House Democratic leaders are downplaying the possibility that they’ll quickly seek President Donald Trump’s impeachment after they take over the chamber in January, but the steady trickle of revelations against the president may make it harder to say no.
Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants, under rising pressure to take a more aggressive stance, point to the risks of derailing important policy goals if they are seen as focusing on scoring political points through impeachment. They also say any such effort would be premature while Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe continues to play out.
“Our position has been, is now and I think will be: Until the Mueller investigation is over, it’s premature to discuss what action ought to be taken as a result of it,” Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the incoming majority leader, said Tuesday. “We want to see what he’s found out.”
Yet a drumbeat of disclosures has intensified the pressure on Democrats to move forward. Events this week could add to Trump’s political jeopardy through additional court filings and legal actions by Mueller and other prosecutors. Those include Wednesday’s sentencing of Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for financial crimes and lying to Congress.
Democrats with a more cautious view are quick to point out a political reality: Impeachment would require some collaboration from Republicans if it is to be more than a display of one-chamber, one-party symbolism. But not all Democrats agree, and some of the impatience with the leadership’s strategy spilled out onto the House floor Tuesday.
Rep. Al Green of Texas said he will announce next week whether he will resume his push for a vote on his draft articles of impeachment, despite opposition from party leaders. Green cast his efforts as more focused on “bigotry emanating from the presidency” and underscored he is not trying to interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
Yet Green also used his comments to take a swipe at his own party’s leaders, praising departing Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, for having allowed a procedural vote on his articles last December, though the effort was soundly defeated in a bipartisan vote.
Ryan “did not interfere with the process,” Green said, “and did not attempt to change the rules. I am proud of Mr. Speaker Ryan for doing this.”
The Democratic leadership’s cautiousness comes even as Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York — the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — said Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union that allegations in prosecutors’ filings last week regarding Cohen, if proven true, would show Trump was “at the center of a massive fraud” that would be impeachable.
Prosecutors publicly linked the president in court filings Friday to campaign finance violations that they say were committed when Cohen, allegedly at Trump’s direction, made what they called hush-money payments to two women. Cohen also told prosecutors that negotiations with Russian officials about a possible Trump Tower development in Moscow extended well into the 2016 presidential campaign, contrary to what he told the Senate, which was investigating Russian interference in the election.
But Nadler, whose panel would lead any impeachment efforts, said it was too early to determine whether the House would take that route based on those allegations. Highlighting how bringing charges against a president is as much a political decision as a legal one, he said, “You don’t necessarily launch an impeachment against the president because he committed an impeachable offense.”
Less surprisingly, several Republican senators dismissed the latest allegations regarding Trump directing alleged hush-money payments, with some questioning whether Cohen — who prosecutors said was duplicitous even as he agreed to cooperate with them — is a credible source.
“Let me say this about Mr. Cohen: I don’t know the man, I’ve just observed him. Jesus loves him, but everybody else thinks he’s an idiot,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “He’s obviously a sleazoid grifter. And if I were a prosecutor, I wouldn’t base a prosecution on evidence given me by Mr. Cohen.”
He added that while campaign finance laws are important, violating them is “a long way from collusion with a foreign agent to influence the election in 2016, which is what I thought this was about.”
Trump, in an interview with Reuters published Tuesday, predicted that the American public would “revolt” if he were impeached. “It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump said in the interview.
Citing what they said was a rushed Republican effort to impeach President Bill Clinton, lawmakers aligned with Pelosi’s team argue that Democrat-led committees should first initiate investigations of Trump and the White House, over questions including whether Russians used laundered money for transactions with the Trump Organization. As those inquiries unfold, the Democrats can focus on policy goals like improving infrastructure and lowering health care costs.
“We are definitely not going to use the laxened political standards Republicans used to impeach Bill Clinton,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. “We’ll see what happens. The dynamics of events are placing very heavy pressure on the Republican Party. Do they really want to be left holding the bag when the entirety of Trump’s wrongdoing is fully exposed?”
Outside of Congress, pro-impeachment efforts are continuing. Need to Impeach, an advocacy group led by billionaire climate change activist and potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is stepping up its efforts. The group ran a national television ad last month pushing newly elected members of Congress to back impeachment and plans more in 2019.
“It’s really hard for Democratic leaders to say that Donald Trump will likely have to do jail time or that he’s running a criminal conspiracy on one hand and then not talk about impeachment on the other,” said Kevin Mack, the group’s chief strategist.
Mack said several Democrats have “created a problem for themselves” by “hiding behind the Mueller report” and waiting for a final document to be released.
Raskin disagreed, saying that priorities like addressing climate change, gun violence and infrastructure should be at the top of the Democratic agenda.
“Nobody should think that impeachment is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the 116th Congress,” he said. “Nobody should be erasing the impeachment clauses in the Constitution, either.”