Democrats Have The House And A Big Decision To Make: Should They Try To Impeach Trump?
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now that Democrats have won the House, they can do all the things a majority party can do - chair committees, set rules for floor debate and issue subpoenas. As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, Democrats have a big decision to make - whether they should use their new power to try to impeach President Trump.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Impeachment is the Democrats' biggest hot potato. Their leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, the woman who may be speaker, views impeachment like kryptonite. Here she is speaking to the "PBS NewsHour" on election night.
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NANCY PELOSI: I get criticized in my own party for not being more in support of it, but I'm not. If that happens, it would have to be bipartisan, and the evidence would have to be so conclusive.
LIASSON: Many other Democratic House members, including California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, don't want to wait. They've already made up their minds.
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MAXINE WATERS: There's a difference in how some of our leadership talk about how we should handle all of it. They say, Maxine, please don't say impeachment anymore. And when they say that, I say, impeachment, impeachment, impeachment.
LIASSON: Impeachment is an awkward issue for Democrats. It's splitting the party. One of their most active billionaire donors, Tom Steyer, is running ads making the case for impeachment.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He's brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice at the FBI. And in direct violation of the Constitution, he's taken money from foreign governments and threatened to shut down news organizations that report the truth. If that isn't the case for impeaching and removing a dangerous president, then what has our government become?
LIASSON: But for now, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin, most Democrats are finding safe ground behind the cover of the Mueller investigation.
GEOFF GARIN: This whole conversation about will and should the Democrats impeach the president is premature. I think kind of where the center of gravity is among Democrats themselves is that we need to wait to see what Robert Mueller has to say.
LIASSON: And when he does, says Democratic strategist Paul Begala, Democrats will have to make what may be the new majority's most politically consequential decision - to move forward with impeachment hearings or not.
PAUL BEGALA: That will become the central debate, right? One side will say, the president's plainly committed high crimes and misdemeanors; he should be impeached. That is a really tiny view right now in the Democratic Party. It's kind of difficult to say, I have faith in the Mueller investigation and then jump ahead and say, but no matter what he finds, I think we should find the guy guilty.
LIASSON: Begala has been through this before. He worked for President Clinton when he was impeached. Those polls showing big chunks of Democrats favoring impeachment - Begala takes them with a big grain of salt. He's not even sure people understand that impeaching a president does not mean removing him from office.
BEGALA: I don't. And I say that - as you know, Mara, I'm a battle-scarred veteran of impeachment. I'm undefeated in impeachment. And I do know that it puts the country through a lot. And the president stays as long as he can muster 34 votes in the Senate. That's all it takes.
LIASSON: Since it's highly unlikely that less than 34 Republicans in the Senate will vote against convicting and removing Donald Trump, impeachment could end up not only failing but backfiring. That's what happened when Bill Clinton was impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.
BEGALA: We don't want to do what Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay did to Bill Clinton, which - not only did Clinton win that overwhelmingly - found not guilty even in a Republican-controlled Senate - it pushed his approval up to 71.
LIASSON: Republican strategist Doug Heye says Democrats have to be careful not to let their intense personal animus for President Trump lead them to overreach.
DOUG HEYE: If they go too far, if everything that they disagree with the president on becomes an issue for impeachment, that could have a serious backlash with more moderate or independent voters who just want to see Washington get something done for a change.
LIASSON: Heye says the challenge for Democrats goes beyond impeachment. It's how they balance their newfound majority power with the expectations of their fired-up activist base.
HEYE: One of the things that we'll find out in the coming months is whether or not Democrats have a Tea Party problem which is the mirror image of the Republican Tea Party problem, one that pushes for fights more than it pushes for solutions.
LIASSON: And that's the big question for Democrats. Are the calls to impeach Trump just the left-wing version of lock her up, a rush to judgment without due process? And now that the Democrats have managed to ride the reaction against Donald Trump back into power, do they want their party to become Trump's mirror image or something different? Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF PERPETUAL GROOVE'S "TEAKWOOD BETZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.