House Democrats are buzzing about the possibility of President Donald Trump being impeached. But party leaders aren’t going there — at least not yet.
Top Democrats in the House and Senate know their liberal base is clamoring for a harder line, especially after reports Trump urged then-FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
But Democratic leaders first hope to secure an independent investigation into possible ties between the White House and Russia. And until there’s clear proof Trump broke the law, they say impeachment chatter does little more than distract from the party’s broader messaging.
“I’m not afraid of the ‘I’ word — it’s independent, an independent commission,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York told reporters Wednesday. “That’s also the general consensus of our Democratic leadership.”
Senior Democrats want to avoid looking like they are gunning for impeachment, aides say. Not only would that undercut their calls for an independent commission but it could also scare off wary Republicans who might join Democrats in demanding an independent probe, a special prosecutor or both.
“There’s a reason that most of my colleagues have” stopped short of suggesting impeachment is in the offing, liberal Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told POLITICO. “Not the least of which is, we need to get a lot more facts before us before you could make a conclusion like that.”
But while House Democratic leaders are holding their fire and encouraging members to do the same, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to rein in their rank-and-file.
“If what Director Comey is saying is true, then we are looking at an impeachable offense,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said in an interview. “This, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It has to do with obstruction of justice.”
Democratic Reps. Al Green of Texas, Maxine Waters of California and more than a dozen others are floating the possibility of impeachment as well.
There also has been a clear shift in the GOP’s mood since the New York Times reported that Comey detailed his conversation with Trump in a memo. Three Republicans — Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) and Walter Jones (N.C.) — have warned that the allegations against Trump could be grounds for impeachment.
And House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) threatened to subpoena the Comey memo if it isn’t willingly handed over by the administration, a move backed by Speaker Paul Ryan.
Still, Democratic leaders are holding back from discussing impeachment despite mounting pressure from the left to force the issue. Liberal demonstrators thronged the White House the day after Comey’s firing, and activists are pressing hard on what they think is a clear obstruction of justice case against Trump.
Democratic leaders want to prove that case first, opting to wait and see if Trump writes his own case for impeachment first.
Both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly tamped down impeachment talk this week, and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Wednesday that he’s urged patience to the party’s activists.
“I’ve been talking to the base since November the 9th and telling them this is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Durbin said. “We have an orderly process in our government. We’re going to follow it. They don’t like to hear it, but I think that’s the facts.”
And House Democratic leaders are sticking with the game plan they had mapped out for the week long before the latest Comey news broke: deployment of a rarely successful procedural tactic to force a floor vote on legislation establishing an independent commission.
The discharge petition unveiled Wednesday would require about two dozen Republicans to sign on in support. The petition is expected to fail but Democrats hope the latest reports will pressure at least some Republicans to join them.
In the Senate, Democrats’ focus remains on piecing together possible evidence to argue that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice — an offense that legal experts have said could raise the prospect of eventual impeachment proceedings.
The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan request for Comey’s memo, and the former FBI director is expected to publicly testify soon, perhaps before Senate and House committees.
“We are at most a week or two away from having concrete, direct evidence and testimony,” Sen. Chris Coons said in an interview. “And at that point it’s my hope and expectation that Republican leaders in the Congress will step up to their responsibilities if the facts are as alleged.”
Two Senate Democratic caucus members, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maine Independent Angus King, have raised the prospect of impeachment in TV appearances this week. But both later clarified that they want to see the investigative process go ahead first, illustrating that Senate rank-and-file Democrats are more reluctant than their House counterparts to predict Trump’s political demise..
“What the remedy would be depends on what the evidence is,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “My focus right now is pursuing the evidence and following it wherever it leads.”
Comey’s firing last week, followed by reports that Trump leaked highly classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office, had already ramped up calls to remove Trump from office. But allegations that Trump tried to interfere in a federal investigation and shield Flynn, who was fired for lying to the vice president about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, is like pouring gasoline on a long-simmering fire.
Still, senior Democrats warn talk of impeachment is a gravely serious matter that shouldn’t be batted about lightly.
“Because it’s such an extraordinary and wrenching remedy,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, “it’s not something I believe that people should wish for — whether you like or dislike the president.”
Furthermore, with the prospect of impeachment still far, far off in a Republican-controlled Congress, Democrats in both chambers want to stay focused building opposition to the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort. They’re well aware that the Trump scandals dominating the news cycle threaten to shift attention from unpopular parts of the Republican agenda.
Given that media environment, Democrats argue, the key to breaking through is to present a united front.
“We have big battles ahead,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “The last thing we need is the base distracted over something that, right now, is a waste of time.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.