House Democrats eager to impeach President Trump are struggling to galvanize public opinion, a major challenge that has delighted the White House and flummoxed Capitol Hill investigators who say they’re running short on time.

The House Judiciary Committee brought in former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on Tuesday for the first in a series of fall hearings aimed at convincing voters of the need to impeach the president. But while the acrimonious testimony drew headlines and attention, even some impeachment proponents said it wouldn’t sway the public.

“If you’re looking to draw out information and begin shaping a narrative for the American people, that wasn’t the witness to do it,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-
Calif.), a longtime impeachment backer.

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The skepticism underscores a problem Democrats face as they weigh whether to draft articles of impeachment this fall: Voters overwhelmingly oppose a move to oust the president — and some polls even show sentiment moving in the opposite direction. 

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The public, some Democrats fear, is becoming desensitized to Trump-related scandals, making the committee’s job convincing voters even more difficult. Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report detailed 10 episodes of possible obstruction of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But if the report wasn’t enough to move the polling on impeachment, Democrats wonder if hearings with people such as Lewandowski will.

“There is a numbness that is occurring month by month,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “He gets more and more outrageous, far more bold. . . . But there’s this immunity that he seems to be developing.”

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“Any other president, had they done one of those things [Trump has] — the public would be screaming,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). “The public has become numb, and he gets away with it.”

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Trump and White House officials, meanwhile, are reveling in Democrats’ difficulties. In fact, the president — who watched Lewandowski’s testimony from Air Force One on Tuesday — was laughing and joking about the hearing, arguing that Democrats have no idea what they’re doing and that no one cared about the Mueller report anymore, according to one person who spoke with him.

The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe what transpired.

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Two White House officials suggested that the administration could defy congressional requests because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made it clear she is reluctant about impeachment. They also have calculated that there won’t be a public price to pay for stonewalling Congress, in part because the clock is running out.

“When I’m looking at the legislative calendar, you’re seeing there is not much left there. How much can they really do between now and when everyone is trying to run for their seats?” asked a senior White House official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

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“The American people deserve better than the Democrats’ pointless showboating and political theater, masquerading as an ‘impeachment’ hearing,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement Wednesday night. “Rather than scrambling for their five minutes of TV time, they should consider getting to work to help the people of this country.”

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The gap between Democrats’ desire to impeach Trump and the public’s position means the party could find itself in a political bind this fall: Do they follow their base and vote to impeach him, or do nothing and risk history’s judgment for standing pat as well as liberal wrath heading into the 2020 elections.

House Judiciary Committee Democrats argue that it doesn’t have to be either-or. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) often notes that only 19 percent of Americans supported removing President Richard M. Nixon before lawmakers began their impeachment inquiry in 1973; but by the summer of 1974, a majority backed his ouster, suggesting the panel can build a case against Trump.

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“I see the whole country and the whole Congress as in an educational phase right now,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member. “I know everybody wants to jump to the end of the process. But we really are in the active investigative mode.”

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On Capitol Hill, however, there’s a sense that time left to move sentiment is running out. Lawmakers say they need to decide on impeachment by the end of the year, leaving the Judiciary Committee only a couple of months to make its public case. That pressure has caused occasional tension in the pro-
impeachment caucus, with some questioning the Judiciary strategy and wondering why they’re not doing more hearings.

Disagreements were also evident Wednesday in the wake of the Lewandowski hearing, with some Democrats dismissing the exercise as unhelpful.

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Huffman said the hearing amounted to “a food fight,” although he blamed the combative former Trump campaign official, not his colleagues, for the result. He, along with other Democrats, wondered whether the panel would be better served to have its staff do more of the questioning: After hours of partisan bickering, Judiciary staff lawyer Barry Berke had some success pinning Lewandowski down at the end of the hearing Tuesday. 

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“I mean, I wouldn’t presume to tell Chairman Nadler how to do it, but if you want to get the goods up front, that seems like a good way to do it,” Huffman said. “Clearly, it was more productive.”

Judiciary panel member J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), however, dismissed the idea that lawmakers would yield to unelected lawyers. “Members are pretty jealous and protective of their five minutes,” he said, referring to the allotted time Democrats have for questioning witnesses. 

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Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said the hearing essentially made the Democrats look weak, exposing Congress’s inability to overcome presidential stonewalling. Lewandowski talked over lawmakers, dodged questions and even used the hearing to promote a potential U.S. Senate bid in New Hampshire.

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“The founders never believed that this kind of thing would happen, so there’s no way to deal with it,” he said. “I think the American people looked at that and thought, ‘What’s going on?’ We understand it, but they look at this like: What? Screaming at members of Congress?”

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee defended their strategy Wednesday, arguing that Lewandowski gave them fodder to say Trump has trampled the Constitution and is not respecting the powers of Congress.

“Even though it was a rocky hearing yesterday, in retrospect, as people think about it, they will come to the conclusions that Corey Lewandowski was lying, and he was covering up for the president, and he was protecting the president — and they want to know why,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “So it will increase the curiosity and the suspiciousness of the American people.”

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Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) also said it was unrealistic for one hearing to move public sentiment. “This is a process in which we’re building a case,” he said. “This notion that, like, ‘Oh, is this going to turn the tide today?’ No.”

Congressional Republicans have goaded the party over the apparent insistence on moving forward with impeachment. On Wednesday, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) insisted that the Democratic rank and file are “rabid” over the idea of impeaching Trump and dubbed them the “Party of Impeachment.”

Democrats have blamed the White House for making their job difficult. The Trump administration has blocked progress on more than 20 Hill investigations, keeping ex-aides from testifying and documents from being handed over. That’s why Judiciary Democrats are also looking to the courts to help them make their case to the public. A circuit court is expected to rule in late October on whether former White House counsel Donald McGahn must testify. 

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“We’re trying to craft a story, get the facts out there for the American people so they can see what is happening with their government,” said House Democratic Caucus vice chair Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.). “And I think as those facts come out, we’re going to see where public sentiment is because we want to do this — as the speaker said many times — in a unified way, with public sentiment behind us.”