Democrats, by contrast, face a muddled presidential primary field, with no obvious front-runner to take on Trump in November. And the party was embarrassed this week when chaotic caucuses in Iowa failed to produce a clear winner. Hours before Trump’s acquittal, House Democrats gathered in a private meeting in the Capitol to vent their frustrations while others fretted about the need for a new election-year strategy.
One of the first decisions they face is whether to subpoena Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who details in a forthcoming book that Trump told him that he withheld military aid to Ukraine to force that country to pursue investigations of a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and his son Hunter — the charges at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) suggested that it was a matter of time before the chamber would call Bolton.
“When you have a lawless president, you have to bring that to the fore. You have to spotlight that,” Nadler told reporters. “You have to protect the Constitution, whatever the political consequences.”
But other Democrats cautioned that no decision has been made about Bolton and expressed a desire to move on.
“We also have to have our own idea and vision. We can’t win the next election just being against Trump,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “We have to be for something.”
Republicans, meanwhile, were in soaring spirits. While Democrats have accused the GOP of a coverup in ending the impeachment trial without calling witnesses, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed unconcerned. Shortly after the acquittal vote, he told reporters that swing-state polls indicate Democrats’ decision to impeach Trump is backfiring.
“Right now, this is a political loser for them,” McConnell declared minutes after Trump’s acquittal. “They initiated it. They thought this was a great idea. And at least for the short term, it has been a colossal political mistake.”
The party’s frustration with their predicament was on clear display Wednesday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vented to her colleagues in the private caucus meeting that Trump’s Tuesday night State of the Union address was a “pack of lies.”
Democrats, including Pelosi, often say they can both investigate and legislate. But they’re also vexed by a reality that investigations of Trump overshadow other accomplishments, drowning out work on trade and prescription drugs that is vital to keeping their majority and winning the White House.
Privately, some Democrats fear that if they continue investigating Trump in such a public fashion, it could backfire and embolden him further before the election.
“We need to be better prepared, better ready to take on the attack-and-smear machine, less inclined to quarrel amongst ourselves and more eyes on the prize than we have been,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
The soul-searching for Democrats comes as Trump has experienced perhaps one of the best weeks of his presidency, highlighted by a prime-time address to the nation that was largely well received by Republicans with surprising reality TV moments.
House Democrats, meanwhile, were still angry about Trump’s State of the Union address, in which the president claimed some of their policies as his own — though his administration has pursued the opposite.
Trump, for example, vowed that he would protect Americans with preexisting health conditions — a promise at direct odds with his administration’s legal efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, which includes the guarantee that patients can’t be denied that coverage.
Pelosi, in a dramatic gesture after Trump finished his address to Congress on Tuesday evening, shredded a copy of his words while standing on the dais behind him. On Wednesday morning, a visibly irritated Pelosi told her colleagues that she was looking for “one page I could spare that didn’t have a lie on it” and couldn’t find it — and that she had no regrets about what she did.
“He disrespected the chamber he was in . . . to use it as a backdrop for a reality show . . . to give a speech that had no connection with reality,” she said, according to multiple Democratic officials in the room, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “It was a pack of lies. . . . About a quarter through it I thought: ‘You know — he’s selling a bill of goods like a snake oil salesman. We cannot let this — we cannot let this stand.’ ”
Pelosi’s fury resonated with her members, who gave her a standing ovation in the private caucus meeting.
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) argued after the meeting that the State of the Union was no venue for a “political campaign” and that the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh was “nutty.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) agreed Democrats “need to remind people what [Trump’s] record is, and the fact that he just is a pathological liar.”
“Her instinct for where the caucus is at is unerring. It did capture the way people are feeling,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) of Pelosi ripping up the document.
Pelosi’s leadership team has signaled a desire to focus on policy in the coming months. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) used a weekly news conference Wednesday to discuss a host of legislative proposals that have been stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. And the Democratic response to the State of the Union barely mentioned impeachment, focusing instead on things like gun control, income inequity and infrastructure.
And yet some impeachment investigators say they also have a duty to keep digging on Trump, probing his financial interests, allegations that he used his office for self-enrichment and that he obstructed justice. As he left the caucus, Nadler, for example, argued to reporters that Democrats needed to continue investigating the Ukraine matter and the broader probe into the 2016 campaign despite the pending Senate acquittal.
Between investigating and legislating, Democrats appear genuinely torn. And the Democratic split screen was on full display within 30 seconds in a news conference that Pelosi’s lieutenants held after the morning caucus.
“As far as I’m concerned, the shredder wasn’t available and so she did what she needed to do,” Jeffries said of Pelosi ripping apart Trump’s speech. A few breaths later he pledged to keep working with the president.
“We are going to work with President Trump whenever and wherever we can on behalf of the American people, but disagree when we must,” he said, suggesting the president’s values would “decimate the middle class.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.