How Mitch McConnell convinced some Democrats to support a Trump impeachment inquiry

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t just earned the epithet “Moscow Mitch” for refusing to bring election security bills up for a vote. His inaction has helped convince at least two House Democrats to back an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, became the highest-ranking House Democrat to call for opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

The House Democratic Caucus vice chairwoman wrote that she believes former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report shows that the president “committed impeachable offenses by welcoming interference from a hostile foreign power in the 2016 election and then attempting to obstruct the investigation into his unpatriotic actions.”

Mueller’s report came out in April. Clark said what prompted her to join a growing number of House Democrats publicly urging the start of an inquiry was McConnell’s refusal to allow a House-passed elections bill to come up for a vote in the Senate.

“The moment that truly stunned me was when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on an election security bill the same day Mr. Mueller warned that Russia interfered in our elections and is continuing to do so,” Clark said, referring to Mueller’s congressional testimony.

As of Friday, a majority — 118 out of 235 House Democrats — said they support opening an impeachment inquiry, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, also cited McConnell when he said this week he favors launching an impeachment inquiry. Cleaver had urged a cautious approach as some in the party pressured colleagues to take action, but told McClatchy that McConnell’s refusal to take up election security bills passed by the House had prompted him to “think deeply” about the situation.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a very serious state of affairs in this country and the only people who can celebrate this is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his buddies,” Cleaver said.

The support from the two influential Democrats further complicates political life for many moderate Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has carefully avoided calling for an impeachment inquiry.

The California Democrat has said she wants her caucus to focus on policies to improve health care and education and is aware of the political reality: Removing Trump from office would need 67 Senate votes, which appears unlikely since Republicans control 53 of the 100 seats.

Impeachment needs a simple majority in the House. If approved, the Senate would then hold a trial.

In a statement released Friday, Pelosi did not embrace starting an inquiry, but pledged that Democrats would continue to investigate and hold Trump accountable.

She also promised to “lead a drumbeat across the country” demanding that McConnell take up election security legislation, including a bill that would require states to use backup paper ballots in federal races.

“Mitch McConnell refuses to take up this legislation or any other legislation to protect our democracy,” Pelosi said. “Why do the President and the Republican Leader in the Senate choose to protect Russia rather than to protect the integrity of our elections?”

Democrats at the presidential primary debate on Wednesday pointed to McConnell as a stumbling block to conviction — and their potential foil — if his Republican-led Senate were to acquit Trump after a House impeachment.

“If Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the hook, we’re going to be able to say ‘Sure, they impeached him but his friend, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook,’ “ said former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

A day after Mueller testified, McConnell did stop speedy passage of a House bill that would, among other things, mandate the use of paper ballots. The former special counsel warned lawmakers that Russia continues its efforts to interfere.

“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said.

Democrats accused McConnell of ignoring the threat posed by Russia and blocking bills aimed at thwarting foreign interference in U.S. elections, despite warnings from intelligence officials and Mueller.

McConnell panned the legislation as overtly partisan, noting it had received a single Republican vote in the House and was a wish list of election changes that he said would give Democrats a political advantage.

“It’s very important that we maintain the integrity and security of our elections in our country,” McConnell said, but “any Washington involvement in that task needs to be undertaken with extreme care and on a thoroughly bipartisan basis.”

Yet Senate leadership has also blocked from floor consideration election bills that Republican and Democratic support. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and presidential candidate, are working on legislation that would streamline cybersecurity information-sharing between federal intelligence agencies and state election authorities and provide security clearances to state election officials. It also makes grants eligible to local jurisdictions.

Similar legislation died in the Senate Rules Committee last year in the face of Republican opposition and Klobuchar said on the Senate floor Thursday that “Republican leadership, including the leader, made very clear that they did not want that bill to advance in the Senate.”

McConnell this week did not rule out taking up election security legislation, including a bill proposed by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would require presidential campaigns to disclose to the FBI any offers of foreign assistance.

“We are open to any suggestions people may have about how to improve the system,” McConnell told reporters. “Maybe we can reach an agreement on the kinds of things that would further improve the situation.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, last month blocked Warner’s bill, saying Democrats were seeking to rush it to a vote as part of a “blatant political stunt.”

The Democratic criticism may be having an effect. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who faces a competitive primary, on Tuesday became the first Republican to back Warner’s bill saying “Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections remain relentless.”

A Democratic-leaning group, American Bridge, pointed out that Collins had opposed the legislation as recently as June. She told reporters Wednesday that the original language was too broad, but has since been narrowed.

Warner said he’s talking to more Republicans and hopes to bring several on board.

“There’s a growing interest in making sure that we do all we can to protect our elections,” Warner said in an interview. He wouldn’t speculate whether the pressure applied to McConnell would make the bill’s passage more or less likely. “I’m going to keep working on building bipartisan support,” Warner said.

Democrats vowed to revisit the subject when they return from recess in September and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, predicted that the party’s “relentless pushing” would produce results.

“We’re forcing his hand and I think as you’ve seen by his reaction, it’s having some success,” Schumer said of McConnell. “He knows stymieing it is not good for America and not good for the Republican party and frankly, not very good for him.

Byran Lowry contributed to this report.