Congress

House Democrats divided on how much evidence they need to impeach Trump

After unifying around an inquiry, the caucus remains split on actual impeachment

From left, Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Mikie Sherrill and Elissa Slotkin are among the Democrats who penned an op-ed saying the president might have committed impeachable offenses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats finally agreed last week that they are conducting an impeachment inquiry, but as that probe quickly unfolds there are new divisions in the caucus about how much evidence they need to proceed with articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

Several Democrats believe the readout of a July 25 phone call of Trump asking Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son; Trump’s public statements admitting to the request; and a whistleblower complaint alleging White House lawyers and officials tried to “lock down” the call transcript is all the evidence they need to impeach.

Rep. David Cicilline, co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and a member of the Judiciary Committee that would draft any articles of impeachment, said those things “present evidence of serious wrongdoing by the president, abuse of his office, violation of his oath of office and betrayal of the national security interest United States.”

“It would be difficult for me to contemplate that Congress doesn’t take action,” the Rhode Island Democrat said, referring to a vote on articles of impeachment.

Democrats who say there’s enough evidence to proceed now are not against attempts to gather additional information. But they say the administration’s stonewalling of congressional investigations will no longer stop them from moving to an impeachment vote.

“We have a motive. We have a crime. We have a confession. And we have a potential cover-up,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan told CQ Roll Call. “And I think that is remarkably different than what we’ve had in the past. So if the White House doesn’t cooperate, we’re already assuming that, and we’re going to be able to proceed.”

On the flip side are moderate Democrats who have only recently embraced the idea of an impeachment inquiry and are still a long way from being ready to vote for articles of impeachment.

“I’m not for impeachment at this point in time,” Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader said. “We need to get a little more information — well, significantly more information.”

Rep. Matt Cartwright, a DPCC co-chair, also said he’s not ready to support articles of impeachment.

“No, because we haven’t heard all the facts,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. "And I guess there are a handful of my colleagues that would say yes, and have said yes. But my own view is, let’s respect the process, and let’s listen to the hearings. That’s why they’re necessary.”

Pelosi on both sides

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to balance the desires of progressives calling for Trump’s immediate impeachment and moderates seeking further evidence to justify that step. In her messaging over the past week since she announced the start of an “official” impeachment inquiry, the California Democrat has appealed to both factions.

“There are some in our caucus who think, ‘Let’s just have an impeachment.’ No, we have to have an inquiry to further establish the facts.  There is no rush to judgment,” Pelosi said Thursday at her weekly press conference, seeming to side with moderates.

But the next day, as Pelosi reaffirmed on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that she’s not set a deadline for the inquiry, she offered up some meat to the progressives, noting “it doesn’t have to drag on.”

“Looking at the, shall we say, the material that the administration is giving us, they are actually speeding up the process,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi has tailored her messaging to both Democratic factions in the past, particularly as the caucus debated for months whether to begin impeachment proceedings. Ultimately the speaker waited on her moderates, particularly those vulnerable in 2020, to support an  inquiry before she endorsed one.

That’s why most moderates believe Pelosi and the committees leading the  inquiry will proceed deliberately and not rush articles of impeachment to the floor.

“I’ve always advocated for a process,” Michigan freshman Haley Stevens told CQ Roll Call. “And I think we’re moving through one, through transparency and fairness and with the right expertise. And I’m certainly confident that we’re going to treat this very serious matter right.”

Among the moderates who were key to Pelosi embracing an impeachment inquiry were seven freshmen with national security backgrounds who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sept. 23, saying that if the allegations against Trump are true, they represent an impeachable offense. But even those members still want to see more evidence than contained in the partial call transcript and the whistleblower complaint.

Rep. Gil Cisneros, one of the op-ed writers, told CQ Roll Call on Friday that those materials show Trump put the country’s national security at risk and are “definitely a big area of concern” but Democrats are just at the beginning of their investigation.

“I think there’s still a lot more to go, a lot more that we need to dig up and to find out,” the California Democrat said.

Another one of the op-ed writers, Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, told Fredericksburg’s local newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, that she’s not yet for articles of impeachment.

“I have said these allegations are impeachable,” she said. “To determine if they are true or false, Congress needs to employ every tool and congressional power available. And that includes impeachment hearings. That includes the congressional power of inherent contempt. That includes subpoenas.”

Roadblocks to more evidence

The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees have worked quickly since the launch of the inquiry to issue subpoenas and try to schedule hearings and depositions with key witnesses. But the panels have already hit roadblocks.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote a letter to the Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel on Tuesday saying that five State Department officials the panel scheduled depositions for this week and next will not appear because they are not compelled to by a subpoena, were not given proper notice per House rules and did not have time to hire private counsel.

Accusing the committees of “an attempt to intimidate, bully and treat improperly the distinguished professionals,” Pompeo also said the officials will not be allowed to speak with the committees without executive branch counsel that can ensure the protection of “confidential information, including deliberative matters and diplomatic communications.”

Engel, Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff and Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings responded in a statement accusing Pompeo of “intimidating department witnesses in order to protect himself and the president.” They said if reports that Pompeo was on Trump’s call with Zelenskiy are true, he is a fact witness in the inquiry and suggested he better cooperate or he too may be held to account.

“Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress — including State Department employees — is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” the chairmen said in their statement. “In response, Congress may infer from this obstruction that any withheld documents and testimony would reveal information that corroborates the whistleblower complaint.”

Top Democrats have signaled they will no longer combat the administration’s stonewalling with litigation but will instead pursue an obstruction of Congress article as they draft a resolution to impeach the president based on the evidence they do have.

“There are a lot of people who are just so offended by what we saw in the two documents that we’ve had so far, that if it feels like, if they get in the way of a more full investigation, then they have to deal with the outcome,” Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee said.

That strategy begs the question whether Democrats will obtain any corroborating evidence that Trump pressured a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election. And if they do not, how will that move moderates from the inquiry stage to the ready-to-impeach stage?

A lack of additional evidence might prevent public support for impeachment from advancing to a high enough threshold that 218 Democrats will be comfortable voting for it.

Several polls conducted in the week since Democrats launched their inquiry show growth in the public support for impeachment. But the numbers — ranging from 44 percent support in a Monmouth University poll to 50 percent support in a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee commissioned poll — are far short of a mandate.

“This could be very, very divisive if not handled right,” Schrader said. “And I think it’s one of my biggest worries.”

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