Impeachment Summer? August Town Halls May Decide Next Steps
WASHINGTON — Freshman Democratic Rep. Andy Kim came face to face with impeachment fervor at a town hall in New Jersey. "Do your job!" shouted one voter.
Several states away, a woman held up a copy of special counsel Robert Mueller's report and told freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin at a Michigan town hall she hoped she would "be the person that puts us over the top to start an impeachment inquiry."
And in Virginia, newcomer Rep. Abigail Spanberger encountered voters with questions, if not resolve, about impeaching President Donald Trump.
"I don't have blood dripping from my fangs for or against impeachment," said David Sussan, 70, a retired postal inspector from Chesterfield, who favors starting an inquiry. "I just want the truth to come out."
It's these freshman lawmakers, and others like them, who will likely decide when, if ever, House Democrats start formal efforts to impeach the president.
Neither Kim, nor Slotkin, nor Spanberger supports impeachment. But with half the House Democrats now in favor of beginning an inquiry, the pressure will only mount on the holdouts to reach a tipping point. And with lawmakers returning home to voters during the August recess, what happens next may prove pivotal.
The pro-impeachment group Need to Impeach is running television ads. Along with activists from other groups, it's also fanning out to congressional districts to push lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to move more swiftly toward impeachment proceedings.
The organization's lead strategist, Kevin Mack, says his counsel to lawmakers, especially those new freshmen who took over formerly Republican-held seats, is to ignore the campaign consultants and party strategists, and "do what you think is right" about Trump.
"You can't really make the argument he's the most corrupt president in American history and not hold him accountable," he said. "Either you think what he's doing is OK or you hold him accountable."
For lawmakers, though, the calculus is not so simple. Voters in many of these districts helped elect Trump in 2016, but flipped to give Democrats control of the House in last year's election. Many of the first-term Democrats already face challengers for 2020 and are trying to balance the divergent views in their districts. While some voters want impeachment, others have different priorities.
New Jersey lawmaker Kim, a former national security official, told some 80 voters at a town hall in Riverside to remain even-keeled and to trust in the investigative process that House Democrats are pursuing.
"I don't think getting caught up in the knife fighting and name calling is going help us get out of this pit," Kim said.
That caused some from the crowd to retort that pursuing impeachment wasn't "knife fighting" but part of the Constitution.
"Just do the investigation into impeachment," said Marianne Clemente, of Barnegat. "Just so that we're doing something" to show Trump he'll be held accountable, she said. "If we let him get away with this, we can kiss our democracy goodbye."
Some of the loudest applause from the audience came when one constituent stood up and said Trump was "destroying our country."
Another voter said the congressman's focus on other issues, like health care, was like "cutting the grass while the house is on fire."
In Spanberger's Virginia district over the past week, she, too, fielded several questions about her stand on the impeachment inquiry as she crisscrossed the region for town halls.
When she was asked about it in Culpeper, Spanberger told voters that she helped block an impeachment bill based on Trump's racism because she did not believe that qualifies as "high crimes and misdemeanors" set out by the Constitution.
"My opinion and stance has long been that I believe in facts and evidence," she said. "As long as the investigations are continuing, and we see my colleagues are continuing to gather information, I am watching very closely."
Democrat Ron Artis, a retiree, seemed satisfied with the new congresswoman's approach.
"If she was to come out without having enough people behind her, that stuff is suicidal," he said.
And when Michigan lawmaker Slotkin faced the questioner armed with Mueller's report, she told those gathered at the store in Mason about two recent moves by House Democrats that she sees as important — the special counsel's testimony and House subpoenas of the Trump administration.
"I'm open to where this goes," Slotkin said. "But I think that it is important that we do it in a way that communicates clearly what we are intending. And we do it in a way that doesn't forget about the other part of our job, which is to legislate."
One of those attending the event, Army veteran Joshua Johnson, 41, of Webberville, expressed some skepticism about impeachment and said Congress should keep investigating.
"I don't know that impeaching the president is going to be a good thing," he said. He worries the 2020 election is right around the corner, and any impeachment proceeding won't get done "in time to make a difference."
He added, "I think it might hurt more than it helps. ... It probably splits people worse."
Pelosi has made it clear she has no plans to press toward impeachment without a groundswell of support on and off Capitol Hill.
The speaker, who was herself a newer congresswoman during Bill Clinton's impeachment and rejected calls to impeach George W. Bush during her first speakership, is not eager for Democrats to take on such a politically, emotionally fraught issue alone.
So far, Pelosi's effort to cater to the frontline freshmen appears to be holding House Democrats in line. Even though she gave lawmakers a greenlight after Mueller's testimony to speak their minds on impeachment, and dozens of lawmakers announced their support for starting an inquiry, it's still nowhere near the 218 votes Pelosi would need to pass legislation in the House.
The holdouts will likely determine what Pelosi does next.