Over the weekend, Justin Amash, a young, libertarian-leaning, Michigan Republican who represents Grand Rapids and its suburbs, did what Democratic leaders have declined to do for the past two years: He thoughtfully laid out the case for impeaching Donald Trump. And he did it based primarily on a close reading of the publicly available, redacted version of the Mueller report.
It was a brave thing for Amash to do. He became the first Republican to endorse impeachment, and in so doing earned himself (almost instantly) a primary challenger and a couple of derogatory tweets from the president. But for Democrats, Amash’s comments should be embarrassing. A libertarian—and member of the rabidly pro-Trump Freedom Caucus—shouldn’t have a stronger argument for holding the president accountable than the leadership of the Democratic Party. But Amash does, and his forceful public statements on impeachment are a noticeable contrast with the squishy and condescending ones emanating from House Democratic leadership.
In particular, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has kept her caucus on a tight leash when it comes to Trump administration oversight. She’s endorsed an arguably cautious, but effectively slow-as-molasses approach, all the while discounting presidential impeachment as an activist’s pipe dream, one that will only distract from a general election still eighteen months away.
“We’re going to do the right thing,” Pelosi said earlier this month.” That’s just the way it is, and it is going to be based on fact and law and patriotism, not partisanship or anything else.” It was if leadership needed the president to do something so heinous they’d have no choice but to impeach. Which begs the question, how heinous is heinous enough? Still, through last week, it seemed that most of her caucus was in line with that approach. Now, in the wake of Amash’s decision to break with his party, Democrats are finally starting to break formation.
When Pelosi retook the speaker’s gavel in January—after a midterm blue wave built on a strong national distaste for Trump’s GOP—there was much speculation about how she would deal with the fissures that have appeared in the Democratic Party over recent years. At the time, these were mainly questions on policy, about how she would hold together a group of Democrats with very different ideas on, for instance, the party’s approach to expanding access to health care. But now, nearly five months into this session of Congress, the biggest debate is over the question of impeachment. Pelosi and her allies are publicly standing firm against it, but a growing number of Democrats, including members of her own leadership team, are pushing for bolder action. Monday’s closed-door meeting grew tense, according to reports in Politico:
Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Joe Neguse of Colorado—all members of Democratic leadership—pushed to begin impeachment proceedings during a leadership meeting in Pelosi’s office, said the sources. Pelosi and Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Cheri Bustos of Illinois—some of her key allies—rejected their calls, saying Democrats’ message is being drowned out by the fight over possibly impeaching Trump.
And this isn’t just what goes on behind closed doors. In the few days since Amash’s statement, a number of other Democrats have come out publicly for starting the impeachment process. “We are now at the point where we must begin an impeachment inquiry,” Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal tweeted. “We’ve taken every step we can w/subpoenas and witnesses. Trump obstructs everything. A president who thinks he’s king, accountable to nobody [and] above the law is absolutely unacceptable.”
Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan, who also co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, concurred. “Stonewalling Congress on witnesses and the unredacted Mueller report only enhances the President’s appearance of guilt, and as a result, he has pushed Congress to a point where we must start an impeachment inquiry,” he said in a statement. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mary Gay Scanlon, Veronica Escobar, and Joaquin Castro have also pushed Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings now. Late Tuesday, Northern Virginia Representative Don Beyer added his name to the list.
In the Monday evening meeting, according to The Washington Post’s summary, Pelosi complained the party’s non-Trump message wasn’t “breaking through because everyone is talking about corruption, Mueller’s report and impeachment,” and that House passage of an anti-discrimination bill was pushed to Page 26. But “everyone is talking about” Trump’s corruption because Trump is corrupt. Over the past few days alone, there have been stories about Trump entities’ setting off money laundering alarms at Deutsche Bank, about the president’s desire to pardon war criminals, about one of his personal lawyers instructing Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, and about the White House defying precedent and court orders, and continuing to block former counsel Don McGahn from testifying before House committees.
Democratic leadership’s oversight slow-walk has stumbled. That strategy was based on the idea that a case about the Trump administration’s criminality could be built slowly, and that public opinion against the president could be further cemented without risking impeachment’s alleged blowback. But that subtle approach has not worked, particularly against the Trump administration’s intransigence. While Pelosi and her allies have been figuring out the best way to turn up the temperature, the president and his allies—flouting laws and resisting subpoenas at every turn—have been burning down the house.
Amash’s comments were a gift for Pelosi and Democratic leaders. Here was a Republican making a difficult decision based on his conscience, based on his principles, and based on the evidence. He looked at a public report and concluded that the president had committed impeachable offenses. Democrats could have pushed Republicans to explain why they thought Amash was mistaken in his reading of the Mueller report, or how they can continue to back such a corrupt president. Instead, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer waved off the Michigan Republican and stiff-armed the Democratic base.
If Pelosi had been waiting for a sign that Trump had gone too far, she just drove past it. Impeachment might not turn out to be the perfect path forward, but it’s increasingly clear that other avenues the speaker thought were better have now closed. Throughout her career, Pelosi has been legendary in her ability to amass power and control her caucus. But (as the good comic book says) with great power comes great responsibility. Instead of shutting up her members, maybe she should start listening to them. And, what could look more powerful than maybe listening to a renegade Republican, too?