In a U.S. Capitol hallway on the day that Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, a dozen reporters crowded around a freshman Democratic congressman from New Jersey, sticking their recorders in his face as he held court.
Jefferson Van Drew, the man at the center of it all, plays no pivotal role in Democrats’ impeachment drama—or any drama, really, for that matter. He does not sit on any one of the six committees that are investigating the president. Nor was he among the group of freshman Democrats with national security backgrounds who had dramatically announced their support for impeachment in an op-ed the night before.
Instead, Van Drew’s claim to fame is that he’s the guy standing athwart the impeachment train, yelling stop—even though the train has left the station.
“Let me emphasize again, impeachment is an extremely serious issue,” Van Drew explained to a different group of reporters last Friday, his cadence firm, friendly, and doused in a thick Jersey accent. “It is not something to be taken lightly. You're disenfranchising voters, you're removing an executive from office. That usually only happens in third-world countries.”
His opposition to impeachment has earned him recognition from more than the Capitol press corps. On Sunday, Van Drew appeared on Fox and Friends to air his opposition to impeachment. “Thank you,” tweeted Trump in a thread approvingly quoting the congressman’s remarks. “Just another witch hunt by Nancy Pelosi and the Do Nothing Democrats!”
To this point, Van Drew’s most indelible impact on the U.S. Capitol may be sartorial: his impressive collection of patterned suits and bright pocket squares stands out among his more staid colleagues.
Beyond that, however, he suffers from the anonymity that most freshmen members confront when they find themselves one of 435 members of a chamber. “He’s a member from New Jersey, right?” asked one senior House aide, when offered the opportunity to assess what role Van Drew has played in the impeachment proceedings.
Now, the first-year lawmaker—a former state senator and longtime dentist—has found his role. While his moderate, purple-district colleagues have largely ducked the press on impeachment in a tortured political balancing act, Van Drew has done the opposite.
Improbably, this district-flipping Blue Dog with some of the unsexiest committee assignments in Congress has emerged as the only Democrat willing to talk—and talk, and talk—about why impeachment would be a disaster for Democrats and for the country more broadly.
“It's the price of leadership,” he told The Daily Beast after a lengthy discussion with reporters. “I think I have a responsibility, when I can—it's hard time-wise sometimes—to have a conversation with you and to be fair and candid.”
Van Drew has, in fact, long been a source of cold water for his party’s impeachment push. After the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, he all but declared that Democrats needed to give up on impeachment unless explosive new evidence about Trump’s conduct emerged. When that explosive evidence did emerge—in the form of an anonymous whistleblower’s credible allegation that Trump asked Ukraine to dig up dirt on his rival former vice president Joe Biden—Van Drew didn’t budge.
“Unless we have something that without a doubt is an impeachable offense, which we know is treason, high crimes and misdemeanors, we don't have any positive proof of that,” he said on Friday. “We have some unseemly, you know, statements, some things that we don't really like or enjoy.”
As the Ukraine revelations push moderate-minded freshman Democrats toward impeachment in droves, Van Drew sticks out even more, the political equivalent of a turquoise pocket square in a sea of black and blue suits.
Asked to respond to Trump’s approving tweets about him, Van Drew said via a spokesperson on Monday that his position “was not requested by or made for President Trump.”
“My position on impeachment has always been consistent,” he said. “It would split the country, hurt both Democrat and Republican constituents at the end of the day, and reduce or negate any work accomplished by this Congress.”
Until now, Van Drew’s position—consistent, if nothing else—earned him little more than the occasional eyebrow-raise from his fellow Democrats, among whom he keeps somewhat of a low profile. “He’s a dentist,” said one House Democrat when asked about Van Drew. “Some of my family are dentists. We talk about that.” (Indeed, Van Drew recently retired from a successful dentistry practice he operated for 30 years just outside Atlantic City, the largest city in his district. On his lapel, beside his gold member of Congress pin, Van Drew dutifully wears a stars-and-stripes pin in the shape of a tooth.)
Lately, however, some Democrats have met Van Drew and his anti-impeachment media campaign with more of an eye-roll than an eyebrow raise. The fact that he’ll talk to anyone, anytime, for as much time as they—or, usually, he—wants is nothing new, to those who know him.
“Jeff never says no to any reporter,” a senior Democratic aide told The Daily Beast. “He is a very confident man. He has really high self-esteem, and that’s a good thing, but that’s also what makes him unique on all this. He firmly believes what he believes, he’s not going to lie to you about that and he will back up what he believes, and stick with it.”
The aide added, Van Drew takes pains to be in lockstep with his district, which he flipped after decades of GOP control. Trump won it by four points in 2016. He says his constituents would rather see him focus on issues like health care and infrastructure—the things that Democrats like him say won them the majority in 2018—and not impeachment.
The folks back in South Jersey, Van Drew says, worry “we're not going to be able to fix them because it's going to get so partisan, so dark, so intense, that Republicans and Democrats, we really are not going to work together.”
Plenty of other Democrats clung to that line for most of the year, too, but they’ve shifted in recent days, saying the recent evidence of Trump’s misconduct is simply too powerful to ignore. Public opinion about impeachment, too, appears to be inching in that direction.
What political consequences, if any, the freshman may see from his impeachment stand is unclear. Progressives are unlikely to devote a whole lot of energy to unseating him in a purple district, and Van Drew notes that he handily won a 2018 primary before defeating a Republican by a comfortable margin in this seat. He does admit to getting calls from constituents who wish he’d back impeachment; on Capitol Hill, he says his colleagues are largely fine with where he’s at on the issue.
“By and large, they know I come from a different place,” Van Drew said. “I would rather see a methodical, careful, factual investigation, which is—for God’s sake, we’re congressmen!”
He paused for a moment, reporters surrounding him in a circle. “I mean, that’s a big deal!”
—with reporting from Sam Stein