Unwilling to wait for Nancy Pelosi to embrace their cause, pro-impeachment House Democrats have begun recruiting fellow lawmakers to their camp in a bid to put more pressure on the House Speaker.
The effort has been described by one lawmaker as “organic.” But the goal is clear: the lawmakers are hoping to build a critical mass of members that will force Pelosi to choose between defying the majority of her own caucus or moving forward with a process of removing the president from office—a step that has not been taken on in more than 20 years.
To do so, pro-impeachment members have been setting up meetings with other Democrats over the past week—and plan to do so over the next few as well—to try and sell them on the merits of impeachment proceedings, according to three sources with direct knowledge of that effort. Among the points being emphasized is that going towards impeachment proceedings could consolidate the oversight activity around President Donald Trump in addition to strengthening the party’s hand in establishing a legitimate legislative purpose to their investigative work.
A senior House aide, whose boss is in the pro-impeachment camp, said that current efforts to make this case to on-the-fence members is “hodge-podge right now.” But the aide expected it to ramp up, with potentially a single lawmaker becoming point for the operation and a formal list of targets being put together.
“In order to keep the momentum going, there has to be a more organized operation,” said the aide.
The mere fact that informal “whip” operations are happening is a sign of the growing impatience and frustration felt by the pro-impeachment crowd on the Hill. It also threatens to exacerbate riffs within the Democratic caucus, where some of the party’s moderate members and top leaders have resisted the push to move more aggressively on impeachment.
When lawmakers returned from the Memorial Day recess on Monday, Democratic leadership staged a show of force for Pelosi’s line on impeachment during a closed-door members’ meeting. Some lawmakers, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the caucus chair, spoke out to support her. Jeffries invoked a Ben Franklin quote, saying they were in danger of being governed by passion, not reason.
The Speaker, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting, expressed concerns that the public still doesn’t understand how the process of impeachment would play out. She noted that in her time over the recess in California well educated voters didn’t seem to understand that impeachment proceedings would not necessarily result in Trump’s immediate ouster from office.
But even within Pelosi’s own leadership ranks there have been murmurs of a desire to give impeachment proceedings a more sympathetic reception publicly. During the Monday meeting, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.)—the only member of leadership to explicitly endorse an impeachment inquiry—challenged lawmakers to push two messages during TV appearances: the party’s domestic agenda and their belief that the president wasn’t above the law. Pelosi, pointing back at him, said: “Everyone should heed your advice, including you”—in what was interpreted as a shot at the congressman’s penchant to emphasize the latter and not the former during his own TV hits.
But Cicilline isn’t the only one in leadership ranks with impeachment on his mind. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said on Sunday that he believed the chamber would eventually move to impeachment proceedings, though not right now. And aides have said that Jeffries, who hails from a liberal New York district, has been feeling conflicted, though at the end of the day continues to support the speaker.
For the members who have spoken out already, there are lingering questions about just how committed leadership is to slow walking the impeachment process. One lawmaker said Pelosi was only mildly pushing back against the pro-impeachment faction, calling her effort to convince fellow Democrats that it would be bad politics a, “soft whip.” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who supports impeachment, says Pelosi hadn’t told him to tone it down. “I’m not aware she’s done it with anyone,” he told The Daily Beast. “I think everybody’s pretty much letting everybody do their own thing.”
But not everyone is convinced that Pelosi won’t mind the impeachment recruitment efforts. The senior House aide said one of the reasons cited by on-the-fence Democrats for not coming out in favor of beginning impeachment proceedings was fear of publicly crossing Pelosi.
“It is kind of like a quiet threat. I don’t think she has said, ‘Don’t go out there and whip other people,’” said the aide. “It is known that if you do that you are defying the Speaker and she will remember that when you need something down the line. She has the longest memory of anybody.”
Pelosi’s office declined to comment.
Since Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s press conference last week—in which he reiterated the point in his report that said he could not clear the president of wrongdoing—a number of Democratic members have called for the start of an official impeachment inquiry. All told, the pro-impeachment caucus now numbers more than 50, and others, behind closed doors, have said that obtaining access to the underlying evidence of the Mueller report would ease their minds about moving forward.
It’s not clear, however, whether the evidence can be obtained. For weeks, the Trump administration has ignored Democrats’ requests and subpoenas for more documents and testimony related to Mueller’s investigation and findings. The stonewalling has left activists alarmed, fearful that Democrats were essentially allowing the administration to slow-walk the oversight process into non-existence.
“They definitely stumbled out of the gate,” said Max Bergman, who runs the Moscow Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “And as a result the White House’s disinformation campaign has had a real impact and served to muddy the waters. This was the most damning official report ever written about a president and Democrats need to talk about it.”
Acknowledging that their current approach had so far failed to move public opinion, Democrats said they were switching tactics and refocusing more of their oversight on to the actual substance of the report. On Monday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced that his committee would be holding a series of hearings featuring legal experts—including former Richard Nixon counsel John Dean—to keep the spotlight on what exactly Mueller found.
On Twitter, some—including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a GOP member of the committee—jokingly questioned whether Democrats knew which president, Trump or Nixon, was under investigation. But Democrats defended the approach in the face of the current administration’s stonewalling.
“Obviously,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), “we would like to hear from the subjects in the Mueller report instead of experts talking about the Mueller report.”
“The whole idea here is to refocus this debate on where it should be, which is whether or not the President of the United States violated his oath of office, held himself above the law, and potentially committed high crimes and misdemeanors.”
And on Monday evening, in a regularly-scheduled meeting, House members discussed their plan to vote next week to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena for an unredacted version of Mueller’s report and its underlying evidence.
Publicly, and even privately, Democrats who are supportive of impeachment have little criticism to offer for Pelosi, even as they work to put pressure on her.
In her suburban Philadelphia district last week, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) told The Daily Beast that she’s been encouraging her colleagues to back impeachment. The Judiciary Committee member added that she’s encouraged Nadler to do so, too.
But she was more careful when it came to the Speaker. “She keeps herself out of the petty and the small that the president would like to drag her into,” said Dean. “I'm one of the foot soldiers on the Judiciary and Financial Services Committees, and she has to shepherd something much, much larger.”