For months, dozens of House Democrats anxiously avoided even the mention of impeaching President Donald Trump — right up until the moment that they demanded it.
The sudden embrace of an impeachment inquiry by previously reluctant House Democrats — most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — is attributable to one fundamental fact: They believe the new accusations against Trump are simple and serious enough to be grasped by a public overwhelmed by the constant din of complex charges and counter charges that has become the norm in today’s Washington.
In contrast to the murkiness of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by Trump, Democrats see the current allegations as damningly clear-cut. His refusal so far to provide Congress with an intelligence official’s whistle blower complaint as required by law, coupled with the possibility that Trump dangled U.S. military aid as a bargaining chip to win investigation of a political rival by a foreign government, strikes them as a stark case of presidential wrongdoing. They consider it egregious enough that they expect many Americans who had been cool to the idea of moving to oust the president to recognize the imperative for the House to act.
“It has shifted the ground,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said about the new allegations against the president, as party support for an impeachment inquiry solidified. “It makes the brazenness of the conduct and the simplicity of the misconduct easy for everybody to understand.”
A second factor was also at work. The national security implications of the president pressuring an embattled ally for political help threw open the door for more moderate Democrats – many of them products of the military and intelligence communities, rather than lifelong politicians – to justify their decision to pursue an impeachment case against the president despite his relative popularity in their districts. In Tuesday’s outpouring of new demands for an inquiry, national security loomed large as a rationale.
“Make no mistake, these recent allegations are certainly dire,” Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee, two Nevada Democrats who had resisted impeachment, said in a joint statement. “They point to a direct abuse of power at the expense of our national security.”
Pelosi’s reversal was a head-snapping change. Since early in Trump’s tenure, the speaker had been the leading voice for restraint on impeachment, recognizing the political danger to her hard-won majority as well as the potential for a backlash that could hand Trump a second term in the White House. Despite her own deep disregard for the president, Pelosi did not believe the public was behind a formal impeachment inquiry that she considered nationally divisive. She preferred that various committees pursue Trump on a range of issues before next year’s election without forcing formal impeachment action.
That all changed with the disclosure of the whistle blower complaint against the president.
Like her colleagues, Pelosi said that while the latest allegation against the president is but one candidate for an article of impeachment, “this is the most understandable by the public.”
“We don’t ask foreign governments to help us in our elections,” Pelosi said Tuesday at a forum sponsored by The Atlantic.
The initiation of a formal impeachment inquiry carries grave political risks for Democrats, allowing Trump and congressional Republicans to argue that Democrats are unfairly tormenting the president for partisan gain with an election just more than a year away.
“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” Trump tweeted from New York, where he was attending meetings at the United Nations, as Democrats announced that they were opening a formal impeachment inquiry.
Among the main questions for Democrats is how unified they are now on an issue that has created deep rifts within their ranks until this week. It is far from clear, for instance, whether they agree on how broad the impeachment inquiry should be, or who should run it. Already on Tuesday, some more moderate lawmakers from Republican-leaning districts, who put themselves at political risk to embrace impeachment, were privately voicing frustration at the lack of certainty about what the inquiry would look like going forward.
Republicans paid a steep political price in the midterm elections for moving to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998, and some analysts believe this episode could backfire on Democrats as well.
But with the party clamor growing for action against the president after the Ukrainian revelations, Pelosi and others who had been holding back faced the prospect that failing to move forward on demands to hold the president accountable could cost them more with their own party than pursuing impeachment might hurt them with Republicans and independents. Long a progressive hero, Pelosi had already drawn fire from the left for failing to act.
Even as momentum rapidly built, worries surfaced among Democrats that the drive could fizzle with the release of a transcript of the telephone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president if it proved less explosive than anticipated – an outcome Republicans predicted. But the speaker and others said that such an outcome would not deter them and that they wanted to hear all of the whistleblower’s account of what led to the complaint against Trump, which is believed to include more than the call.
The decision to back the inquiry was not easy for Democrats who had been hesitant to get on board.
“I certainly didn’t run for Congress to be part of an impeachment inquiry,” said Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., who described the phone call as an abuse of power. “It’s heartbreaking to look something like impeachment in the face,” she added. “No matter who the president is, we want them to succeed. At the same time, I have to maintain the rule of law and checks and balances.”
While the revelation of the whistleblower complaint broke the logjam on impeachment, Democrats were becoming increasingly incensed at the proud defiance of the House by the president and his allies, essentially thumbing their noses at a coequal branch of government empowered to oversee the conduct of the administration. The Trump strategy had been effective as recently as a few days ago, when Democrats seemed stymied in their pursuit of the president with the prospect of a formal impeachment inquiry flagging.
To many of them, the fact that Trump had so far escaped any reckoning had only emboldened him to encourage the Ukrainian government to open a corruption investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 opponent, and his son Hunter Biden.
Now, Democrats who had been hesitant to open an inquiry are all in.
“These actions, which the president has admitted, represent a gross abuse of power and an abuse of the trust we the people have placed in the office of the president,” Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, who flipped a Republican seat last year and will face a challenge in holding on to it, said in a statement. She said the “House of Representatives should act swiftly to investigate and should be prepared to use the remedy exclusively in its power: impeachment.”
For months, it appeared that Pelosi’s calculus and the deep reservations of Democrats in swing districts would keep the House from moving forward on impeachment. The speaker told fellow Democrats in a private conference call in August that the House would not move to impeach unless the president gave them no choice.
In the eyes of Democrats, that is exactly what happened.
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