To a person, Democratic lawmakers said on Thursday that President Donald Trump's stated comfort receiving election assistance from a foreign government was shocking, disqualifying, and even criminal. And then, they did what they’ve come to do best: shrug.
Inside the caucus, there was a sense of dejection the morning after ABC News released footage of an interview in which Trump said he would not reach out to the FBI if a foreign government tried to help his campaign. Members and aides admitted they have grown jaded and increasingly convinced that leadership will not move forward with an impeachment inquiry regardless of the ethically dubious and legally problematic steps the president takes.
"The Mueller report laid out in black and white the multitude of crimes created under the Trump regime,” said an aide to a Democratic member. “That was more than enough evidence to move forward with impeachment. So if that did not suffice for Pelosi, I don’t know what will.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a Judiciary Committee member who backs impeachment, framed the Trump comments to ABC as “one more example of a president who has engaged in serious misconduct that warrants the opening of impeachment inquiry.” But when asked what, if anything, might sway party leadership on impeachment if not Trump’s open embrace of foreign interference in an election, he threw up his arms. “You should ask them that!”
“It's hard for me to know what's it gonna take for other people to change their mind,” he told The Daily Beast. “I've made my judgment.”
It’s been almost two months since Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In it, Mueller said that although he could not make a determination on whether the president obstructed justice, he could not clear him of wrongdoing.
Since then, momentum has built for an impeachment inquiry, with demands growing louder after Mueller said—in a rare public appearance—that had he been confident “that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
Trump’s interview with ABC fueled more impeachment talk. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a Judiciary Committee member and Pelosi ally came out in support of impeachment, citing Trump’s comments. But, as of the time of this publication, he was the only member of the House to do so based on the president’s latest comments.
Others, like Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) and Dan Kildee (D-MI) said that Trump’s comments had pushed them closer. But both stopped short of endorsing an impeachment inquiry. “[I]t certainly adds a lot of weight to the argument that there may not be another choice,” Kildee conceded.
Leaders of the caucus, which Pelosi helms, refused to budge on Thursday, shooting down impeachment talk by arguing that it was a pointless venture without sufficient support in the Senate and would play into Trump’s hands ahead of the 2020 election.
"Everybody in the county should be totally appalled by what the president said last night," Pelosi said during a press conference Thursday morning. "But he has a habit of making appalling statements."
For lawmakers close to Pelosi, including those in line for major leadership positions, crossing the speaker remained a no-go, even after Trump’s embrace of foreign interference in his re-election.
“A groundswell formed about a month ago, but it didn’t have the desired effect, in large part because there’s a dynamic of people wanting to impeach Trump but not necessarily at the cost of squaring off against Pelosi,” said an aide whose boss openly backs impeachment.
The “methodical” approach to investigating the president that Pelosi mentioned during her presser Thursday has some Democratic members increasingly frustrated. Though House Democrats have scored a few court victories, including in their efforts to obtain financial documents related to the president, their attempts to secure information and witnesses with respect to the Mueller report have been less successful.
The House Judiciary Committee has tried and failed to get Attorney General Bill Barr to testify on the DOJ’s involvement in the report’s release and threatened to go to court to get the underlying documents related to the Mueller investigation. The committee this week announced a deal with DOJ to view some of Mueller’s evidence, but it is unclear which files they will see. And administration officials told The Daily Beast that the White House will play a role in deciding what they can access. Over the last several months, the White House has blocked documents from reaching Capitol Hill and prevented former officials from showing up for their scheduled hearings.
Some Democratic lawmakers who support impeachment say they haven’t ruled out the possibility that Pelosi might come around to their side, though probably not without many more small and big examples of Trump administration stonewalling or other objectionable moves.
“In terms of the caucus, I would certainly imagine this would ratchet up pressure on Pelosi,” said a second staffer for a member who’s been open about backing an impeachment inquiry. “She is the single biggest element that is holding that back from happening.”
“If she were to say, ‘Yeah Nadler, go ahead and open an impeachment inquiry,’ you’d see the floodgates open because there are so many members here who are afraid to do anything, really, without consulting her first,” the aide continued, referring to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler. “That’s the power that she holds over the caucus.”