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For Democrats, Trump impeachment

question is a personal struggle transcending


politics

Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) is interviewed in the Capitol on April 4. (Tom


Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP)
By Mike DeBonis ,Rachael Badeand Paul Kane-June 8 at 6:00 PM

For two House Democrats from different backgrounds, the searing debate
over whether to impeach President Trump prompted an identical question:
What about my grandkids?

Rep. Daniel Kildee, who represents a blue-collar Michigan district that


Trump nearly won in 2016, calls it the “Caitlin and Colin rule.” What, in a
decade or more, would they read in their history books?
“There’s going to come a day when we all have to answer for what we did in
this moment,” Kildee said, explaining his support for impeachment.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Methodist minister, former mayor of Kansas City,
Mo., and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, worried about a
divisive president using the proceedings to further split the country —
perhaps irreparably — and reached the opposite conclusion.

“That’s not healthy for my little 3-year-old grandson,” he said. “I would like
to be able to say that I stood for maintaining the unity of the country.”

The debate over whether to impeach Trump, and thereby invoke one of the
most solemn constitutional powers afforded to Congress, has placed House
Democrats at the center of a visceral and highly charged fight that has quickly
transcended traditional political alliances and calculations.

It is testing long-standing friendships, fueling emotional debates with family


members and forcing lawmakers to navigate unfamiliar and competing forces.
Many feel caught between party leaders fearful that impeachment will spark a
political backlash and a growing sense that history will judge harshly those
who chose not to act in the face of a norm-smashing president many
Democrats believe has abused his power and broken the law.

This account of the unfolding drama among the rank and file of the House’s
majority party is based on interviews over the past week with 45 Democrats
spanning the caucus’s ideological, racial and generational divides. The
conversations revealed the intense and highly personal nature of the debate
taking place among members, often in private, and how some members were
responding in surprising ways.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), right, arrives to hear President Trump
deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 5.
(Andrew Harnik/AP)

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), considered the conscience of Congress for his
history-making stand during the civil rights era, said he has made a decision
but won’t reveal it out of respect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Freshman Rep. Katie Hill (D-

Calif.) is drowning in calls urging her to press for impeachment, even while
representing a Republican-leaning district that is home to the Ronald Reagan
library. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who served in the Clinton
administration during the 1998 impeachment, has cautioned her fellow
freshmen about rushing toward a decision based on politics.

The Democrats can be broken down largely into three categories.

There are the waverers — torn between leadership that opposes impeachment
and a fiery base that demands it. There are the skeptics, echoing Pelosi’s fear
that impeachment would only make way for a Senate acquittal and a political
triumph for Trump. And there are the die-hards determined to press for the
ouster of a president they consider a singular threat to the republic.

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), a freshman representing a heavily


Democratic border district, is emblematic of the personal and political
struggle facing each member of the caucus.

“I am terrified of another four years of Donald Trump,” Escobar said. “But I


cannot ignore the oath that I took to uphold the Constitution and to defend
our country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

The waverers

Nearly three weeks ago, Hill said she was “on the verge” of calling for
impeachment after the White House blocked former counsel Donald McGahn,
a star witness in Robert S. Mueller III’s report, from testifying to Congress.
Infuriated by Trump’s blanket refusal to cooperate with investigations, a
growing number of House Judiciary Committee members had become more
vocal in calling for an impeachment inquiry. Hill said she “was hitting a point
where I felt like, ‘How can we not?’ ”

During a private meeting, the freshman from a GOP-leaning district told her
colleagues that she was willing to lose her seat if impeachment were the right
thing to do. She then hesitated when a federal court ruled in favor of the
Democrats over access to the president’s financial records, with Pelosi arguing
that the victory proved the methodical approach was working and Democrats
would ultimately be vindicated by the judiciary.

“That made me feel like the process that we’re taking now is one we need to
go through and exhaust . . . before we end up taking the next step,” Hill said.

Dozens of lawmakers like Hill have found themselves torn between their
constituents — and often, their own feelings — and leadership’s resistance.
Hill said phone calls to her office favor impeachment by a 20-to-1 margin.

“We’ve been talking to everybody about, ‘What are you thinking on this?’
and just processing it, dealing with the personal struggle of: What’s our
obligation?” Hill said.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) walks to the Senate floor with other House members
on Capitol Hill on Jan. 24. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

But even Hill’s careful wording has prompted pushback from her party. After
Hill appeared on CNN last month and said her “red line” on impeachment
was Trump defying a court order to comply with congressional investigations,
her office got a call from a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
official, who cautioned her staff about Hill speaking in such definitive terms,
according to an individual familiar with the warning, who spoke on the
condition of anonymity to freely discuss the conversation.

Mueller’s statement last month on his investigation into Russian interference


in the 2016 election has pushed many lawmakers closer toward supporting
impeachment. The former special counsel said his office could neither clear
nor accuse Trump of obstructing his investigation, citing a long-standing
Justice Department opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Since then, freshman Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) said she has noticed an
increase in the volume and intensity of pro-impeachment calls and emails to
her office.

“There are many people who said, six months ago, ‘It’s harmful to the
country.’ And today they’re saying, ‘It’s harmful to the country but for a very
different reason.’ So there definitely is momentum,” said Hayes, who added:
“We have to do something. I don’t know what that something is.”
Grappling with what to do, freshman Rep. Mike Levin (D-

Calif.) has reached out to pro-impeachment Judiciary Committee members to


ask whether an inquiry would actually help Democrats obtain documents and
testimony they have sought through the courts. Levin huddled with Kildee
and Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary panel member and former
constitutional law professor, on the House floor last month, and Raskin told
him impeachment would speed the process.

“Ultimately if [Judiciary members] believe that that’s what they need in order
to most effectively conduct the investigations, then I would support that
decision,” Levin said.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) is moving in the opposite direction. Even
though Hillary Clinton carried his district with 84 percent of the vote and he
voted for impeachment articles in the last Congress, he isn’t certain he would
do the same now.

“It has to be ironclad, and it has to be a mountain of evidence,” said Gomez,


who favors launching an inquiry. “It’s too serious of a step, and it can’t be
done willy-nilly just because people want it.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who was first elected in 1998 and hails from a
liberal district, is balancing a pro-impeachment constituency with her
longtime loyalty to Pelosi.

Pro-impeachment calls to her Washington office spiked from 130 the last
week of May to more than 160 the first week of June, Schakowsky said. And
during a recent meeting with senior Democrats, Schakowsky challenged Rep.
Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), head of the campaign committee, and her claim that
voters don’t seem to care about impeachment.

But while she has “absolutely no doubt that [Trump] has committed high
crimes and misdemeanors,” Schakowsky said she is not there yet. “I think
there may be just a bit more that we can do to make sure that we are traveling
with the American people to that destination.”

The skeptics

What weighs on the minds of impeachment skeptics is a nightmare scenario:


Democrats hurtle forward, launching a process that galvanizes their own
party but otherwise does little to move public opinion. Party leaders are
compelled to bring articles of impeachment, only to see the Senate swiftly
reject them just months ahead of the 2020 election.

Trump, buoyed by the failed ouster, rallies his conservative base and
persuades enough independent voters to hand him a second term — and, with
it, four more years of judicial nominations, regulatory rollbacks and other
unilateral moves that a freshly neutered Congress would be hard-pressed to
resist.

“Everybody should consider the end game,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.),
an eight-term veteran wrangling with whether to support an impeachment
inquiry. “Exoneration by the Senate is a huge victory, and you have to take
that into consideration.”

Multiple Democrats said they find bracing lessons, or at least food for
thought, in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. As House
Republicans launched a breakneck process after the summer release of
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report, the GOP raced toward
impeachment, public opinion stayed with Clinton, and Democrats scored rare
midterm gains.

After a Senate acquittal, Clinton emerged with some of his highest approval
ratings.

Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) walks from the floor at the Capitol on May 24.
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Shalala, who served as Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary, said
she has told fellow freshmen that if the decision is based on politics “that we
are just going to be wrong, and the American people are smart enough to
figure that out.”
Dozens of Democrats said similarly they were trying to set aside political
considerations. Still, those lawmakers have ended up on all sides of the
debate.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who has urged colleagues in private meetings to
move with caution, said it has been difficult for Democrats to cast aside
politics when a growing number of the party’s 20-odd presidential
candidates have already come out in support of impeachment.

That contest to win the hearts and minds of party regulars is playing out in a
largely separate universe from House Democrats, 31 of whom represent
districts that Trump won in 2016.

“This has got to be seen as on the level,” Welch said. “They want to get the
nomination, so they’re appealing to the base. Whatever we do has to be
credible beyond the Democratic base.”

To many lawmakers, no single person will have more bearing on how things
proceed than Mueller, who is so far resisting Democrats’ wishes to make him
the star witness of a must-see televised hearing.

Others are thinking about process, not personalities — a point of view that
many in the party leadership are avidly promoting. Gather facts, subpoena
documents, win in court, and the impeachment question will answer itself,
many Democrats insist — particularly the corps of new lawmakers who
ousted Republicans to hand their party their majority.

“I’m thinking about the next 50 years,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a freshman
representing the northern New Jersey suburbs. “As we look back on this
process, are we doing the very best for the country? Are we making sure that
the steps that we’re taking now are going to leave our democratic institutions
in the best possible place?”

The die-hards

The most staunch anti-Trump Democrats are ready to charge into the
impeachment battle, almost all fully cognizant that it might not make the most
political sense and the odds are stacked heavily against their actually ousting
the president.
But they are facing history’s judgment.

“It will probably fire up his base. And they’ll feel like he’s being victimized,
especially if we cannot complete the whole process,” said Rep. William Lacy
Clay (D-Mo.), an 18-year veteran from a district around St. Louis. He cannot
sit by and watch Trump anymore. “It’s gotten to the point where we have to
do something.”

Rep. John Yarmuth (D- Ky.) speaks with reporters as he leaves the House
Democrats’ caucus meeting on Feb. 13. (Bill Clark/AP)

On multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018, Trump threatened to interfere in the


licensing deals for media companies he thought were not covering him fairly.

“The fact that he was willing to use an arm of the government to censor media
to me was clearly an impeachable offense and an abuse of power,” said Rep.
John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a former newspaper publisher in Louisville.
These members are part of a corps of Democratic early believers who say that
Trump’s presidency poses an existential threat to the nation and that the
party should look for ways to remove him from office at the earliest possible
moment. They forced a vote in late 2017 on a resolution to impeach Trump
over racially tinged remarks he made in the wake of the neo-Nazi riots in
Charlottesville earlier that year, as well as several other actions, and 58
Democrats voted for the measure.

But several dozen of those Democrats were basically venting their anger, a
free vote to protest Trump’s actions without actually beginning impeachment.

The issue took on real meaning with Democrats winning the House majority
and the release of the Mueller report. The tide turned with the former special
counsel’s 10-minute summation in late May.

More than half a dozen Democrats broke against Pelosi’s position in the past
few weeks, many usually loyal to the woman who has led their caucus for 16½
years — Democrats like Bennie Thompson (Miss.), chairman of the Homeland
Security Committee and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Back home in Mississippi for the Memorial Day recess, Thompson found
everyone asking about Mueller’s findings.

“That’s all they were talking about in the barbershop,” he said, prompting
him to publicly join the impeachment converts.
House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)
speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on May 22. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a former CBC chairman, reached the same
conclusion. “History is going to ask, ‘What were we doing when all of these
things were going on?’ And I don’t want to be judged in history asleep at the
wheel,” Richmond said.

In Philadelphia, Rep. Brendan Boyle, the son of an Irish immigrant father,


said the “final straw” came watching Mueller on TV describing the report
and, as Boyle saw it, making clear Trump would have been indicted if he were
not the sitting president.

About 50 miles west of Boston, Rep. Jim McGovern’s mother spent two years
badgering him with the same questions: “Have you gotten rid of him yet? Is
he out of office yet?”

As chairman of the Rules Committee, McGovern is Pelosi’s handpicked


parliamentary expert, a loyal lieutenant who executes her game plan on every
key piece of legislation that reaches the House floor.
McGovern said it was the “culmination of things” that left him unable to hold
back. He announced his support for impeachment a day after Mueller spoke
at the Justice Department.

“My mother is now happier with me than she’s been in the last two years,” he
said.

These Democrats are grappling over which precedent would be worse: Not
launching impeachment might signal to future presidents that such behavior
will not result in any investigation, while an impeachment that ends in a
deadlocked Senate might set a precedent that Trump’s behavior should not be
considered worthy of removal.

“So I actually see risk either way you go,” Boyle said.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.
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