WASHINGTON—Democrats mostly agree that President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached. What they disagree on is whether they should actually do it.
The debate that has simmered for more than a year intensified again this week after special counsel Robert Mueller outlined a case that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice. Prominent party figures, notably presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, say the evidence demands an impeachment push no matter what the political consequences.
But senior officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are noncommittal. They are wary of damaging their 2020 election chances, concerned that a president with a talent for playing martyr might be able to use even a preliminary impeachment effort to energize his own voters.
Pelosi wants Democrats to conduct an additional investigation without convening official impeachment hearings, but some members of her caucus want hearings to begin imminently.
Polls suggest that significantly more Democratic voters favour impeachment than oppose it, but the idea is unpopular with independent as well as Republican voters. And the issue rarely comes up at Democratic campaign events, suggesting to some strategists that it is not a top priority for a party base that’s excited about the upcoming opportunity to vote Trump out.
Among the party’s presidential candidates, Sen. Kamala Harris joined Warren on Monday in calling for impeachment proceedings. But Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg did not take firm positions at their own CNN events, while Sen. Bernie Sanders expressed unease that a focus on impeachment — rather than health care, wages and racism — could work “to Trump’s advantage.”
The Star contacted 25 Democratic county chairs from around the country on Monday. Of the 12 who returned messages, seven said they opposed impeachment, four said Democrats should gather more evidence before proceeding, and just one said they should proceed now — but even she fretted about the party dropping its emphasis on “kitchen-table issues.”
“I want impeachment, but you’ll find me talking about jobs and health care and schools, and pushing impeachment from the side,” said Mary Duty, the Democratic chair in McLennan County, Texas.
The overriding concern of the skeptics was the possibility of voter backlash, especially from Trump’s base. John Sweda, the party chair in Sandoval County, New Mexico, said it would be “better just to kind of let him wither in the wind and be a diminished figure” than do something that “would really energize the right a lot.”
Matt Kisner, the Democratic chair in Richland County, South Carolina, said impeachment would obviously be the right move in a “fully functional democracy,” but would sadly be counterproductive in today’s United States.
“It will rile up his base, it will validate all of their concerns that everyone is somehow out to get him, and that will just make it more complicated for us to beat him at the ballot box, which is where we really have to win,” Kisner said.
Hovering over the debate is the likelihood that even Trump’s impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would not result in him being ousted. The removal of the president requires a post-impeachment conviction vote from two-thirds of the Senate, which is controlled by a 53-47 Republican majority.
Nicole Ward Quick, the Democratic chair in Guilford County, North Carolina, and Joseph Weingarten, the chair in Hamilton County, Indiana, both said impeachment would be a “waste of time,” given that Senate Republicans show no sign of abandoning their fealty to Trump.
“If the Senate were to find him not guilty, that would be a big roadblock to getting rid of him. He would just yell and scream, ‘See? I’m not guilty. It’s all fake news.’ He’s very persuasive, he does a good job of sound bites and persuasion, and he would do that morning, noon and night,” Weingarten said.
Others recalled the Bill Clinton impeachment saga as a cautionary tale. Larry Drake, the chair in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, described himself as “torn,” saying Democrats gained House seats in the 1998 midterms “because a lot of people felt like the impeachment stuff was unjustified.”
Ione Townsend, the party chair in Hillsborough County, Florida, said Democrats cannot allow a president to get away with behaving “like a mob boss.” But she said more investigative hearings are necessary to convince a broader swath of the country that impeachment is necessary.
“To me, the threshold has been met, but I don’t think the whole public is there. So I think we need to bring some more people along so it does not look like a witch hunt,” she said.
Rogette Harris, the chair in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, said impeaching Trump is a matter of defending “what we stand for as a country,” and that’s more important than electoral considerations. But she said it shouldn’t happen until Congress hears testimony from Mueller and accumulates more proof of Trump’s misdeeds.
“We’re basically talking about treason here,” she said. “With that said, when you go after a big fish, as they say, you need to hook them the first time.”
Trump expressed confidence that Democrats won’t even try, saying Monday that he was “not even a little bit” worried about the prospect. He also made an inaccurate case that it is not possible to impeach him.
“Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach,” he wrote on Twitter.
In fact, constitutional scholars agree that “high crimes and misdemeanors” can be objectionable conduct that is not criminal. Congress gets to decide what qualifies.
Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8