“Atrocious.” “Unbelievable.” “Wildly ridiculous.” “Unpatriotic.”
House Democrats left a Thursday caucus meeting aghast at President Donald Trump’s comments that he’d consider accepting election assistance from a foreign government. But even that statement wasn’t enough to move a majority of Democrats off the sidelines and closer to supporting impeachment.
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Interviews with nearly two dozen lawmakers on Thursday laid bare a new sense of exasperation at Trump’s comments — at times, literally throwing their hands in the air — at what they saw as blatant defiance of U.S. democratic principles. Still, most lawmakers, including senior members of Democratic leadership, said it did not change the calculus on launching impeachment proceedings.
“It doesn’t move me any closer to anything,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said. “We’ll find out from our committees. They’re doing the work.”
Trump’s stunning remarks on ABC News this week injected new life into the fierce debate within the House Democratic caucus on whether to forcibly remove Trump from office, with the approximately 60 members of the vocal pro-impeachment caucus arguing that it only bolsters their case.
“It shows that he’s completely unfit, and I hope it galvanizes the rest of my colleagues to start impeachment proceedings, because that’s what we need to do,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who has long supported that step. “If a Democratic president had said that, Republicans would be yelling, ‘Treason! Treason!’”
“As someone who favors initiating investigation that could lead to impeachment, I think this is great,” Rep. Chuy García (D-Ill.) said. “I hope he keeps talking.”
The majority of Democrats, however, remain opposed to the move, and most of those interviewed said Thursday that they want to only press on with investigations.
“No,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said when asked if Trump’s comments move him closer to backing an impeachment inquiry.
“The American people are still not with impeachment,” added Johnson, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. “And we’ve got to, at a more practical level, start to compile the record upon which any impeachment and trial in the Senate could be based on.”
Trump’s remarks seem to have done little to change Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mind, who is opposed to pursuing impeachment, instead privately telling her fellow Democrats she’d like to see Trump “in prison.”
“Everyone in the country should be appalled by what he said last night, totally appalled,” Pelosi said at a press briefing Thursday. “However what we want to do is have a methodical approach to the path that we are on and this will be included in that. But not any one issue is going to trigger” opening an impeachment inquiry.
In response to Trump’s statement, Pelosi called for the Senate to take up House Democrats’ sprawling anti-corruption bill, H.R. 1, which looks to prevent election interference by strengthening federal support for voting system security and oversight of state systems. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who Pelosi again called the “grim reaper” in a closed-door meeting Thursday, has no plans to take up Democrats’ bill, even trashing it as a “power grab.”
Democratic leaders had already been planning to call up key pieces of H.R. 1 individually this summer, in an attempt to pressure Senate Republicans into tackling bipartisan initiatives like election security.
Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats would also push new legislation, including a bill that would make it a crime to knowingly take assistance from a foreign government.
Those bills are expected to reach the floor this summer, according to lawmakers and aides. The House Judiciary Committee also plans to hold hearings on the issue.
Focusing on Trump’s comments also offers a chance for Democrats to stress a key conclusion of the Mueller report about Russian interference in the 2016 elections — which many centrists feel has been neglected by the caucus as their colleagues instead talk impeachment.
On Trump’s remarks, some members said they hadn’t fully had time to fully process what he said after last night’s marathon voting session on appropriations, which stretched past 1 a.m. At least one lawmaker had even fallen asleep in the morning whip’s meeting.
But Trump’s controversial remarks prompted at least one more Democrat to call for an impeachment inquiry. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — Pelosi ally, a presidential candidate, and a member of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees — said the president’s comments were “a brazen disregard for our rule of law, a betrayal of our nation, and an invitation to our adversaries to attack us once again.”
Trump, however, has consistently downplayed the threat of Russian interference.
“I think I’d want to hear it,” Trump told ABC News when asked if he would accept damaging information about a political opponent from a foreign government.
His comments were in stark contrast to FBI Director Christopher Wray’s recent congressional testimony, in which he said any American approached by a foreign government with such information should immediately call the FBI.
“My view is that, if any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation-state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation-state about influencing or interfering with our election, then that is something that the FBI would want to know about,” Wray said at a hearing last month.
When pressed about Wray’s view, Trump said: “The FBI director is wrong.”
In his 448-page report, special counsel Robert Mueller detailed dozens of contacts between Russians and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, but he ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump campaign officials and Russians.