To impeach or not to impeach

For Democrats and progressives, that is the question

The long-simmering debate among Democrats and progressives is about to boil over: To impeach President Donald Trump or not.

With Congress set to reconvene Sept. 9 and time running short for a decision, the impeachment question will likely be top of mind when the Democratic National Committee gathers in San Francisco starting Thursday, and when the California Democratic Party’s executive committee meets Friday in San Jose.

The question: What is the most effective way to get Trump out of office—through impeachment or through the 2020 election?

Many Democrats in Sacramento and across America say that nothing less than America’s future is at stake in making the right decision—and time is running out.

Two Californians are in the middle of the debate. One is Silicon Valley billionaire Tom Steyer, the TV face of a national campaign for impeachment and a late entry into the Democratic presidential race.

The other is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the most notable of party leaders who are wary about jumping into impeachment, arguing that most voters are far more interested in health care, gun safety and other kitchen table issues.

Skeptical Democrats say that perhaps even with blockbuster new evidence, it’s clear that the Republican Senate will never convict Trump—a two-thirds vote is required—and remove him from office.

“What do we get out of it?” asked Terry Schanz, chairman of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County. “Do you need impeachment to know he’s a crook?”

Party officials in this school of thought also ask: Isn’t all the time, energy and money that would be spent on impeachment better used on the long, costly and ugly 2020 presidential campaign?

Schanz said while he agrees there’s more than enough evidence to start an impeachment inquiry, “the focus is to get rid of him in 2020 at the ballot box. … Our focus is to make Trump a one-term president.”

Besides defeating Trump and winning control of the U.S. Senate, Schanz also wants to put a Democratic majority on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

On the flip side, many progressives say that it’s clear from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Trump has committed many impeachable offenses—obstruction of justice to stop the Russia investigation chief among them.

“We believe the evidence is overwhelming,” said Doug Treadwell, a leader in Indivisible Sacramento, part of the national activist movement that backs impeachment.

Impeachment supporters also say that Trump has already done too much to divide America and despoil the presidency to go unpunished. Like many Trump foes, Treadwell blames the president for stoking white supremacy and anti-immigrant hysteria, creating the climate that led to the mass shooting in El Paso by a gunman who apparently targeted Mexicans.

“He definitely should be removed from office just on that alone,” Treadwell said.

Regina Banks, an Indivisible Sacramento member who is also a state party delegate, said she also believes that Trump is “winding up mass shooters” and is “a tool of the Russian oligarchy.”

But Banks conceded that even if the House approves articles of impeachment, “he’s not going to be convicted. The Senate is not there yet. So just listing all the things he’s getting away with and not removing him sends a horrible message.”

“We’ve got to do something,” she added, “but I see this confusion that everyone is going through.”

‘Pick a strategy and go with it’

Democrats have been here before.

Often, the party is in a tug-of-war between an establishment faction that plays it safe—and a more activist wing that wants more sweeping change. In 2016, the establishment made Hillary Clinton the nominee over insurgent Bernie Sanders. She lost to Trump, but won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million. In the 2018 election, some progressives—most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—ousted incumbent Democrats. But a lot of moderates also won to help Democrats take back control of the House.

Now, similar fault lines are surfacing out on impeachment.

The Democratic presidential candidates are divided. For instance, Sanders, who is holding a campaign rally in Sacramento on Thursday, has called on the House to start an impeachment inquiry. But he has also said he’s worried that going all-in on impeachment will play right into Trump’s hands.

Neither the California Democratic Party nor the Democratic Party of Sacramento County has taken an official position. Sacramento County Young Democrats don’t take stands as a group on national issues such as impeachment. But members have strong opinions, as was clear from conversations before their monthly meeting on Aug. 7.

Kenton Ngo, 28, a digital consultant, said House Democrats have a constitutional duty to conduct a full impeachment inquiry. “It would be an abdication of responsibility” not to, Ngo said. “Having the 2020 election in front of us does not absolve us from doing an investigation.”

But Maria Almaraz, 23, an assistant at a Sacramento immigration law firm, said “the election coming up is the best way to get him out of office.”

She said that the impeachment process “would just drag on and on” and let Trump rally his base. Also, she said she fears that if Trump is impeached and removed, Republicans will be “hell-bent on getting revenge.”

Almaraz also works at the Secretary of State’s office on voter registration outreach, and said Democrats need to spend their time and money adding new voters for 2020.

Eric Marquez, a member of Sacramento County Young Democrats, says the party must decide soon between impeachment and focusing on the election, or risks neither strategy working.

Eric Marquez, a 32-year-old attorney who was a delegate at the Young Democrats of America national convention last month in Indianapolis, said both strategies can work. Impeachment could drive Democratic base voters to the polls, while the party could also win back the White House by focusing on other issues to attract swing voters.

But if Democratic leaders wait too long to decide on a game plan, “we could waste the opportunity to do either,” he said.

“As a party, we have to make a decision and go with it,” Marquez said. “We can’t seesaw back and forth.

“Pick a strategy and go with it,” he added.

House Democrats on hot seat

House Democrats—who will actually decide on impeachment and whose own political careers could be on the line—are just as divided. On Aug. 2, the number who favor starting impeachment passed a key milestone—a majority of the 235-member caucus. At this point, the California delegation is also split almost in half.

Among Sacramento-area representatives, John Garamendi and Doris Matsui favor impeachment proceedings now, while Ami Bera and Jerry McNerney aren’t quite there yet.

In a statement to SN&R, Bera said he would support a formal impeachment inquiry if the House Judiciary Committee believes it would strengthen its hand to stop Trump from blocking its investigations.

McNerney said he supports the Judiciary Committee’s inquiry to “answer questions that are critical to determining if impeachment is necessary.”

Garamendi said that Mueller found 10 clear instances of possible obstruction of justice, so the House must move forward with an investigation toward a possible formal impeachment resolution.

And in her statement, Matsui said that Trump “directed members of his staff to obstruct and cover up,” leaving the House “with little choice but move forward with impeachment proceedings.”

Mueller was appointed as special counsel in 2017 to look into allegations of improper coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign leading up to the 2016 election. In his 448-page report, Mueller said that while Trump and his team knew that they would benefit from illegal Russian actions, they did not break the law to help them.

Mueller also looked into Trump’s actions in response to the Russia investigation. Mueller’s report said that he could not clear Trump of obstruction of justice—and that since Justice Department policy prevents the indictment of a sitting president, “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system.”

Courtesy of the National Archives

While the Constitution cites treason, bribery or other “high crimes and misdemeanors” as reasons for impeachment, it’s largely a political decision. In the case of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Nixon resigned in 1974 before the full House could vote.

For Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Republican House voted in 1998 to impeach him for perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate acquitted him, failing to reach the two-thirds vote required for conviction, and Clinton served out his second term.

Now, in what some lawmakers say is the equivalent of starting the impeachment process, the House Judiciary Committee has launched a full-blown investigation and has gone to court to obtain documents used in the Mueller probe and to force testimony from key witnesses including former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York has said that he believes his committee could vote by late this year on articles of impeachment—for obstruction of justice, perjury or for violating other laws or constitutional provisions.

That goes beyond what Pelosi is willing to say. She gave a lengthy defense of her more cautious approach at an Aug. 2 press conference. “To protect our democracy and our Constitution, Democrats in the Congress continue to legislate, investigate and litigate,” she said.

At a certain point, however, it will be too late to start impeachment proceedings and finish before the 2020 election. Pelosi is already being accused of running out the clock—and ignoring the will of rank-and-file Democrats.

Democratic voters strongly favor impeachment—64%, compared to 18% opposed, according to a Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted right after Mueller testified to Congress in late July.

His just-the-facts testimony, however, appears to have done little to move the general public. The Politico poll still had 46% of all voters opposed to starting impeachment, compared to 37% in favor.

There’s a similar divide in California: While only 49% of California adults overall supported impeachment in a late May poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 66% of Democrats did.

The lack of enthusiasm among independents and moderate Republicans worries some party leaders.

Eric Sunderland, the California Democratic Party board member for Sacramento and parts of El Dorado and Placer counties, said he understands that it’s Pelosi’s job to protect Democratic incumbents in swing districts where impeachment isn’t popular so the party keeps control of the House after 2020.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was interrupted by “impeachment” chants at the California Democratic Party state convention in San Francisco in June, is resisting a formal impeachment inquiry. (Photo by Ben Christopher for CALmatters)

But he said while the state party hasn’t passed an official resolution, it was clear from the convention in June that Pelosi, whose speech was interrupted by chants for impeachment, is out of step with the party faithful.

Eventually, Pelosi may be forced to act by her caucus. But that will require holdout House Democrats being convinced by their constituents, just as grassroots activism moved party leaders and presidential candidates on the Green New Deal and other issues.

Banks of Indivisible Sacramento said she’s calling and writing Bera, and plans to attend town halls and do everything else she can to pressure the House to move forward on impeachment.

“I still believe in the system,” she said.

‘His base is already fired up’

The impeachment question is made even more complicated because a very unconventional president is upending typical political calculations.

Some Democrats acknowledge there’s a risk that an impeachment inquiry would not uncover anything significant and that Trump could capitalize on that in the campaign.

“We don’t want to give them talking points that ‘they investigated and there was no there there.’ That’s a risk,” Sunderland said.

But he said he’s convinced there is damaging material in Trump’s taxes and business dealings that weren’t directly part of the Mueller probe.

Treadwell of Indivisible Sacramento also said he’s confident that impeachment hearings would bring out enough proof of Trump’s misdeeds and lack of fitness for office to persuade the public to tell their senators that Trump should be removed.

But if the Senate does not act, some worry that impeachment will rile up Trump’s base even more—and help him win reelection.

Sunderland said he isn’t convinced of that: “His base is already fired up.”

Besides, there’s a strong argument that with all the demagoguery and damage to our democracy that Trump has already inflicted, it’s important for lawmakers to draw a line on what is unacceptable behavior by this or any president. And that means impeaching him—whether it leads to his removal from office or not.

And maybe for a president who doesn’t seem to care very much about the Constitution, the most appropriate response is to use the ultimate check and balance devised by our founding fathers.

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