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‘I wish we waited a little longer’: Some House Democrats fret as Pelosi forges ahead with impeachment

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) said he was underwhelmed by a rough transcript of a call in July between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

As his fellow House Democrats moved en masse toward impeaching President Trump after months of hesitation, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey could only watch in bewilderment.

“I don’t get surprised often,” the freshman moderate said Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dropped her own qualms and launched the House’s official impeachment inquiry targeting Trump. “But really, truly, I just was like, ‘Wow.’ It happened so quickly.”

As others in the party proclaimed unity and resolve after Pelosi described the “dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office,” pledging to move quickly toward impeachment articles, Van Drew stood with a group of Democrats who say they continue to have reservations. They fear a rash impeachment could obliterate the rest of the party’s governing agenda, improve Trump’s chances of reelection and imperil their own.

As of Wednesday evening, more than a dozen Democrats had yet to issue a statement endorsing the impeachment inquiry, while many others conditioned their ultimate support for impeachment on facts yet to be unearthed — indicating the rightmost frontier of the Democratic caucus will be a key faction in the battle to impeach Trump.

The decision by some Democratic “front-liners” — those seeking reelection in the toughest House districts — to openly support an impeachment investigation played a crucial role in moving Pelosi and other skeptical Democrats in a more decisive direction. But many other front-liners, mostly moderates who represent traditionally Republican-leaning districts, have maintained their skepticism.

Analysis: The House Democrats who want to open an impeachment inquiry into Trump

Most have been more careful and less candid than Van Drew, who said he was underwhelmed by the rough transcript of the call, in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Attorney General William P. Barr and personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

While many of his colleagues were calling it a “smoking gun,” Van Drew said: “I wish we waited a little longer. I wish we looked at it a little more — continuing the investigation, continuing the hearings that we’ve had. I just didn’t want to go down the impeachment route. We are going to go through this together, and you know what it’s going to do: Nobody’s going to be asking me questions out here about my election security legislation. It’s just not going to happen, you know?”

Voices such as Van Drew’s could become crucial in coming weeks as the impeachment process advances. Barring Republican defections and member absences, impeachment advocates will need to persuade 218 of 235 Democratic House members to ultimately back impeachment articles in hopes of forcing a Senate trial for Trump’s removal.

One key signal that unity is elusive: House leaders have no immediate plans to schedule a floor vote formally authorizing the Judiciary Committee to conduct an impeachment investigation — a step taken in the impeachment proceedings against Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), another Trump-district moderate who has shied away from impeachment, said he had no plans to embrace impeachment anytime soon.

“I have 20 people as we speak standing outside my office at a pro-Trump, anti-impeachment rally in Utica, and I have dozens of phone calls into my office today from people saying, ‘impeach Trump,’ ” he said. “I am not going to be bullied by the Twitterverse. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of all this because I think the American people deserve the facts, and I want to know what happened here.”

Trump deflects and defies as Democrats speed up impeachment strategy

Other House Democrats were more talkative speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe their views, citing the potential friction with colleagues and backlash from liberal constituents who have fiercely pushed for them to back impeachment.

“I think we’ve set it up to be a no-win situation for front-liners, and it probably only becomes more of a no-win situation as we move forward,” one freshman Democrat said on Wednesday. “I think we premised an impeachment inquiry on facts that we don’t know yet — on third-hand information, and this is what I think we’ve done poorly all along: We set expectations so high, and those expectations are never met.”

The lawmaker compared the situation to Democrats’ handling of the investigation led by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election: “We had basically built up this perception of the American people that Trump was a KGB agent, and when it turned out all he had done was invite a foreign power to meddle in our elections for his personal gain, that was a letdown. … We have people believing that Trump explicitly lay out a quid pro quo with Ukraine, and when it comes out that he only danced around it and insinuated it and the dots are there but you have to connect them, it’s going to be a letdown.”

Another House Democrat described having an internal debate over whether to speak up and argue that moving toward impeachment is a bad idea while attending the Tuesday night caucus meeting, during which Pelosi laid out her decision to endorse an impeachment investigation.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t want to be the skunk at the garden party,” the lawmaker said. “Right now, we have allegations and news reports, but we need facts. Until we have more facts, I’m not ready to say what I’m prepared to do.”

Pressed to comment on the record, other moderate Democrats have stuck closely to rehearsed talking points or simply have not said anything at all. Leaving a House vote on Wednesday, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) remained silent as reporters asked her whether she agreed with Pelosi’s decision.

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who like McBath flipped a Republican-held district last year, grew exasperated when reporters pressed him on whether it was prudent to begin an impeachment inquiry.

“My position on the matter hasn’t changed, which is that we have got to get to the bottom of this — we’ve got to see all the information,” he said. “We have to present the facts to the American people and move deliberately. That is really it for this issue. That’s going to be my answer.”

Among those who have danced around the prospect of impeachment is Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who has privately counseled fellow Democrats for months to steer clear of the issue lest it endanger the front-liners.

As the frenzy over the whistleblower swirled on Tuesday, Bustos issued a statement condemning “disturbing conduct and what clearly looks to be an abuse of power” by Trump. She steered clear of using the word “impeachment,” calling instead for “a bipartisan approach to a complete, thorough and unimpeded investigation of the whistleblower’s report.”

After Pelosi announced her backing of an impeachment investigation later that day, Bustos sent tweets that again avoided that word, calling it a “measured step” and a “fact-finding mission.” Then on Wednesday evening, hours after the White House publicly released the Trump-Zelensky call memo and sent a key whistleblower report to the congressional intelligence committees, Bustos issued a statement supporting “the House Intelligence Committee’s search for the truth in this impeachment inquiry.”

“Republicans and Democrats must demonstrate that, together, we stand for law and order and that this exploration must be fair, evenhanded and unrushed,” she said.

Another House leader who has been similarly reticent to rush into a formal impeachment inquiry — Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition — also dropped her objections Wednesday after the rough transcript of Trump’s call was released, tweeting that it “confirms the president asked a foreign gov’t to investigate his political opponent.”

“This is an abuse of executive power,” she wrote. “I support the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry to get the facts for the American people.”

Her Blue Dog co-chair, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who had questioned whether an impeachment investigation was warranted, said Thursday he was backing a probe after reading the transcript of Trump’s call and the whistleblower’s report.

“Sadly, the litany of activities from this president has brought us to this juncture. No one is above the law of the land,” Schrader said in a statement.

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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