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The Impeachment Litmus Test Is Dividing Democrats

Billionaire donor Tom Steyer says the party's politicians must declare their stance on removing Trump from office. He's in the minority.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Tom Steyer has his own litmus test for Democrats. The billionaire environmentalist and major donor from California called last week for his party’s lawmakers and candidates to pledge to impeach Donald Trump. A “clear and present danger to the republic,” Trump should be removed from office over his “relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia,” allegations that Trump used the presidency to “promote his own business interests,” and his “seeming determination to go to war,” Steyer wrote in a letter to Democratic campaign committees and members of Congress, according to The New York Times. He left no ambiguity: “I am asking you today to make public your position on the impeachment of Donald Trump and call for his removal from office.”

Steyer’s move is noteworthy not just for its audaciousness, but its timing. Earlier this year, it seemed every day brought a new bombshell about the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia and the president’s efforts to obstruct the investigation. But it’s now been five months since the president fired FBI Director James Comey, over which time special counsel Robert Mueller has been working the Russia investigation behind closed doors. As a result, the tempo has dropped in the impeachment drumbeat.

Yes, Representative Maxine Waters is still pushing the issue. “Republicans should step up to the plate and confront the fact that this president appears to be unstable,” Waters said last Thursday. “I believe that really has been collusion [with the Russians], and I do think that Special Counsel Mueller is going to connect those dots. But I think there’s enough now that we all know ... that we should be moving on impeachment.” And a day prior, Representative Al Green of Texas read articles of impeachment on the House floor. But consider the response from Green’s colleagues: The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis reports that “party leaders had prevailed upon Green not to offer the resolution and thus force his colleagues to cast a potentially troublesome vote.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has sought to tamp down talk of impeachment all year, saying Mueller’s investigation should run its course. Asked in May about Democrats’ calls for impeachment, she said, “Again, you’re talking about impeachment, you’re talking about what are the facts?.... What are the rules he may have violated? If you don’t have that case, you’re just participating in more hearsay.”

Instead of getting ahead of Mueller, Democrats like Pelosi have focused on more immediate threats to progressive achievements, like Trump’s sabotage of Obamacare and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). These party leaders believe focusing on impeachment while Republicans control Congress is impractical or even counterproductive. Advocates of an impeachment push, meanwhile, see it as a moral imperative and wise strategy, providing the starkest possible contrast between the Democratic opposition and the Republicans in power. “It’s time to step up and do the right thing, not do political polling and figure out what’s the smart thing to do for the next election cycle,” Steyer told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes last week.

Yet Steyer’s impeachment litmus test isn’t being received well by some Democrats on the campaign trail. “If you say all Democrats have to do this, I just don’t think that’s right for our country,” said Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot running in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District. “We’re not in power,” she added. “It ain’t going to happen. So it doesn’t do anything other than polarize us even more.”

“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history,” said Gerald Ford, then the House minority leader, in 1970. The Republican Party almost certainly won’t remove Trump from power before the midterm elections next fall, but Democrats are on firm ground calling for the GOP to do so. Scholars are building a case against Trump based on obstruction of justice, conflicts of interest, and corruption, but as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote back in May, the constitutional phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” may well cover “a much wider range of presidential abuses.” Veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew, author of a book on Watergate, made a similar point last week. “A president can be held accountable for actions that aren’t necessarily crimes. A crime might be an impeachable offense—but not all impeachable offenses are crimes,” she wrote at The Daily Beast. “Impeachment isn’t a process by which an established set of principles is enforced. There’s no tablet to be taken down from on high and followed; there’s no code of offenses for which a president can be charged. There are precedents, but they’re not binding, which is a good thing.”

This is why Waters and others believe Democrats can start “moving on impeachment” right now. A majority of Democrats agree: A Public Religion Research Institute poll in August found 72 percent of them favor impeachment. Even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are speaking out about Trump’s unfitness for office. But campaigning on impeachment is not without pitfalls. While energizing the Democratic base, it might be seen as premature or impractical by more moderate voters, especially independents whom Democratic candidates will need in order to win in swing or conservative-leaning districts. That doesn’t worry Randy Bryce, the Wisconsin union ironworker running to unseat Speaker Paul Ryan. “I think it’s great,” he said of Steyer’s position. “It’s time for Democrats to be Democrats.” Asked about party leaders who’ve shied away from impeachment talk, he said, “I’d love to see every Democrat call for it.” (Bryce’s primary opponent, Cathy Myers, is also backing impeachment, saying in a statement on Monday, “Trump is clearly unfit for the office he holds and poses an immediate threat to the safety and security of this country and the world.”)

McGrath takes a different view, telling me that Democrats should wait for Mueller to finish his probe. “If what comes out is an impeachable offense, then I have no problem calling for impeachment,” she said. McGrath acknowledged that backing Trump’s ouster now “would probably please many people in my own party, and given that I have a primary, maybe that would help me. But I personally don’t think it’s the right thing to do.” Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg called a litmus test “a terrible idea,” adding, “I think ultimately Mueller will find obstruction of justice, but I think there’s a process for that.” Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of the progressive blog Daily Kos, agreed. “It would be a disaster,” he said.Republican intensity is down. They hate Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and love Donald Trump. If we make 2018 about the Republican Congress, we win. If we make it about Donald Trump in anything but the most targeted communications, we turn out Republican voters who right now really would rather stay home.”

“As we learned in 2016, running around with our hair on fire doesn’t do the Democratic Party any favors,” said strategist Lis Smith. “In fact, you can make an argument that it actually helped Donald Trump. The louder we yelled about how outrageous he was, the more the interests and voices of regular people were drowned out. While impeachment is a tantalizing fantasy for many Democrats, it remains a fantasy. Every second we spend talking about impeachment is a second we’re not talking about jobs or how we can lift people’s wages.” For now, Smith said, impeachment “seems like more of a donor issues than voter issue. While I have no doubt you can reel in some big donors and even some grassroots money with impeachment.... It just doesn’t touch people’s lives.”

Bryce, perhaps sensitive to this critique, said the issue is “not going to be on the front-burner” of his campaign. “It’s something I believe in, but I’m not running to cast a vote in order to impeach Trump,” he said. He’s conscious that Republicans could try to tie Democrats to their impeachment stances and distract from issues like health care, yet he ultimately shrugged off that concern. “They don’t want to talk about how horrible their policies are, so they’re going to try to throw smoke over what they’re not doing,” he said. Asked whether advocating impeachment was risky in a swing district like his, Bryce was especially adamant: “People have had it with Donald Trump in this district. There is complete buyer’s remorse.”

Nationally, support for Trump’s impeachment is growing, even if it’s still a minority view. “The polling supporting impeachment proceedings moving forward is far higher than it ever was during the Watergate period,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder and president of Free Speech For People, which is leading the “Impeach Trump Now” campaign. “We agree fully that all members of Congress who have taken an oath to the Constitution should be on the record.... I do not believe that those who claim to be engaged in defending the Constitution can consistently take that oath and not engage in seeking impeachment.”

Steyer doesn’t just consider it his moral duty to push for impeachment; he believes our collective security might depend on removing Trump. When Hayes asked if Steyer could imagine Trump being impeached before the midterms, Steyer replied, “I don’t believe we can stand pat for 14 months, cross our fingers, cross our toes, and hope like heck that the world’s going to be okay. The fact of the matter is, we are in grave danger, and it is time for us to act, not to sit there and hope it turns out okay because that works for us politically.” On this point—the “grave danger” Trump poses to the world—McGrath is in agreement with Steyer. The nuclear issue is my biggest concern with the current president,” she said. “We don’t have any mechanism in our country to stop any kind of rogue president, and I wish we did.”

While there’s no mechanism to stop Trump from ordering a nuclear attack, there is one for removing him from office. If Democrats win back the House of Representatives, they can begin impeachment proceedings. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should campaign on impeachment. In the end, candidates should employ whatever politics best helps the party get there.