‘You are helping him’: Vulnerable Democrats grilled on impeachment

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Katie Porter

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is in a vulnerable position, having flipped a Republican seat in Orange County, and acknowledges the political risks of being pro-impeachment. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

2020 elections

Lawmakers are being confronted at town halls by voters — not with activist organizations — who boast deep knowledge of Mueller’s probe.

IRVINE, Calif. — Democrats hoping to avoid clashes over impeachment when they left Washington this summer are being confronted with a difficult reality at sometimes hostile town hall events.

Voters across the country — from California to Pennsylvania to Massachusetts — grilled House Democrats on the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump at a series of events this month, regardless of whether they support or oppose the drastic measure.

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The very first question Rep. Katie Porter received at a town hall here, for example, was where she stood on impeaching Trump.

To rousing applause, the vulnerable California Democrat told the crowd that she favors impeachment — even though some worry it would play into the president’s hands. Porter, who flipped a Republican seat in what is becoming a more liberal Orange County, also acknowledged the political dangers of her pro-impeachment stance.

“People said, ‘Well, this might be risky, you might not get reelected,’” Porter said. “I said, ‘I am here to do what’s right.’”

Her response underscores the quandary facing House Democrats — especially so-called front-ine members whom the national party believes are its most vulnerable in 2020. Many progressive voters want Democratic leaders to move forward with impeachment immediately, the politics of it be damned, because ethics demand it; others are hammering their representatives over the possibility that impeachment would boost Trump’s reelection prospects because he would claim vindication after being acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate.

“If the only times I got out of bed were days I thought something I vote on would pass the Senate, I would have bedsores,” Porter quipped.

Democrats won the majority in the House because they flipped dozens of Republican-held seats, including all four in Orange County, with candidates who billed themselves as moderates. But many of those same Democrats have come out for impeachment, and all of the potentially perilous political consequences that come with it.

It’s a question freshman Rep. Harley Rouda has also grappled with. Rouda, another Orange County Democrat, is high on Republicans’ target list as they aim to retake the majority in 2020 — but he, too, backs an impeachment inquiry, despite fears among many Democrats that taking such a position in a swing district is a political death knell.

“None of the calculus included, ‘What does this mean to me personally from a political standpoint?’” Rouda said in an interview in Laguna Beach, where he lives. “‘Does this help me or hurt me in my chances of getting reelected?’ never crossed my mind once.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch, who opposes impeachment because he fears it will help Trump, faced a hostile crowd of around 200 advocates, activists and constituents who shouted him down as he delivered impassioned rejections of their calls for impeachment.

Lynch, who has served in the House for nearly two decades, faces a different predicament than his fellow moderates in swing districts. The Massachusetts Democrat doesn’t fear Republican opponents; he has progressive primary challengers as his already-blue Boston suburbs district is being yanked to the left.

“You are going to give Donald Trump another four years by doing that. You are helping him. You are helping him get another four years,” Lynch fired back at his constituents, raising his voice as the restive audience shouted at him. “I want Donald Trump removed from office and you’re going to give him another four years. That’s what I know. That’s what I know in my heart.”

Many of the pro-impeachment voters turning out at town halls didn’t appear to be part of organized efforts, even as progressive groups like Impeach Now and Indivisible have ramped up their “Impeachment August” campaign. There were few, if any, matching T-shirts, poster-board signs or coordinated chants.

Instead, people lined up at the microphones eager to discuss specifics of Trump’s actions as outlined in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the House’s lawsuits — a kind of detailed knowledge and energy that suggests pro-impeachment sentiment is more deep-rooted than simply an antagonistic anti-Trump movement and could be impossible for Democrats to ignore long term.

Several people were so versed in the House’s work that they at times challenged their own members about the legal merits of an impeachment “inquiry,” a nuanced argument that is usually heard in the hallways of Congress rather than a suburban community center. They praised House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) by name, and name-dropped witnesses like former White House counsel Don McGahn, who was mentioned multiple times in Mueller’s 448-page report.

The issue also resurfaced in a Democratic Caucus call this month, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated her cautious view on the subject.

“The public isn’t there on impeachment. It’s your voice and constituency, but give me the leverage I need to make sure that we’re ready and it is as strong as it can be,” Pelosi told House Democrats in the conference call last week, according to an aide.

“The equities we have to weigh are our responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution and to be unifying and not dividing. But if and when we act, people will know he gave us no choice,” Pelosi added, a reference to Trump’s stonewalling of myriad congressional investigations. “If he cannot respect the Constitution, we’ll have to deal with that. It’s about patriotism, not partisanship.”

But liberal voters across the country, who flocked to town halls this month, say that politics is the exact reason Democratic leaders aren’t acting on impeachment.

In a conservative suburb of Pittsburgh, one man recited lines from the Mueller report as he pressed vulnerable freshman Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) on his opposition to impeachment.

“I happen to believe, having read the Mueller report — back to front, back again — there are a lot of questions we still need to know the answers to,” Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, said during the event.

In a packed City Council room in Verona, N.J., Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill faced dozens of people clamoring for impeachment and, at times, interrupting her to make their point.

“If we let him get away with this, my fear is, there will not be a Constitution,” one woman told Sherrill, sparking applause.

But Sherrill, who is also a former federal prosecutor, said Democrats don’t yet have enough evidence to bring an impeachment case against Trump — a charge that a majority of her Democratic colleagues have rejected.

“If we don’t make a strong enough case to the American people — and right now, I don’t think we can do that without more — the president will be acquitted, and we will now have two branches of our government who have said that his behavior is acceptable,” Sherrill said as the room quieted, adding that she would support impeachment if Trump defies a court order.

Yet this moved some members of the audience to accuse her of playing politics.

“It’s a fight worth fighting. If you lose, you lose, but at least you made the fight,” one man said as Sherrill turned to other questions. Another woman chimed in with a warning: “Don’t be last to speak up. You’ll be challenged.”

Rep. Gil Cisneros, a Democrat who also flipped a GOP-held seat in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles, supports the House Judiciary Committee’s efforts to get its hands on key documents and secure witness testimony via the various court battles wading their way through the federal judiciary. But he said the House needs Mueller’s grand jury information and testimony from McGahn and other former top White House aides before proceeding with an impeachment inquiry.

“We can’t hold an impeachment hearing with just simply the Mueller report. We need the information behind the Mueller report, which the administration is not giving us, which is why we’re fighting that in court right now,” Cisneros said in an interview in Buena Park.

In the beachside city of Del Mar, outside San Diego, Rep. Mike Levin, another vulnerable Orange County Democrat, defended his support for an impeachment inquiry from a voter who pressed him on the political implications: “Why give [Trump] this gift?”

“I know that the politics on this are divided,” Levin told the man. “But I also know, with two young children, that eventually I’m going to have to account for what I did or did not do.”

“And I would rather be able, in the years ahead, to look back and know that we protected our democracy and that we stood up for what we knew to be right, for what we knew the founders intended for us to do, rather than what we felt may or may not be politically expedient,” Levin said as voters in the room gave him a standing ovation.

Levin’s district, represented for nearly two decades by former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, includes the most conservative part of Orange County — a suburb of Los Angeles that is rapidly shifting Democratic — and much of San Diego County, which is more liberal. But Democrats still count him as vulnerable, and Levin acknowledged that it won’t be easy to keep his job in 2020. Still, he said, he’s ready to act on impeachment.

“If we don’t take the actions that the Constitution requires, I think we’re going to look back at this period of time and regret it,” Levin told POLITICO after the town hall. “The Mueller report speaks for itself. Mueller’s testimony speaks for itself.”

Kyle Cheney contributed reporting from Massachusetts.