WASHINGTON ― As Democratic leaders formally announced their articles of impeachment on Tuesday, a group of moderate Democrats was already discussing how to undermine that effort with a lesser rebuke.
As Politico reported Tuesday, a group of about 10 moderate Democrats from districts that Donald Trump won in 2016 met on Monday to discuss offering a resolution to “censure” the president rather than impeach him. The idea, apparently, was that censure might garner bipartisan support and allow these moderate Democrats to vote against impeachment while still registering their disapproval of Trump’s behavior.
“I continue to study all the facts and am waiting to see what happens out of committee next week on the articles, and then I’ll make a decision,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), one of the Democrats involved in the discussions, told reporters Tuesday night.
Gottheimer wouldn’t say whether he supported the idea, only that he was still considering it. Other moderate members were also elusive about the plan.
The normally candid Max Rose (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday that because the articles of impeachment came out earlier in the day, that meant he had more “thought and consideration” to give to the ideas of impeachment and censure.
“I will not operate on anyone’s timeline,” Rose said. “I will not operate on pressure from anyone, whether they be journalists or otherwise, and soon enough, we will make a determination.”
Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who has been outspoken in his opposition to impeachment, told HuffPost he was “taking the day off” from answering questions about impeachment and censure. “I’ve spoken so much about all this stuff that I said, ‘Today, I’m taking a day off and I’m not doing it,’” Van Drew said.
“I’m radio silence,” he elaborated when HuffPost pressed him further. “No specific reason. I just want to take a little break. Every day of my life for weeks I’ve been talking about impeachment, so I’m just taking a little bit of a break.”
The curious timing of Van Drew’s “little break” might coincide with the immediate backlash the censure proposal received from other Democrats.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was outraged at the idea that Democrats would give Trump “a slap on the wrist.”
“I have 15-year-olds in my district that get sent to Rikers because they jump a turnstile and they can’t afford $2.75,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) called censure a “boneheaded idea.”
“That’s just frankly one of the dumbest ideas I’ve heard in a long, long time,” Huffman said. “If this were a president lying about a blow job, that’s a censure issue. This is a president fundamentally misusing his office and obstructing Congress, involving our national security and the integrity of our democracy. If you can’t move to impeachment on something like this, frankly, we just shouldn’t take your ideas seriously.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) also criticized the idea of censure, saying Democrats had a duty to put the country and our democracy first.
“We’re talking about somebody that’s a sitting CEO in the White House that’s violating the United States Constitution every single day,” Tlaib said.
For most Democrats, part of the problem with censuring Trump instead of impeaching him is it fundamentally undermines their messaging. Democrats want to convey that this is a solemn process, one devoid of politics, and that they’re impeaching Trump because his behavior goes far beyond what is acceptable.
By suggesting a lesser course, these moderate Democrats undercut that message. They’re signaling that Trump’s actions don’t rise to that level — and it’s hard to miss their own political calculus in doing so.
These Democrats ― again, all from districts that Trump won ― are clearly being influenced by their reelection campaigns, and risk making it harder for other Democrats to convince their constituents that Trump is deserving of impeachment.
These Democratic moderates would also seem to be helping many Republicans, particularly the ones who could face a backlash for their obedience to Trump. A censure resolution would allow vulnerable Republicans to signal that Trump may have done something wrong without angering their GOP constituents by actually voting for impeachment and holding the president accountable.
Still, Democrats seemed to doubt that a sizable number of Republicans would even go along with censure.
“Most Republicans seem to agree with President Trump that there was nothing wrong with what he did; indeed, his conduct was ‘perfect,’” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told HuffPost. “So I don’t think the Republicans are going to want to censure President Trump for his putatively perfect contact. I don’t see how that constitutes even a compromise.”
Raskin did say he would support censure in addition to impeachment, but that allowing a censure resolution alone would almost certainly only serve Trump and Republicans. It would undermine the seriousness of Trump’s actions and give the most vulnerable Republicans a chance to message a false independence.
For Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), someone who has supported previous censure attempts, going with censure now would be a step in the wrong direction. “Given the gravity of the abuse with Ukraine, the gravity of abuse that Mueller found, I don’t think that would be adequate,” Khanna said.
Yet moderates still haven’t ruled out the idea, and given their proclivity to vote for GOP motions to recommit ― a procedural vote for the minority that is meant to divide the majority ― they are capable of moving forward despite the backlash from their own caucus.
Politics, not the facts surrounding this impeachment case, seem to be their primary concern ― something Democrats from safer seats seemed to recognize Tuesday.
“Based on the evidence, I think the president should be impeached,” Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “I mean, if this doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment, I don’t know what does. This is beyond the pale.”
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