Donald Trump’s many Russia-related scandals have raised the specter of impeachment this week, with a flurry of news stories and columns speculating how the president could be forced out.
These articles tend to note that impeachment remains a very remote prospect given that Republicans control Congress and that only two of them — Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) — have publicly entertained discussions of removing the president.
But there may be an even more elementary barrier in Congress to setting the impeachment train in motion: Democrats. Despite calls from some activists groups and about 20 progressive House Democrats, very few leaders in the opposition party are willing to talk about impeachment, according to more than a dozen interviews with Democrats in both chambers over the past three days.
“It’s way too early,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow in an interview Wednesday. “We have to get the facts and get much more information.”
Given the velocity of revelations about Trump, congressional Democrats may grow increasingly willing over the coming months to discuss impeachment. But for now, Senate Democrats are quick to shush these rumblings — even as two House Republicans lean into them.
Why some Democrats are resisting impeachment calls
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN), a moderate Democrat from a swing district that Trump won by more than 10 points, says he is well aware of Trump’s Russia-related scandals. He’s alarmed by the firing of FBI Director James Comey. But Nolan disagrees with his Democratic colleagues who are already using the “i-word” in speeches on the House floor.
“It’s premature: We have to wait until we get the facts and see where they lead us,” he said in an interview. “So much of what we’ve heard is in the form of allegations. We haven’t seen the memo. We haven’t heard the tapes.”
In part, Nolan argued that rallying around impeachment would be wrong for Democrats politically — that it would hurt their chances of retaking Congress in 2018 by suggesting they’re dogmatic obstructionists.
“People across the country are so tired of partisanship,” he said. “Let’s gather all the facts and information before making a judgment, as opposed to trying to prejudge it — which smacks of partisanship. The other approach is one that resonates in a more thoughtful way with more people.”
Other Democrats similarly insisted that the public simply did not have confirmation that Trump had committed an impeachable offense. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who represents a state Trump won by close to 20 points, brushed aside the impeachment conversation as a distraction from the critical work of discovering the exact timeline surrounding Comey’s firing and the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian ties.
“I understand people are beside themselves over this chaos, but that reinforces the need for us to be methodical and get the evidence,” she told me. “It’s time now to be very methodical, thorough, and professional about assembling the facts. That’s what we should all be focused on.”
The New York Times’s Ross Douthat argued on Wednesday that Congress and the Cabinet need to consider the 25th Amendment, which would allow the president to be removed on the grounds that he’s incapable of fulfilling the duties of the office. McCaskill called that a “tortured” argument that ignored the reality of Trump’s election.
She wasn’t alone. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said about impeachment that he’s “not there yet.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) agreed that Democrats were flirting with a “witch hunt” by engaging talk of impeachment. Like it or not, Manchin said, Trump was democratically elected and shouldn’t be undemocratically removed.
“[Trump’s message] resonated with a bunch of voters from different states, and he’s saying a lot of the same things now that he was then,” Manchin said. “All of this hyper-speculation going on right now — I’m just saying, let’s keep going and let the Senate Intelligence Committee do its job.”
Even some of the most progressive senators from safely blue states said they couldn’t get behind impeachment buzz. In separate interviews with Vox, liberal stalwarts Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) dismissed House Democrats’ impeachment talk as premature, citing the need for clarity about what Trump told Comey and why he fired him.
“We need to move methodically — not slowly, but methodically,” Schatz told me. Harris said, “When we’re talking about anything related to the impeachment of the president of the United States, it needs to be based on fact. It’s a pretty serious assertion.”
House Democrats who are calling for impeachment feel emboldened
But despite resistance in the Senate, calls for impeachment enjoy much more support in the House. And like some House Democrats, leading progressive advocacy organizations are increasingly embracing the position that Trump will have to be forced out.
The most vocal official leading the charge has been Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), who became the first member of Congress to begin talking of impeaching Trump in early February. But back then, her remarks were greeted as almost overly dramatic. Democrats tried to distance themselves as much as possible. Conservative media accused Waters of “disgraceful” incitement of left-wing protesters.
Since Comey’s firing, many more House Democrats have come around to her position. At least seven House Democrats — Reps. Al Green, Nanette Diaz Barragán, John Yarmuth, Mark Pocan, Rep. Jared Huffman, and Hakeem Jeffries — all began pushing talk of impeachment this week, according to a running tally by CNN that pegs the total number of House Democrats talking impeachment at 22.
A 23rd, Rep. Hank Johnson told Vox on Wednesday that it was “absolutely” the right time for Democrats to begin coalescing behind the position that Trump must be impeached — even if some members of the caucus disagree.
“Every single day we get hit by another scandal,” he said. “This last one has to do with abuse of power, obstructing justice, and it’s clear there’s probable cause that Trump knowingly interfered with an FBI investigation.”
Not everyone in the Democratic Party has followed Waters’s lead in calling for impeachment. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested it was leadership’s job to keep Democrats’ focus on obtaining the facts. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also dismissed calls for impeachment at a Wednesday press conference.
“I understand their enthusiasm — but as leader, I think we have to contain some of that in order to get the facts in a way that will be acceptable to the American people as we go forward,” Pelosi said. “I hope some would curb their enthusiasm so we have all of the facts and have confidence that when the American people understand what is there, whether it's grounds for impeachment or grounds for disappointment, then they'll know.”
But what may be more remarkable is that this many are talking about impeachment. Only a handful of House Republicans ever broached the topic of impeaching President Obama during his presidency, and it took until the Iraq War for Democrats to seriously talk about impeaching George W. Bush.
Some progressive activists are demanding more follow suit. Murshed Zaheed of CREDO Action, a consistent critic of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, argued that the Democratic Party leader needs to demand that Trump be impeached.
“The i-word is popping up more and more, and rank-and-file members in the House are starting to use it. Leaders in the Senate should too,” Zaheed said in comments that matched those of activists at MoveOn.org. “And it appears to me they have reasonable legal justification to use that word.”
Waters is confident her colleagues will begin moving in that direction. "In the final analysis, Maxine Waters was right: You’ve got to impeach him,” she said Tuesday to a crowd of liberals at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference.
After her speech, Waters told Vox that impeachment is “at the top of my agenda” because the danger Trump poses to the country is far more important than fears of blowback from his supporters.
“I know some are talking about, ‘Well, we’ve got to get ready for the next election.’ We cannot wait that long,” she said. “We cannot have the uncertainty. We cannot wake up to a crisis every day. ... What more do we need in the Congress of the United States of America?”