BLUE BELL, Pennsylvania—It took about 10 minutes for impeachment to come up during the question-and-answer portion of Rep. Madeleine Dean’s (D-PA) town hall event on Wednesday night. And when the congresswoman said she had “wondered whether anybody would bring it up,” the hundred-some constituents assembled in the auditorium started laughing in response, assuming she was joking.
Dean laughed herself, a bit surprised at the reaction. But she wasn’t regarding it as a joke. “[T]he facts,” she soon said, “are accumulating in such an outrageous way.”
Hours before Dean took the stage at a community college in her district in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller appeared at the Department of Justice in Washington to speak publicly for the first time since his two-year investigation began. After announcing that his investigation had closed, Mueller stressed that he was hamstrung by DOJ policy from considering an indictment of President Trump and suggested it was up to Congress, not him, to decide how to hold the president accountable.
When Dean had woken up that morning, there was no expectation that such a bombshell statement would come on the day of her first open-forum town hall as a member of Congress. Nor did she imagine that months into her time on the Hill, her party would be in a simmering debate over whether to launch an impeachment inquiry.
“You know, hadn’t thought of that,” Dean said in an interview before the event. “But here we have him and, I think, to me it was remarkable and positive that he wanted to speak publicly as he was going out the door.”
And here she was, a freshman member of the House Judiciary Committee counting herself among the growing number of House Democrats—nearing 40, depending on the count—to have called for launching an impeachment inquiry of Trump, explaining to constituents why this constitutional remedy was the only logical choice.
Dean’s situation is not a microcosm of what Democrats are facing as they talk to voters back home in the districts while on congressional recess. She won her seat by 30 points in 2018, making impeachment a bit easier to tackle. But what stood out on Wednesday, as she spoke with her voters, was that she was tackling the topic at all.
Over the past two years, it has become a part of Democratic doctrine that Russia and Mueller are strictly Beltway obsessions. Top party strategists—particularly in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms—insisted that lawmakers rarely heard about the special counsel’s probe from constituents. Campaign committees bragged about how little they focused on the topic and the members themselves proudly boasted about their laser-like focus on kitchen-table issues.
Dean, on Wednesday, was asked about health care, gun violence, climate change, and other major topics. But Mueller and impeachment were clearly top of mind. She took 10 questions total. Two of them were on impeachment—as much as any other issue. And her response to those questions drew the strongest crowd reaction of the night.
“We are faced with the most indecent president of our lifetime,” she said, prompting whoops and cheers from the audience. She then walked constituents through the back-and-forth of subpoenas and ignored subpoenas that culminated most recently in the failure of former White House Counsel Don McGahn to appear before the Judiciary Committee earlier in the month.
“I believed I had to say, enough is enough,” said Dean. “We should open up an impeachment inquiry.”
Whether Wednesday night’s town hall is a sign of things to come could very well determine how the Democratic Party, writ large, handles the impeachment debate in the coming weeks. Politicians, at their most basic level, are influenced by a desire to be on the right side of public opinion. And, for a while, few Democrats seemed to feel much pressure from their voters to rush into impeachment proceedings.
But over the past few weeks, that’s begun to change, aides concede. The Trump administration’s defiance of congressional oversight has been a contributing factor. But so too was the decision by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to become the first elected Republican to embrace impeachment. One top Hill aide noted that Democratic lawmakers surely saw the positive reception Amash received at his own town hall on Tuesday night and took it as proof that they too could step out on the issue.
Mueller’s appearance seems to have emboldened them further. Shortly after his statement concluded, other Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), announced they too now back impeachment.
And yet, the dam, as it is, still has not broken in a truly meaningful way. At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi downplayed the number of House Democrats who back impeachment and said it’s an option only if the party can make an “ironclad” case that could lead to the president’s conviction in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Several Democratic aides told The Daily Beast that for lawmakers on the fence about impeachment, the calculus had not fundamentally changed. “There isn’t anything new now,” said one House Democratic aide. “All Mueller said is what he said in the report, just in person.”
But some House Democrats in the Hill are growing frustrated with Pelosi’s handling of the matter, believing that leadership has misunderstood what the base wants following the special counsel's investigation.
Sources say that staffers have spoken about their frustrations in closed door meetings and individually with junior members. No one has wanted to speak out publicly against Pelosi, the sources said. But following Mueller’s statement Wednesday, there was a sense that she and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) were continuing to dodge the issue and had yet to develop a clear strategy about how to handle the fallout of the Mueller Report.
Dean, for her part, had nothing but positive words for Pelosi and her handling of oversight, and was reluctant to put pressure on colleagues who hadn’t yet come around. She rejected the idea, assumed by many, that Mueller was inviting Congress to impeach.
“It to me felt like an important running race, where he was actually handing the baton over to Congress,” she said.
But voters are clearly growing antsy, if not impatient. As constituents began filing out of the auditorium, the man who asked the first impeachment question, Sam Seplow of Cheltenham, told The Daily Beast that somebody had to ask Dean about impeachment.
“I hear congressional representatives on TV pretty frequently say that, when I go to town halls, that’s not what people are talking about,” he said. “It’s a huge interest of mine.”
—With reporting by Erin Banco