Congress

Democrats hope impeachment support grows but proceeding regardless of public sentiment

Public support is important but members' constitutional duty is more so, Democrats say

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B.  Schiff, D-Calif., joined by other House Democrats, speaks during a press conference after the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats hope the open impeachment hearings they began Wednesday will convince the public that President Donald Trump has committed impeachable offenses, but if the proceedings fail to produce an increase in public support, it won’t stop or slow down their inquiry.

More than half a dozen Democrats interviewed Wednesday — as the Intelligence Committee held its first of what will be at least five days of public testimony from 11 witnesses — said their decisions on whether to impeach Trump will not be influenced by polls capturing public sentiment.

“This is not about polls,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said. “This is about each member deciding whether or not they believe the conduct clearly being corroborated by many of the witnesses rises to high crimes and misdemeanors.”

What Trump did in asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on a July 25 call to investigate his political rivals “was easily understood by the American people,” the Maryland Democrat said, citing polling that shows 80 percent of Americans think such a request is wrong.

Hoyer said public support for impeachment grew about 10 points in the polls after the notes of the Trump-Zelenskiy call were released but acknowledged that current polling shows a close split between Americans who support and oppose impeachment.

[DCCC polling shows half of voters support impeaching Trump]

While there was a boost in impeachment support after Democrats announced their inquiry and the call notes were released, the percentage of Americans who think Trump should be removed from office has flat-lined in recent weeks around 48 percent, according to RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages.

Rep. David Cicilline, the chair of the Democratic Caucus’ messaging arm, said he expects there will be “some modest movement” of public opinion from the impeachment hearings but that if it doesn’t happen, he won’t feel any differently.  

“It wouldn't give me any pause,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “This is an issue in which all members of Congress have their responsibility to honor their oath of office, regardless of where public opinion is. We have a responsibility based on evidence and the facts presented and the law as we understand it to make a judgment about whether or not the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Politics aside

Cicilline is one of the Democrats who has long believed there is more than enough evidence to impeach Trump. Other Democrats, like Michigan freshman Elissa Slotkin, have yet to make up their minds.

“That's my commitment to my district. They have urged me to be objective, open-minded,” she said. “And that’s, frankly, my training. I’m a former CIA officer. So we spend our entire careers being trained to look at the body of information at the conclusion of the investigation. We do not make knee jerk decisions based on the hourly news cycle.”

Slotkin has long emphasized the importance of Democrats bringing the public along as they move through the impeachment process. She feels like the public hearings, with direct testimony from career public servants, is the way to do that. But Slotkin, like Cicilline, said she wouldn’t want Democrats to abandon their impeachment inquiry if public support doesn’t increase.

“I made this decision, a politically difficult decision without focusing on the polling or the politics of it, because there just comes a time where you have to do what you think is right in calling for an inquiry,” she said. “And while I very much want the American public or my public to hear the unfiltered story on their own, I still feel very strongly about my decision that hasn’t changed. And it wouldn't change one way or another if the polling radically changed.”

Fellow Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, one of Democrats’ chief deputy whips, had a similar view.

“Public sentiment matters, for sure, and I think we have an obligation to try to shape it and move public sentiment,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we didn't swear an oath to uphold public sentiment. We swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and if we feel like the facts say he violated the Constitution and his oath, I don’t think we have much of a choice at that point in time.”

“Having said that I do believe that people are coming around,” Kildee added. 

‘Allow it to play out’

Some Democrats avoided directly answering when asked whether a failure to shift public sentiment with the hearings would give them pause.

“We need to remember that this is the very first day of the hearings — the first day,” Intelligence Committee member Jackie Speier said. “Let’s allow it to play out.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said as the first hearing kicked off that he was focused on getting through the day.

 “We’re going to present the truth to the American people and we’ll see where that leads,” the New York Democrat said. “We’ve said from the very beginning of this process that no predetermination has been made. … We’re simply going to be guided by the truth.”

One of the obstacles to shifting public opinion is the truncated amount of time Democrats have provided for the hearings. Two State Department officials testified Wednesday and a former ambassador will testify Friday, followed by eight witnesses testifying over the course of three days next week.

“It will be another week and a half or so of a lot of information coming at people but that will then ultimately be summarized and people will form their own conclusions,” Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes said.

Like others, the Connecticut Democrat said that Democrats’ obligation at the end of the day is to the Constitution, “not to have a finger to the wind toward public sentiment — although public sentiment is important.”

“I’m not going to prejudge the way the American people accept what they hear, but we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “We’re putting the facts out there for people to judge for themselves.”

The sentiments most Democrats expressed Wednesday reflect an evolution from earlier in the year when a majority of the caucus was concerned about moving on impeachment without strong, bipartisan support from the public.

The minority of Democrats that have long been inclined to impeach Trump out of a sense of constitutional duty blossomed into an overwhelming majority in September when the allegations emerged that the president was actively seeking foreign government assistance in his 2020 reelection campaign. And while representatives usually take their cues from their constituents, in this case Democrats appear more inclined to listen to their own consciences.

“There are moments to lead and there are moments to follow,” Cicilline said. “This is a moment for members of Congress to lead.”

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