Long divided on impeachment, Democrats unite in name of national security

Leah Millis/Reuters
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters as she arrives for a meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 25, 2019.

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After months of hand-wringing and division within the party, Democrats are now presenting a united front on impeachment – and the words “national security” are key to the shift.

“National security” was the underlying factor cited by a group of moderate freshman Democrats, all with military or intelligence backgrounds, explaining why they favored impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Why We Wrote This

What was the tipping point for moderate Democrats, who for so long resisted calls for impeachment? A group of freshmen with military or intelligence service says it came down to two words: national security.

“What this comes down to, our North Star, are our oaths,” Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a freshman and former Army Ranger, told reporters. “Every time I wake up in the morning or I go to bed at night I’m thinking, ‘Am I being faithful to that oath?’”

The tipping point for Democrats came after a flurry of revelations about a whistleblower report involving a phone call in which President Donald Trump asked the Ukrainian president to “look into” activities of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, just days after the administration withheld U.S. aid to that country.

On Wednesday, the White House released official notes from the phone call. Mr. Trump continues to deny doing anything wrong, telling reporters at a joint press conference with the Ukrainian leader: “There was no pressure.”

After months of hand-wringing and division within the party, Democrats are now presenting a united front on impeachment – and the words “national security” are key to the shift. 

“National security” was the underlying factor cited by a group of moderate freshman Democrats, all with military or intelligence backgrounds, in a Washington Post op-ed Monday night explaining why they favored impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. The same words were invoked repeatedly on Tuesday as more than two dozen other lawmakers followed suit, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” she said.

Why We Wrote This

What was the tipping point for moderate Democrats, who for so long resisted calls for impeachment? A group of freshmen with military or intelligence service says it came down to two words: national security.

The tipping point for Democrats came after a flurry of revelations about a whistleblower report involving a phone call in which Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian president to “look into” activities of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, just days after the administration withheld U.S. aid to that country. Up to this point, nothing else – not Mr. Trump’s refusal to divest assets that may raise a conflict of interest, nor accusations against him of racism, nor former special counsel Robert Mueller’s detailed report on the president’s dealings with Russia during the 2016 campaign – had achieved that bar.

The difference? Democrats see the connection to national security – including the need to safeguard the 2020 campaign from interference – as a clear, convincing message they can unify voters around. For moderates, that means casting their decision to back impeachment as a matter of principle, not politics. 

“Trying to malign or find dirt on his opponent for the 2020 election using national security money” is an action the public will easily be able to grasp, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., a former Air Force officer and one of the freshmen who penned the op-ed, told reporters. 

“The president, in a very unpatriotic act, put the national security of the country behind his own political interests,” Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan added. “That is a breach we just cannot allow.” 

Mr. Trump denies doing anything wrong. On Wednesday, the White House released official notes from the phone call. “There was no pressure,” he said at a joint press conference with the Ukrainian leader in New York.

The same day, the House passed a resolution demanding that the White House release the whistleblower complaint – something the administration has said it plans to do – and stop all efforts to discredit the whistleblower or block him or her from testifying. The Senate voted unanimously in favor of a similar resolution Tuesday. 

Is it clear-cut for voters?

Of course, some Americans may see this latest charge against Mr. Trump as less clear-cut than Democrats believe. The president’s defenders were quick to note the lack of an explicit quid pro quo in the released notes from the call. “To impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters.

But Democrats seem to have determined that, at this point, circumstances demand they take action. By calling Mr. Trump a threat to national security, they are trying to frame the move toward impeachment as patriotic, defending the nation’s interests and institutions.

“I see this as one of those events … that allows these members to have a clear thing to point at and say, ‘This is unacceptable,’” says Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “It is easier for voters to understand.”

The authors of the Post op-ed said that after hearing the latest allegations against Mr. Trump, they decided, as a group, that they couldn’t stay silent any longer. “What this comes down to, our North Star, are our oaths,” Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a freshman and former Army Ranger, told reporters. “Every time I wake up in the morning or I go to bed at night I’m thinking, ‘Am I being faithful to that oath?’” 

“This was not something that I thought about based off of my chances for re-election in 2020,” added Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia. “I thought it was very important to be on the right side of history with this.”

Many Democrats acknowledge that impeachment could backfire politically, as happened to Republicans in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “I don’t think anyone wants to run on it,” said Mr. Kildee, the chief deputy whip. Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that the move remains unpopular with most voters, though Democrats largely support it.  

And if impeachment is eventually put to a vote and then fails to hit the two-thirds Senate majority required to convict – which seems likely, given that Republicans control the chamber – it might bolster Mr. Trump’s “witch hunt” charge. That scenario, and the divisions it would likely exacerbate, could make it even harder than it already is to get any bipartisan legislating done, some moderate Democrats say. 

“When you have an impeachment process, probably the president isn’t real happy. Probably the Republicans aren’t real happy. And probably the chance to have a real conversation to get a whole lot of stuff done is going to be minimal,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., told reporters Wednesday. “That’s the reason it really hurts us.”

On the other hand, if Democrats are able to gather more evidence showing that the president used foreign aid as leverage for personal political gain, some Republicans might be convinced to switch over. After reading the released notes from the phone call, GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters on Wednesday: “It remains troubling in the extreme. It’s deeply troubling.” 

Much remains up in the air

The impeachment dam began to break last week, after news reports that a whistleblower had filed a complaint related to the call between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, received a report about the complaint from the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who deemed the complaint “urgent” and credible. After consulting with the Department of Justice Mr. Maguire decided to withhold the complaint from Congress. 

Then, on Monday, the Post reported that just before the call took place on July 25, the administration had held up nearly $400 million in congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine. 

All day Tuesday, a cascade of lawmakers came forward in favor of impeachment, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon often seen as the conscience of the caucus. By 5 p.m., when Ms. Pelosi announced formal proceedings, more than 160 Democrats in total had come out in favor of impeachment. (The number was at 207 by Wednesday morning, according to Politico’s tracker; a simple majority of House members present and voting would be needed to impeach the president.)

Despite all the action, much remains up in the air. On Thursday, Mr. Maguire is set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. The whistleblower’s lawyers have also confirmed that their client is interested in speaking with members of both House and Senate Intelligence committees. It’s still unclear what these events will yield. 

Ms. Pelosi’s announcement also didn’t include the creation of a special committee like the one formed during the Watergate hearings. Instead, she said the investigations taking place in six House committees will continue. The Judiciary Committee will then compile the best evidence and decide whether or not to write articles of impeachment. 

For now, however, Democrats appear unified in a way they haven’t been for a long time. Even some who still haven’t come out officially for impeachment are expressing solidarity.

“I’m not one of those kinds who jump on just ’cause everyone is jumping on,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas on Tuesday. “But … we had a consensus today that we are going to let the impeachment inquiry proceed, and then we will take it from there and see.”

“This river’s been running in the same direction all along. We’ve just now hit a waterfall,” says Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, one of the earliest proponents of impeachment, in a phone interview. 

“Everybody is moving in the same direction,” he adds. “The pace is just quicker.”

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