WASHINGTON — For months, Massachusetts Representative Richard Neal resisted calling for a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump — at his own political peril — as dozens of his Democratic colleagues jumped on board.
Now, after joining House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in making that call this week, the Springfield Democrat finds himself at the center of the action as one of six House committee chairs investigating Trump.
Neal, who shies away from controversy, spent Tuesday and Wednesday in hastily arranged meetings with top Democrats on Capitol Hill about how impeachment proceedings will unfold. As head of the House Ways and Means Committee, Neal is seen as vital to the effort because he leads the only committee with the authority to demand Trump’s tax returns.
Neal said the speaker’s call for an impeachment inquiry adds legitimacy to his pursuit of the documents, which his committee has sought since April in what has become a legal battle with the Trump administration. One reason for obtaining the returns would be to determine whether Trump has used his office for improper personal gain.
In an interview in his ornate committee office Wednesday, Neal said the revelations about Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president asking for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son altered his thinking on impeachment.
“When the president said, ‘Yes, I did do it,’ that kind of changed the argument. This is something people can understand,” he said.
Neal praised Pelosi’s go-slow approach on impeachment, calling it responsible.
“You’ve got to be careful not to overdo this,” he said. “Do it, but don’t overdo it.”
There was a collective feeling of relief at the special meeting of House Democrats Tuesday in which Pelosi said she would press forward with a formal inquiry, Neal said.
“It was that moment where all of the sudden it was almost a cultural shift. We’d gone from a lot of speculation . . . to now the president kind of gave us the opening,” he said.
Neal has been criticized by liberals for not being more aggressive in investigating Trump. They were irritated he didn’t request Trump’s tax returns immediately after receiving the chairman’s gavel in January when the Democrats gained the House majority, and frustrated that he did not join the calls for an impeachment inquiry that began gaining momentum last spring.
Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democratic presidential candidate who has been pushing for Trump’s impeachment since 2017, traveled to Neal’s district in March for a town hall event with impatient local activists to pressure Neal to request the tax returns. Steyer also paid for two billboards in the district in June urging Neal to speed up his efforts.
Then this summer, Alex Morse, a 30-year-old progressive Democrat and the mayor of Holyoke, announced a primary challenge because, he said, Neal “has been largely silent on the issues that matter most.”
Morse said Wednesday that Neal’s impeachment decision didn’t change his criticism.
“Time and time again he’s demonstrated an inability to fully hold this president accountable,” Morse said in a phone interview. “It points to a larger point of needing members of Congress to lead and not follow, and Congressman Neal certainly hasn’t led on this issue.”
Neal said the impeachment inquiry will only make his legal case for obtaining the tax returns stronger. He defended his timing, saying it is better to take longer to file a stronger case that stands up to scrutiny.
“My constituent in the court case is Nancy Pelosi. She’s very happy with the way I handled it,” he said.
The impeachment call from Pelosi seems to have woken up reluctant Democrats such as Neal, said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“I think they’re all full speed ahead now and perhaps Neal should have been all the time, but I think he’ll take that hint,” Cunningham said.
Neal, 70, has long been closely aligned with Pelosi, including on her slower approach toward an impeachment inquiry. Before the Ukraine controversy, Pelosi had been adamant that she wanted to make sure all other means of investigating Trump were exhausted first, including several pending court cases and the six ongoing congressional probes.
The approach put her at odds with House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and the more progressive wing of her caucus, with some members frustrated she was not moving forward swiftly enough or providing a clear message.
“We have different ideas — sequentially and tactically — about how to advance and actualize those values, but we all share the same ones,” Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley said when asked if Neal took too long to come out for an impeachment inquiry. “So we’re going to do our job, which is to be . . . as efficient and effective in pursuit of the truth on behalf of the American people. And that is no witch hunt.”
House Democratic leaders on Wednesday were keen to seem in tune, saying the Pelosi was clear that all six committees investigating the president would proceed under the umbrella of an impeachment inquiry.
“I think the speaker has been clear that this impeachment inquiry extends to Ways and Means and that Richie Neal will continue to have a critical role moving forward as chairman of that committee,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts.
Colleagues described Neal as thoughtful and cautious, a serious legislator who stays away from the headlines and prefers to focus on work that is cut and dry.
“He’s someone who, when he speaks in the caucus, people listen,” said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
Some on Capitol Hill on Wednesday said Neal had moved just as slowly toward impeachment as requesting the tax returns, so careful not to seem partisan that it could hurt him as he faces a challenge from the left. Others countered it was important that members weighed their stance on an impeachment probe with the seriousness it deserved.
“I have often described it as a war vote,” Cicilline said. “People are deliberating it, thinking about it carefully, talking to colleagues, and making judgments that they’re think they are right.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York repeatedly said the impeachment probe was not a matter of political calculation.
“The bottom line is we need to present the truth to the American people without fear of failure,” Jeffries said when asked whether public sentiment was shifting toward impeachment.
Asked whether he believed Neal’s crawl toward impeachment could hurt him politically, he gave a resounding, “No.”