‘What’s the endgame?’ Midwestern Democrats tread cautiously on Trump, impeachment

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver is open to impeaching President Donald Trump, but he wants to hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller before he makes up his mind.

House Democrats want Mueller, who led the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, to testify about the report he authored, which laid out possible incidents of obstruction of justice by the president.

Cleaver pointed to Mueller’s prospective appearance before the House Judiciary Committee as the event that will determine whether he backs an effort to impeach the president. He especially wants to hear from Mueller on whether he was compelled to end the investigation prematurely.

“If I had the chance to listen to Mueller, who knows more about this than any other person walking, if I can’t make up my mind after listening to him either I am a coward or a procrastinator, which means a slower coward,” Cleaver said.

The Democratic base has grown increasingly anxious to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, but Cleaver and other Democrats from Kansas and Missouri have urged a cautious approach even as some in the party are pressuring them to take action.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, voted twice to begin impeachment proceedings when Republicans controlled the U.S. House. Now that Democrats are in charge, the St. Louis lawmaker wants to proceed carefully.

“We need to do everything we can to maintain our majority and not just pursue impeachment for the sake of pursuing it because people don’t like this man,” said Lacy Clay.

Lacy Clay’s comments reflect the tightrope Democrats—especially those in Midwestern states that went strongly for Trump in 2016— are walking as they seek to hold the president accountable ahead of 2020 without risking their House majority.

He said some voters don’t realize that an impeachment vote by the House would not actually remove Trump from office. It triggers a trial in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, which would be unlikely to convict a GOP president.

“What’s the endgame? What is the endgame: To say that the House impeached him? I mean, what good does that do when he won’t be leaving office?” said Lacy Clay, who blasted Trump as lawless earlier this month.

Cleaver joked that his toughest critic has been his youngest son, a 35-year-old actor who wanted his father to support impeachment more than a year ago. But Cleaver said his son told him this week he’s beginning to see the wisdom of the slower approach.

“I don’t think running head down toward impeachment is a great strategy… I’m not suggesting that my colleagues have their heads down, but I am saying there is some incongruity of saying we’ve got to hear from Mueller if one has already called for impeachment,” Cleaver said.

“This might be the most significant issue in U.S. history, certainly in U.S. political history, and I don’t want to wake up if I’m around in 20 years and say I should’ve been a little more thoughtful,” Cleaver said.

While only one Congressional Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has voiced support for impeachment, more than 30 Democrats in the House have called for the process to begin, a reflection of the party’s base’s growing desire for it.

A poll released this month by The Morning Consult and Politico found that 53 percent of Democratic voters nationwide think impeaching Trump should be a top priority for the U.S. House. But that number dips to 28 percent for all registered voters.

A plurality of 41 percent oppose impeachment, while another 21 percent say it should either be a lower priority or is “not too important,” according to the survey of 1,995 registered voters conducted last week.

Other polls have found support for impeachment lower than that. In April, Harvard University and the Harris Poll found that 65 percent of registered voters say that Congress should not initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Cleaver said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been masterful in handling competing factions in the party.

“She ought to write a textbook on how to guide a herd of a little Shetland ponies,” Cleaver said.

“Are there are some people who want impeachment today at 3:15? Yes,” he continued. “But in those meetings contrary to what a lot of people want to believe there’s not a lot of people standing up screaming at Pelosi, ‘We want impeachment right now.’”

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, told reporters last week that she hasn’t discussed the issue with the speaker, amid reports that Pelosi’s cautious approach toward impeachment is meant to protect potentially vulnerable Democrats, such as Davids, who flipped a suburban district from Republican to Democratic last year.

Davids offered no opinion on whether the House should pursue impeachment. “I have faith and trust on the people who sit on the relevant committees to do their jobs,” she said, pointing to the House investigations of Trump already under way. She wants those panels to delve more deeply into the incidents of possible obstruction of justice laid out in Mueller’s report.

“I thought the elements of obstruction were laid out fairly clearly. I’d love to see the underlying documents and testimony be brought by the committees,” she said.

She rejected the notion that a vote on impeachment would put a halt to work on the issues which she says are her main priorities: health care, transportation and infrastructure.

“It seems nonsensical to me that Congress wouldn’t be doing stuff just because there was an impeachment vote… We have 20 committees. We’re all doing a bunch of work. I think all of that would continue to happen,” Davids said.

But within hours of Davids making that comment, Trump abruptly canceled a meeting on infrastructure with Democratic leaders because of his frustration with Democratic-led investigations into his administration and personal finances.

“You probably can’t go down two tracks,” Trump said. “You can go down the investigation track, or you can go down the investment track.”

Davids said she’s concerned about members of the Trump administration, including Attorney General William Barr, flouting subpoenas from Congress. Barr will face a contempt vote in the House next month.

“If you get a traffic ticket and you’re supposed to show up in court and you don’t show up, there are real consequences for that,” Davids said. “No one in this country should be able to break the rules and decide that one rule or another shouldn’t apply to them.”

Both Davids and Cleaver said the report made it clear that the country needs to do more to prevent Russian interference in the next election.

Cleaver last week presided over a hearing on sanctions, which he believes are the best strategy for dealing with Russia.

“I’m furious with us, the whole country, me included. We have allowed a KGB agent to have his way with us and frankly he’s doing the same all over Europe,” Cleaver said in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s background in the KGB.

“Every American ought to give some sober moments to thoughts about this discord that is eating away at the very fabric of this country,” Cleaver said. “I don’t think the president is concerned about that, but I am.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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