2020.
Some 40 miles east, Rose’s New York City district encompasses all of the borough of Staten Island and the far southern tip of Brooklyn, in and around the blue-collar neighborhood of Bay Ridge. New York’s 11th District is the most conservative in the city, having voted for Republican Dan Donovan in 2014 and 2016 by healthy margins. Trump won the district by 10 points in 2016.
Rose, however, unseated Donovan by 5 points in 2018.
A veteran of the Afghanistan war, Rose was one of the Democratic holdouts on supporting an impeachment inquiry. But in his first town hall last Wednesday, Rose threw his support behind the investigation. Much of the rest of that town hall focused on transit issues, but with a few days for the news to sink in, attendees at his second meeting Friday had more questions about impeachment.
Staying true to the district’s political centrism, some of Rose's constituents said they voted for both Trump and the Democratic congressman, and though they are Republicans who oppose Rose’s position on impeachment, they may still support him in 2020 because of local issues.
“I think he’s done a good job for the communities,” said Roy Russo, a Republican resident of Staten Island for 56 years and retired worker in the footwear industry. “That’s what I vote for—people that I think are going to help improve my life, the borough’s life.”
Ronald Grady, a retired blacksmith for the city, voted a straight Democratic ticket when Barack Obama was on the ballot but backed Trump in 2016. Grady said he told Rose that he was considering voting straight Republican in 2020, in part because of the impeachment inquiry’s process so far. Democrats have resisted Republican calls to hold a floor vote on an impeachment inquiry.
“If they would bring it to a vote on the floor, and make it an inquiry, fine, then the Republicans can get their shot at what’s going on; they can find out what’s going on,” said Grady, who added that he is voting for Trump in 2020.
Malinowski fielded similar questions about a House vote for an inquiry, saying the Republican push for a vote is in part a tactical judgment.
“They’d like to get their members voting now rather than wait for this process to unfold,” he said. “They know that new things are emerging every day that are making it less tenable to stand by their position.”
For Republicans, the recess has been equally critical. Caught flat-footed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s September decision to move forward with an official impeachment inquiry, the GOP spent much of the first two weeks struggling to form a coherent defense. But as lawmakers get ready to return to Washington Tuesday, they are coalescing around a plan to deal with the inquiry: resist the process and target Democrats in vulnerable districts, such as the 31 Democratic-held seats that Trump carried in 2016.
Vice President Mike Pence entered the fray Wednesday when he set off on a tour of swing districts where Democratic members have supported an impeachment inquiry. Pence traveled to the southwestern Iowa district of Rep. Cindy Axne on Wednesday. On Thursday, he’s set to visit Rep. Angie Craig’s Minnesota district.
“This truth is, and we all know it, Democrats have been spending all their time on endless investigations and partisan impeachment,” Pence said Wednesday in Iowa, calling out Axne by name. “But enough is enough. The American people deserve better.”
Similarly, the National Republican Congressional Committee has been blasting out emails detailing the time and place in which vulnerable members will give town halls, urging supporters to make their voice heard at the events.
“Constituents upset with Max Rose after he folded to the socialist Democrats, went back on his word and sold them out are encouraged to attend,” the email for Rose’s town hall read.
The NRCC did not respond to a request for comment on the strategy.
The Republican National Committee launched a $2 million television and digital ad campaign last week in part targeting vulnerable Democrats on the impeachment issue, including one aimed at freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, The Detroit News reported Monday.
In Washington, the impeachment battle has raged over the recess and the daily deluge of news has bled into constituent events in members’ home districts.
On Tuesday, the White House issued a letter to House leaders saying it would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, calling it an effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election. It was a marked escalation in the administration’s stonewalling strategy, inching the conflict closer to a constitutional crisis. Pelosi said in a statement that refusing to comply with subpoenas “will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction,” something that may in itself become an underpinning for articles of impeachment.
But in Malinowski’s and Rose’s districts, constituents opposing the Trump administration were frustrated with the lack of answers about enforcing subpoenas on recalcitrant members of the president’s circle.
Rose fielded a question from Ronald Cohen of Staten Island on the issue at last week’s town hall.
“I regret that I don’t have a better answer for you, but we are going to push and push and push that we make sure that we’re holding this White House to a standard,” Rose said.
Cohen, who backs Rose and the impeachment inquiry, said he wasn’t satisfied.
“My question is, ‘What is the committee prepared to do about it,’ and that’s what I didn’t get—what is that committee going to do to get that information?” Cohen said.
House Democrats have been here before. Over the summer, members floated the idea of invoking Congress’ inherent-contempt power, which hasn’t been used in decades, over the refusal of Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to comply with subpoenas. Inherent contempt could allow them to fine or detain individuals who don’t comply. Ultimately, however, the House held a largely symbolic vote to hold them in criminal contempt.
Malinowski said he would support fining those who don’t respond to the congressional inquiry, but he was careful to put limits on what remedies he would back.
“I think we should use every power that the law affords us to ensure cooperation with oversight, and in particular with this inquiry,” Malinowski said in an interview after his event. “I’m not a fight-fire-with-fire guy—I do not want to use any extralegal or inappropriate methods—but I’m absolutely in favor of using the law to defend the law.”