WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a plan to protect the Democrats’ House majority and win back the White House in 2020: keep the drama to a minimum. Focus on such kitchen-table issues as health care. And tamp down the desire to impeach President Trump, which could divide the nation and rile up Trump’s supporters ahead of a pivotal election.
But some Democratic candidates running for president appear to have a different strategy for capturing the energy of liberal voters ahead of 2020, and it may make Pelosi’s efforts to keep her party unified on Capitol Hill and take a cautious approach toward impeachment all the more difficult.
Last month, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren became the first major candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment, based on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s detailed account of how Trump attempted to stymie the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Then last week, she brought her case into the halls of Congress, reading from the Mueller report on the Senate floor and declaring that impeachment proceedings were the only way to protect the Constitution, regardless of the political risk.
Warren’s comments were a shot in the arm to more liberal House Democrats who have long chafed under Pelosi’s no-impeachment plan. Other 2020 contenders, including California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, and former Obama administration official Julian Castro have also jumped on the impeachment bandwagon, giving voice to some 70 percent of Democrats nationwide who support impeachment hearings even as Pelosi and her deputies call for restraint.
“Whenever you have members of the House or the Senate who are asking for impeachment to get started, it does, it places pressure, I think it creates more pressure,” said Maxine Waters, a California congresswoman who has long supported impeachment proceedings against the president.
Pelosi has called for prudence as Democrats gather more information, but the White House has refused to respond to numerous requests and subpoenas for documents and testimony from House Democrats investigating various aspects of Trump’s finances and governance, angering Democrats and their base. Now, weeks after it seemed as if Pelosi had put the impeachment issue to bed, the political ground has shifted underneath her.
The differing approaches of Pelosi and some of the 2020 candidates reflects a larger faultline among Democrats over the question of how to hold Trump accountable in the wake of Mueller’s report. Pelosi has argued that with the GOP-controlled Senate all but certain to reject any House impeachment effort, Democrats’ energy is better spent defeating him at the ballot box in 2020.
But Warren and some more liberal members of Congress reject this logic, arguing that, as Warren put it, “there is no political-inconvenience exception” to discharging the duties of the Constitution.
“Senator Warren’s comments this week added some pretty significant fuel to the fire to those who are demanding impeachment,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who used to work for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “I don’t envy the job of trying to thread the needle here.”
And while she has warned that Trump is merely “goading” Democrats toward impeachment in an effort to “solidify his base,” Pelosi nevertheless shifted her tone on the issue to reporters last week, telling them she agreed with House Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler’s assertion that the nation is in a “constitutional crisis” and that Trump is walking down the path of impeachment.
“The president is almost self-impeaching because he is every day demonstrating more obstruction of justice and disrespect for Congress’s legitimate role to subpoena,” Pelosi said.
Still, Pelosi reiterated that her process for investigating the president and considering impeachment was slow and deliberative.
“This is very methodical, it’s very Constitution-based, it’s very law-based, it’s very factually-based, it’s not about pressure, it’s about patriotism,” she said.
Warren took the opposite tack when she read sections from the Mueller report on the Senate floor on Tuesday and called for impeachment proceedings to begin right away.
“This is not about politics,” Warren said, adding, “We took an oath not to try to protect Donald Trump; we took an oath to protect the Constitution. And the way we do that is we begin impeachment proceedings now against this president.”
The women’s differing approaches reflect their competing interests. Pelosi is trying to hold together a Democratic majority that includes seats in numerous moderate or Republican-leaning districts, and she is keenly aware that, overall, only 39 percent of voters support impeachment hearings . Warren is running to capture the nomination of a party energized by the prospect of impeachment.
Meanwhile, many House Democrats said rhetoric from the campaign trail did not make it harder for the leadership to demand restraint.
“Last time I checked the Constitution, the House of Representatives has sole responsibility for determining the circumstances under which it is appropriate to pursue impeachment,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the head of the House Democratic Caucus, who shares Pelosi’s cautious approach.
But one senior Democratic source suggested some in the caucus, who want Pelosi to move more aggressively to hold Trump to account, are cheering Warren on from the Hill.
“I think Elizabeth Warren is doing a massive favor for House Democrats, whether or not they know that yet,” the person said, asking not to be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue. “She’s keeping impeachment in the national conversation.”
Pelosi’s changed rhetoric suggests she recognizes that the White House’s stonewalling could quickly alter the politics of impeachment. For now, Democrats are calling for other ways to punish Trump’s refusal to hand over documents or send witnesses to the House. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said at an Axios event Friday that he believes the House should fine witnesses as much as $25,000 per day if they don’t appear.
Even those who have fallen in line with Pelosi’s calls to slow-walk any steps toward impeachment acknowledge that the dynamics are shifting by the day.
“The president has to be very careful,” said Rhode Island Representative David Cicilline, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “If he continues to try to prevent [congressional oversight], I think that will impact the committee’s ability to go forward and I think we’ll have a real discussion about whether or not that in and of itself is the basis to go forward with an impeachment proceeding.”
If the White House continues to flout Congress, more 2020 Democratic candidates could jump on the impeachment train in the weeks ahead, increasing pressure on Pelosi. Opposing impeachment for pragmatic political reasons is inherently an uncomfortable position in a Democratic primary in which the candidates are striving to distinguish themselves by embracing the boldest stands.
“How do you stand in a crowd and say Trump is a very evil, racist monster but let’s not impeach him?” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who had been an adviser to former House speaker John Boehner. “There is a moral element to their opposition to the president that makes it really hard to fall back on a lawyerly position.”