On Oct. 11, Democratic Rep. Al Green took to the House floor and called on his colleagues to impeach President Trump. Green’s 15-page resolution didn’t allege a specific crime—articles of impeachment don’t need to—but it did include a bill of particulars that almost any Democrat could get behind, citing Trump’s “record of inciting white supremacy, sexism, bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, race-baiting, and racism by demeaning, defaming, disrespecting, and disparaging women and certain minorities.” As a privileged resolution, Green could have forced a vote—something that Republicans, smelling an opportunity to divide Democrats, would have been pleased to offer. But when the time came, Green didn’t appear on the floor to formally offer his resolution.
That came as a relief to the rest of the Democratic caucus, and particularly to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had spoken to Green that morning.
For all their talk about Trump’s transgressions, Democratic leaders are trying desperately to keep a lid on the idea of actually impeaching him.
To party leaders, strategists, and Democrats in competitive districts, talk of impeachment only serves as a distraction heading into an election cycle in which the party hopes to retake the House and, if the stars align perfectly, maybe even the Senate. With a historically unpopular president and polls trending in their favor, the mere mention of the I-word sends Democratic leaders scrambling to dismiss it as “premature”—lest they hand a rallying cry to Trump’s defenders.
That pragmatic approach has created an irreconcilable tension with a restive base that tends to view impeachment in moral, historical terms. Activist groups like Indivisible and MoveOn called on Congress to start the impeachment process in June, and the issue seems likely to pick up steam as indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller roll in. The billionaire investor Tom Steyer collected more than 1 million signatures in support of impeachment in just two weeks after he launched a $10 million campaign to push the issue.
Steyer, the Democratic Party’s biggest donor, was prompted to act, he told me in an interview, by the party’s “silence on this issue, when it was obvious to the majority of Americans—or certainly the overwhelming majority of Democrats—that this guy has to go.”
“As far as I’m concerned, people are pretending this isn’t a crisis, people are pretending that we’re not out of control, people are pretending that we don’t have a dysfunctional federal government,” Steyer said. “But all those things are actually true.”
When I asked Steyer if he had given a heads-up to Democratic leaders, he laughed for 17 seconds.
“Why would I do that?”
The last time a party ran on impeachment, it didn’t go well. In 1998, Republicans thought they had been handed a gift in the form of Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky. They made impeaching Clinton a central issue in the midterms and predicted big gains in both chambers. But Democrats rallied to Clinton’s defense and the GOP’s plan backfired. Democrats gained five seats in the House—the only time in the 20th century that a party gained seats midway through its second presidential term. (It helped Democrats that the economy was strong, too.)
That history is not lost on the party’s current leaders. 1998 was the year Democrats recaptured the governor’s mansion in Nancy Pelosi’s home state of California, with a 20-point landslide, after 16 years of Republican rule. It’s also the year Chuck Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, defeated an incumbent Republican to win his seat in the Senate.
Now, Pelosi, Schumer, and other leading party figures are trying to ensure Democrats do not repeat the same mistake. They have tamped down any talk of impeachment—preaching patience with Mueller’s ongoing investigation while dismissing the calls to begin impeachment proceedings posthaste.
“I think the leader and I have made it very clear that we think impeachment, which is a very powerful tool that the Congress has to ensure that the leader of our country is one who should be our leader … is premature at this point in time,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, one of Pelosi’s top deputies, told me last week when I asked whether Steyer’s move was a wise use of resources. Not off the table, he assured, but premature.
Pelosi, whose every utterance threatens to become a Republican rallying cry, was even more terse the previous week when asked whether she supports an impeachment resolution: “No.”
Democrats currently hold an overwhelming lead on the generic congressional ballot, and leaders worry that impeachment chatter might cloud their focus on Republicans’ unpopular economic agenda, which they argue deserves the full glare of their spotlight.
“Right now, this tax fight is Armageddon,” a senior Democratic House aide told me. “Between the tax fight and what we need to be talking about in terms of our agenda, those are the two things members should be talking about. We can’t afford anything else.”
For individual members, the politics are tricky. Support impeachment and you risk alienating moderates. Oppose impeachment and you risk inviting a primary challenge from the left, like the one currently being waged against California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein has been pilloried for preaching “patience” with Trump, and for suggesting he could yet turn out to be a “good president.” Those comments have already drawn one left-leaning primary challenger, and there are rumors that Steyer’s pro-impeachment campaign might be a prelude to him entering the race. “This is not a time for ‘patience’—Donald Trump is not fit for office,” Steyer wrote in the kickoff letter last month. “It is evident that there is zero reason to believe ‘he can be a good president.’ ”
Steyer told me that line wasn’t meant “in any way, shape, or form” as a direct shot at Feinstein exclusively, just that her comments were a “kind of startling example of an attitude that ‘this is normal,’ or that President Trump’s problem is one of inexperience that he can overcome.” When I asked Feinstein about Steyer’s campaign earlier this week outside the Senate chamber, she didn’t really feel like getting into it. “Well, he’s got strong feelings, and he has the money, and so he’s doing it,” she said. Asked about her quote in the letter, she said, “I’m not interested in responding, thank you,” and walked into the chamber.
But if Democrats are hoping to avoid the issue, Steyer’s millions are making it difficult. His impeachment ads are the first result under a Google search for “impeachment,” and they pop up regularly as sponsored tweets and on major TV networks—including during the country’s most influential political program, Fox and Friends, a move that reliably produced its intended signal boost from the president himself.
Steyer has spent hundreds of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates over the years, but he seemed annoyed when I asked whether he would be complicating life for Democrats in competitive races like, say, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp or Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.
“We could go down that rabbit hole but, frankly, that’s been the problem,” he said. “As long as we’re making those tactical, small-bore political decisions instead of telling the truth and doing the right thing, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
To Democrats in Washington, Steyer’s campaign is the trouble.
“A truly bad idea,” Jim Manley, a former top aide to retired Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told me shortly after Steyer’s initiative launched. “I’ve gotten so wound up, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.”
He composed himself. “It’s tailor-made for massive Republican pushback, the idea that a Democratic billionaire is going to push members on impeachment. It’s just giving Republicans a talking point that we don’t need at this point in time.”
Manley said that personally, he was “there” in terms of wanting to begin the debate about impeachment, “but for a guy to come in and try to push the process like this is absolutely wrong. And I’m sure this is the last thing that Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate want to see right now.” In fact, as Politico first reported, Pelosi—annoyed after being asked a question about Steyer’s campaign during a TV appearance—called Steyer to tell him his campaign was a “distraction.” The call has so far gone unreturned. (“This isn’t about me, or Rep. Pelosi,” Steyer responded in a statement when I asked whether he intended to get back to her. “This is about giving a voice to the American people who are demanding the political establishment stand up to Trump.”)
Publicly, Democrats are shrugging off his campaign and touting their unity. “Tom Steyer is for our message,” Hoyer, the Democratic whip, told me. “He also has an individual focus on impeachment. But he’s for our message. If you ask Tom Steyer today, are you for the things Hoyer just said? He’d say yes.”
And it is strikingly true that there is little distance between those on the record for impeachment and those who remain hesitant to embrace it.
“Every Democrat, in my view, believes that the daily actions and the conduct of the president of the United States today is dangerous to our country, destabilizing to our economy, and harmful to our people,” Hoyer said. Neither Steyer nor Green could have said it better. Manley, too, admitted that Trump is a “clear and present danger” to our country. Steyer used that precise term in his letter.
The only difference, it seems, is whether to put it to a vote.
So far, Democratic leaders have avoided an on-the-record vote on impeachment proceedings, even as more attempts roll in from the rank-and-file. California Rep. Brad Sherman has also introduced articles of impeachment, and Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez announced this week that he and a group of other Democrats would file new charges by Thanksgiving.
In an interview, Sherman argued that talking about impeachment is just another way to call attention to economic issues.
“My own personal goal is to parlay the fact that I filed articles of impeachment into more coverage of our comments, and my particular take, on the economy,” Sherman said. “I was on [Tucker Carlson Tonight] last week, and I finally taunted him into getting on the show to talk about [our] economic message. If I hadn’t filed articles of impeachment, I’d never be on Tucker Carlson to talk about our economic message.”
He explained that there’s a necessary balance to strike in terms of impeachment talk. “If you talk about it too little, then people think can Trump can act with impunity and we’re not listening to our base,” he said. “Arguably, if you talk about it to the exclusion of your economic plan, swing voters will think you don’t have an economic plan.”
Those who think it’s too soon to talk impeachment argue that it’s only appropriate to wait for the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation before pushing ahead with an effort. Such a position has the benefit of punting the difficult question of impeachment indefinitely into the future.
But those who favor pursuing impeachment now, like Green, find that this offers the public a skewed impression of what the impeachment process is all about: that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” cited in the Constitution’s impeachment clause need to be actual criminal charges.
“The House has allowed impeachment, the investigation, to be outsourced. This has given people the belief that this is criminal in nature,” Green told me. “Because you have someone investigating the president for judicial purposes, meaning looking for a crime. Well, that gives the public the notion that we have to have a crime exposed before the House can proceed with impeachment.”
“Whether Mr. Mueller decides that there’s been a crime committed or not,” he said, “the House can still proceed with its political process.”
Still, Green said, if some of his Democratic colleagues want to wait for the conclusion of that investigation, he wouldn’t try to change their minds: “I’m not saying to anyone, ‘don’t wait,’ if that’s what you’d like to do.”
Green wasn’t a well-known public figure until he latched onto impeachment. In my interview with him, he was careful and deliberate with every word. The recognition that a push for impeachment could harm some of his Democratic colleagues’ seemed to make him uncomfortable, and he insisted that he was neither lobbying support for his resolution nor trying to interfere with others’ processes. It is, after all, a much safer political bet to call for the Republican president’s impeachment when you represent a D+29 district, as Green does, than if you represent a competitive district. That’s not to say that this has been personally easy for Green, who’s faced racist death threats and had to bring on additional security for himself and his staff.
“I’m not trying to get anyone else to stand with me,” he said.
But Green said he still considers impeachment a moral imperative.
“Dr. King reminded us that there are times in life that you have to do that which is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; you have to do what’s right,” Green told me. “And that’s what I see happening here.” It’s not just the “right” thing to do, he says. “It’s the righteous thing to do.”
Green declined to say when he might file his impeachment charges.