Leading Democrats remain fearful that impeaching President Donald Trump will bolster his re-election campaign.
But if Robert Mueller’s brief, unexpected statement did anything Wednesday, it clarified that a Democratic Party that does not embrace impeachment still faces a potentially sizable political risk — especially from core supporters demanding more loudly than ever before that the House try to remove Trump from office.
“There is a real danger if Democrats fail to have message clarity and moral clarity when it comes to this,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the influential liberal activist group Indivisible. “There will be a real question of how they’ll ever motivate people to vote for them.”
Levin’s warning was emblematic of the response to the former special counsel’s remarks from progressive leaders, many of whom have called for Trump’s impeachment since 2017 but have increased their pressure on congressional Democrats to support it since the release of Mueller’s report in April.
Their position is at odds with many Democratic officials and strategists, who say pursuing impeachment could alienate moderate voters who are skeptical of Trump but not yet ready to remove him for office. For months, they have contended that the risks of such an extraordinary procedure outweigh the rewards, especially given that a GOP-controlled Senate is certain not to convict the president.
That argument had persuaded many Democrats to oppose opening impeachment proceedings. But Mueller’s decision to reiterate his report’s conclusions appeared to generate momentum for impeachment supporters. Several Democratic presidential candidates, such as Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, reversed their previous position on the issue. And more than 40 House Democrats now back opening an impeachment inquiry.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, notably, continued to insist that Democrats investigate Trump but not has yet called for impeachment.
“The dam has burst,” said Markos Moulitsas, a longtime progressive leader who founded the blog DailyKos.
Moulitsas and others who share his view argue that, at a time with fewer truly independent voters, presidential elections are now mainly contests to see which party can best turn out their respective bases. And to him, the idea that impeachment will do anything more to motivate Trump’s supporters is a fallacy.
“This notion that Democrats are going to catch his voters sleeping if they just tip-toe around this utterly ignores the reality that Trump’s old, white, male base of support is the most reliable voting constituency in the country,” Moulitsas said. “Republicans turn out to vote.”
Democrats, he added, will be less motivated in 2020 if their party fails to adequately stand up to Trump.
Demands that Democrats impeach are relatively new. Activists largely ignored the issue last election cycle, preferring instead to pressure the party to support policy goals like single-payer health care. Many of them were even skeptical that the release of Mueller’s report would change their view.
But the details of the investigation, combined with the widespread belief that Attorney General William Barr acted inappropriately when releasing its findings, has caused those progressives to reconsider. Holding Trump accountable, they say, requires impeachment.
“There comes a point where it’s not going to be politically tenable to stand in the way of this investigation,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America. “We may be reaching that point now or soon.”
Still, doubts linger among Democatic leaders that impeachment is a good idea. They point out that the sweeping success of many of their House candidates in 2018 came after a campaign focused almost entirely on health care and economic issues, not the Russia investigation.
Highlighting those subjects is harder when the public’s attention turns to impeachment, they say.
“It’s hard to get oxygen around something you’re doing to improve people’s lives when there’s talk of impeachment,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper.
An early May poll from Quinnipiac University found that just 29 percent of voters think that Congress should impeach Trump.
“This is such a shit show for Dems,” said one Democratic consultant, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. “They should be talking healthcare and instead they are chasing their tails on something voters don’t have the stomach for.”
Officials with the Trump administration projected confidence and offered no sense they were fazed by Mueller’s statement in the hours after his brief appearance at the Justice Department. The former special counsel offered nothing new, several Trump aides said, and therefore did not change the political equation or require they reconfigure a strategy already fully deployed after the initial release of his report.
One administration official told McClatchy that the president’s aides see clear electoral benefit in House Democrats proceeding with impeachment—a move they believe would be interpreted by Trump’s base as a “pre-baked political attack” on the president, and only supported by a minority of Americans already guaranteed to vote for Trump’s 2020 opponent.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders echoed that conclusion, but also teased a new line of attack against Democrats should they proceed with the impeachment process. She would not comment on internal deliberations over the prospects of impeachment.
“We’re always prepared, but I don’t think the American people deserve that,” she said. “Every single minute that Congress spends on that we’re not spending on infrastructure, we’re not spending on lower prescription drug prices, we’re not spending on Iran, China, North Korea, new trade deals. Every single thing that they’re doing is taking away from things that could actually help the American people and that’s a great disservice.”
Adam Wollner contributed reporting.