On Wednesday, September 18, as Democrats prepped for a series of private meetings, it was clear that nerves had been frayed. August had been a challenge for the party’s rank-and-file, as activists and angry citizens back home browbeat them at town halls, grocery stores, and local events for the party’s unwillingness to impeach President Donald Trump. “We spent all summer getting the shit kicked out of us back home,” said one Democrat who received such treatment. The day before, former Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski had made a mockery of the Judiciary Committee’s interview of him, betraying open contempt for the process and the people running it.
Swing district freshmen Democrats known as front-liners, meanwhile, had spent the last few weeks vocally decrying the pressure on them to call for impeachment, claiming it was putting them in a political jam. Democrats were debating publicly whether the hearings Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., was running at his Judiciary Committee were or were not in fact the launch of impeachment proceedings. Standing athwart the tide of impeachment, yelling stop, was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It wasn’t her fault that the process had become a fiasco, Pelosi told her colleagues in one meeting. In her opinion, Nadler should have held Lewandowski in contempt “right then and there.”
The party’s passivity was causing real political pain for rank-and-file members of Congress.
But there was a bigger problem, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told his colleagues that day. Raskin, the highest-ranking progressive on the periphery of leadership, is a constitutional attorney and had long been calling for impeachment on principle. But politics now mattered too, he argued, and the party’s passivity was causing real political pain for rank-and-file members of Congress, particularly those holding back support of impeachment to honor the party leadership’s opposition to it. In order to placate a small handful of front-liners — perhaps as few as seven or eight — the entire party was being dragged down and routinely humiliated by Trump’s contempt for the rule of law.
That grassroots anger was translating into primary challenges, he noted, and needlessly furious constituents. Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a champion of doing nothing when it came to Trump, had recently counted as many as 111 primaries, far more than a typical cycle. The members without official primary challenges were by no means safe, either, as they might soon draw a challenge unless the trajectory of the politics changed. Freshman representative Lori Trahan, from Massachusetts, for instance, came out for impeachment after Dan Koh, whom she beat in a primary by 147 votes in 2018, called on her to do so, with the clear threat that he may run again. The seats of upward of 200 Democrats were being put at risk to protect a handful of loud front-liners, Raskin argued, and it wasn’t obvious that the strategy was actually protecting them from anything. Grassroots activists were demobilizing, Democrats across the board were facing primary challenges, and somehow, someway, Democrats seemed to be losing, again, to Trump. Something had to give.
That something came later that night, in the form of a Washington Post scoop about a whistleblower complaint from a member of the U.S. intelligence community about a promise Trump had made to a foreign leader. Then, on Thursday evening, the Post reported that the country involved was Ukraine. From there, it didn’t take long to piece together what happened, capped off with confessions from both Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuiliani, the bagman for the operation: Trump had demanded that in exchange for U.S. aid, the new Ukrainian president investigate links between then-Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and a scandal that involves the firing of a prosecutor and a natural gas company, on whose board Hunter was paid handsomely to sit.
The affair itself is not what it appears. By getting the prosecutor fired, Biden probably hurt Hunter’s company more than anything, but it looks bad enough. Indeed, Hunter Biden had no skills to offer the natural gas company other than his appearance of an ability to influence his father, whether he did so or not. Trump clearly saw leveraging it as to his advantage in the 2020 election.
“It’s going to be a brutal weekend for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t spoken for impeachment.”
The news had landed like a bomb in a Democratic caucus that was already ready to explode. Calls to impeach Trump rained down from the party’s left flank and its presidential candidates. On Friday evening, Democrats were bracing for a backlash back home. “It’s going to be a brutal weekend for a lot of people, especially those who haven’t spoken for impeachment,” one Democrat predicted.
Indeed it was. Democrats, including front-liners, spent the weekend furiously texting and calling each other as they worked through how to respond to Trump’s latest lawlessness. “People are pissed,” said another Democrat over the weekend. “Front-liners are pissed! And not even the ‘progressive’ front-liners either.”
Pelosi didn’t seem to understand the shift that was taking place under her feet. Reporter John Harwood asked an aide to Pelosi over the weekend if the news changed her calculus on impeachment and got back the reply: “no. see any GOP votes for it?”
Jon Favreau, a speechwriter for President Barack Obama who now serves, from his perch at Pod Save America, as something of a tribune for the volunteer-resistance army that phone-banked and door-knocked Democrats into the majority, was apoplectic. “This is insane,” he said. “This is pathetic. This is not what we worked so hard for in 2018.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi was calling for impeachment proceedings to begin.
For much of the ongoing congressional session, there has been a fairly clear consensus inside the House Democratic caucus as to where their most nettlesome political problems were likely to spring from. The radicals in the so-called Squad, with their millions of Twitter followers and their magazine cover shoots, were going to become the face of the party, and swing voters across the country would recoil, costing front-liners their seats, and sending the House, and perhaps the White House, back into GOP hands. For the first half of the year, Democratic leaders engaged in public battles with the Squad — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — played out via official condemnations on the House floor or in interviews with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
Of the 44 front-liners in the Democratic caucus, the ones who’d been the most vocal against impeachment internally and in public included Max Rose, Elissa Slotkin, Abigail Spanberger, Josh Gottheimer, Elaine Luria, Mikie Sherrill, Jared Golden, Chrissy Houlahan, and Jimmy Panetta, joined by others depending on the day. Collectively, the front-liners are crucial to the majority, so rank-and-file party members have long been willing to cut them extreme amounts of slack when it comes to moderating the Democratic agenda.
But the Democrats most vocally opposed to impeachment, those who insisted not just on opposing it themselves, but worked to stop the broader caucus from moving forward, had begun to wear out their welcome — particularly as rank-and-file members compared them to the majority of front-liners, who were not regularly griping publicly and privately about how much pressure they’re under.
The Democrats most vocally opposed to impeachment, those who insisted not just on opposing it themselves, but worked to stop the broader caucus from moving forward, had begun to wear out their welcome.
Patience also wore thin as the politics of passivity no longer seem to be benefiting even front-liners, as the demobilization of the Democratic base began to look like an existential electoral concern. And the arguments some front-liners were making on behalf of doing nothing had gotten increasingly strained. “It’s not hard at all to demand impeachment,” one argued to colleagues. “What actually takes courage is not demanding impeachment.”
The same front-liners who had been the most vocal against pursuing impeachment had also generally been the ones most hostile publicly and internally toward the Squad. As more of the caucus began to see passivity rather than radicalism as the party’s bigger problem, the caucus moved away from the idea that the Squad was going to be their death knell, and even some front-liners grew less patient with internal attacks on them. Rep. Angie Craig, a freshman front-liner from Minnesota, made the case privately to her front-line colleagues that if they have a problem with the Squad or anybody else, they should feel free to say so publicly back home, and use the contrast to set themselves apart. But, she argued at a private meeting just before the August recess, members should stop battling internally to have the Squad shut down. Each member, she argued, has a district to represent, and that’s the case too with Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley.
On Monday, Craig came out in support of impeachment proceedings. She was joined by her Minnesota colleague Dean Phillips, another front-liner who made headlines earlier this year for his public break with Omar, who serves in a neighboring district. Trump has argued that by making the Squad the face of Democrats, he’ll be able to win Minnesota in 2020, giving extra weight to the moves by Craig and Phillips, both of whom flipped GOP districts in 2018.
Then Monday night, six of the most vocal opponents of impeachment, the type Raskin was referring to at last week’s meeting, published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post, calling for impeachment proceedings to begin: The authors, all front-line freshmen, included Spanberger, Slotkin, Gil Cisneros of California, Houlahan, Luria, and Sherrill. (Jason Crow of Colorado also signed, but he had previously come out in support of impeachment.)
They would be followed Tuesday by more front-liners advancing impeachment, including New York Reps. Antonio Delgado and Tom Suozzi. And then they were followed by Pelosi, who called a meeting Tuesday afternoon to tell members she was moving forward with impeachment, though she hadn’t decided if there would be a special committee formed, or if it would go through a regular process.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, left the meeting calling it “both significant and anti-climactic.” He had called for impeachment in August.
In recent months, Democratic leaders, deploying polling paid for by the DCCC, have rained data down on House Democrats, repeatedly making the case that voters don’t care about impeachment one way or the other, that it is unpopular in swing districts, and that the election will be decided next November by the state of the economy. The DCCC has argued — showing slides that members aren’t allowed to take with them out of the briefings — that voters want to see Democrats flex an affirmative agenda, not spend their time trying to take down Trump. Yet even before Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, media coverage was dominated by talk of impeachment anyway, and members were being confronted by angry constituents in their home districts. The most ambitious project launched by House Democratic leadership in 2019, its prescription drug package, was meanwhile released last week with barely a whimper.
The polling pales in comparison to the scale of Trump’s Ukraine gambit.“This is extortion of a foreign leader. This is abuse of office in the most sordid way to get dirt on a prospective political opponent,” Connolly said, calling it “beyond the pale.”
A senior aide to one frontline Democrat, who came out for impeachment earlier in the summer, said that doing so had minimized the pain that so many others felt over recess.
Even if polls say that majorities in swing districts would prefer Democrats legislate and cooperate rather than focus on impeachment, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. First, they ignore intensity, as the most active Democrats — the ones who show up to town halls and knock on doors — are also the most likely to be supportive of impeachment, and winning them over has major reelection advantages, while angering them comes with downsides. A senior aide to one front-line Democrat, who came out for impeachment earlier in the summer, said that doing so had minimized the pain that so many others felt over recess. “August would have been really painful if we hadn’t done it,” the aide said.
The surface-level polling also doesn’t answer the question of what the consequences of impeachment would be. A commonly held reservation among Democrats who are wary of impeachment comes down to its political implications: Would impeaching Trump simply help reelect him, by galvanizing his supporters? And since the Senate will acquit him, why bother?
That concern, argue impeachment supporters, misunderstands the way impeachment would be perceived publicly, and, perhaps more importantly, how failing to impeach appears to voters. All of the Democrats’ talk about scandal and corruption, absent impeachment, seems like mere partisan bickering, whereas taking concrete action sends a signal to voters that there’s more to it.
Democrats’ inability to control the message — had Nadler launched in impeachment inquiry or not — had also put front-liners in a difficult spot. In late August, Spanberger vented about that on a front-liner conference call. She asked if anybody could tell her if Democrats had or had not launched an impeachment inquiry. When she was met with silence, she lit into the party leadership for leaving vulnerable Democrats not just confused about what they ought to do, but confused about what they’re actually doing.
Slotkin, meanwhile, had made similar critiques privately, arguing that the haphazard approach taken by the Judiciary Committee had made the process seem amateurish, and made it harder for members like her to get behind it.
Alexander McCoy, political director for the progressive veterans group Common Defense, said after meeting with more than 30 Democratic offices about impeachment over the last week, he came away with a sense that Democrats, and particularly front-liners, were deeply confused as to what the party’s strategy is. “These members of Congress were elected to deliver accountability to Donald Trump, but a lot of them are worried that the investigations process so far has been a confusing mess. The thing is, they’re right,” he said. The lobbying appeared to pay off, as they met with six of the seven signers of the Washington Post op-ed that broke the dam.
Frustratingly for many House Democrats, their own political fortunes seem to be at the whim of intramural spats among senior members of the party, battling over turf or old grievances. “A lot of it is turf wars at the top and a few loud front-liners that have been behind many of the worst votes we’ve had this year,” said one member. Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, has been one of the loudest voices against an impeachment inquiry, Democrats said, because his own committee, he argues, should be the venue for investigations. On CNN’s State of the Union, he started to move, in a hedged fashion, over the weekend:
The president is pushing us down this road and if in particular — after having sought foreign assistance and welcomed foreign assistant in the last presidential campaign as a candidate, he is now doing the same thing again but now using the power of the presidency — then he may force us to go down this road. I’ve spoken with a number of colleagues over the last week and this seems different in kind and we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.
The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is riven with its own discord. The chair is held by Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who won a 2017 power struggle against Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Californian who is close to Pelosi, after John Conyers was forced to resign. The wounds from that battle are still raw, Democrats say, producing extra internal committee turmoil.
On the Ways and Means Committee, Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., dragged his feet for months before requesting Trump’s taxes from the IRS, as is his right. His colleagues were driven mad by the slow process, which they suspected was driven by Neal’s desire to get Trump and the GOP’s buy-in for his retirement security legislation. After it passed the committee, Neal finally moved, though he now has a primary challenge from Alex Morse, the mayor of Holyoke.
The same dynamic is playing out in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold, who has deeply investigated Trump’s finances, and in particular his profiting off of the Trump Hotel in Washington, called out both Neal and DeFazio for slow-walking investigations.
In an article in the Washington Post, Fahrenthold reported that Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees Trump’s hotels, blamed DeFazio on record for holding back in the hopes of cutting an infrastructure deal. Titus, in a statement to The Intercept, clarified:
The Washington Post story mischaracterizes where we are with this investigation. I’ve seen Chairman DeFazio’s determination to investigate the Trump Administration’s corruption up close and personal, and I’m proud to work with him. The public will greatly benefit from the leadership Chairman DeFazio has shown in putting a spotlight on the legal and ethical issues that surround the lease of the Old Post Office building. In fact, he started pursuing this issue before Trump was even elected. At our oversight hearing, we pressed GSA for financial statements, legal memos, and pushed for an audit to hold the Trump Administration accountable. I know that Chairman DeFazio is prepared to use his subpoena power if necessary.
Asked if the Post had accurately characterized her criticism, Titus spokesperson Kevin Gerson said, “I think that if she had directly said those words, the Post would have likely put it in quotes. And at this point it’s obvious that even the paraphrasing is completely void of the context of where we’re at in this investigation.” Fahrenthold said that he stands by his reporting. DeFazio pushed back on the characterization of his committee’s activity, and earlier this week, chaired a hearing that hit the GSA hard. In November 2016, shortly after Trump was elected, DeFazio pressed the GSA for information on how it would handle the breach-of-lease and conflict of interest ahead. The agency declined DeFazio’s request, arguing that it was only obligated to respond to the committee chair, and Democrats were at the time in the minority. DeFazio sent multiple additional letters and published a report on the situation in July 2017. Since taking the gavel, DeFazio has held multiple hearings and extracted documents from GSA leadership.
DeFazio, too, has a primary challenge from organizer Doyle Canning, who argues that DeFazio has been insufficiently willing to challenge Trump.
If impeachment was ripened by the sunshine of insurgent primaries, the sudden movement forward threatens to wilt those challenges. Opponents who’d been blasting incumbents for being too soft on Trump needed to tweak their message in a way that drained it of some of its energy.
“Too little, too late,” said Melanie D’Arrigo, challenging Suozzi in New York, arguing he had “ignored a clear threat to our safety & national security for the sake of his GOP allies.”
Doyle Canning, who’s challenging DeFazio, upped the demand, calling for a speedy floor vote.
— doyle canning (@doylecanning) September 24, 2019
Some, though, are lucky enough that their incumbent opponents are still clinging to the status quo, refusing to call for impeachment.
That could change, however, at a moment’s notice.
Update: September 27, 2019
This story was updated to include comment from Rep. Dina Titus and news of a hearing held by Rep. Peter DeFazio.