At rally after rally, President Trump insists that Democrats will rush to impeach him if they regain control of Congress. But the bulk of Democratic lawmakers have shied away from calling for impeachment, and Michael Cohen's stunning courtroom admission that Trump "directed" him to break the law hasn't changed that.
Democratic leaders are wary of impeachment, even as the Democratic base appears more and more animated by the idea.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren summed up the Democratic impeachment talking points during a Wednesday interview on CNN: "I just want to be effective," she said when asked whether impeachment calls make her "nervous." "And the way that any of us are effective is to say, let's get all of the evidence, let's get all of the pieces out there. Protect Robert Mueller. Let him finish his investigation. Let him make a full and fair report to all of the American people. And when we've got that, then we can make a decision on what the appropriate next step is."
There are two key reasons for this caution. The first — pragmatism — was best summed up by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during a recent interview with San Francisco public television station KQED. "Impeachment is not something that is a partisan exercise," she said. "Unless you have bipartisanship, you're just acting politically."
As Mueller's special counsel investigation has led to pleas and convictions from key Trump aides, lawmakers and staffers have revisited books, studies, and yes, podcasts, about previous impeachment battles. The overwhelming consensus among Democratic lawmakers: Richard Nixon was forced from office because a slow-moving, deliberative process allowed both Democrats and Republicans to warm to the idea of impeachment, as more and more damning evidence emerged. The 1998 and 1999 effort to impeach Bill Clinton failed, however, because it became an entrenched partisan affair.
"We have a process that needs to be followed," said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Penn. "In my view, studying it as someone who loves American history, Watergate really is the gold standard for the way such a matter like this should proceed."
Democratic leaders have more immediate, political reasons for their caution, too. Poll after poll has shown that the independent, moderate, and Republican-leaning voters they need to win back GOP-held House districts are wary of a rush to impeach the president, even as they give Trump relatively low approval ratings. An April NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll found more voters would "definitely vote against" an impeachment-backing candidate than would "definitely vote for" someone with that position.
That's why Trump keeps warning rallies that Democrats are hell-bent on impeachment. On Fox News Thursday, he predicted the push would "crash" the stock market. "I think everybody would be poor," he said.
Need To Impeach, a political group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, is trying to push back on this narrative. It recently commissioned a memo the group is sending to every Democratic candidate in the country, arguing that "Democratic base voters respond strongly to messaging urging public accountability for Donald Trump, including initiating impeachment proceedings against him."
Citing a mix of public and commissioned polling, Need To Impeach posits Republican voters are actually more worried about Democratic stances on immigration and taxes, as well as the idea of Pelosi returning to the speakership, than they are of Democratic impeachment efforts.
"The main question is why are Democrats refusing to talk about impeachment when 70 percent or more of our base voters believe it should happen," the memo concludes.
Democrats in Washington don't seem to buy it. "I've been very firm and aggressive in talking about the sanctity of this investigation and that we must protect it," Boyle said. "But the difference is I don't only talk about this issue, because I know that when I meet my town halls I also get asked about health care. ... I get asked about the fact that most middle class Americans have not in real terms had a wage increase in over 15 years. I get asked about a wide variety of issues, and in my view you shouldn't just talk about one to the exclusion of others. You can walk and chew gum at the same time."
That's the approach Pelosi urged Democrats to follow in a letter she sent to the caucus after Cohen's plea and Paul Manafort's guilty verdict. In fact, if Pelosi had her way, Democrats wouldn't talk about Trump on the campaign trail at all. "I don't think they should even mention his name," she told KQED. "He's self-evidently what he is. But what they have to do is connect. It's about themselves. People want to know, how do you relate to my hopes and fears, aspirations and apprehensions?"
But as much as Democrats want to control their message, they're going to have to keep responding to new news headlines. And if the Mueller investigation leads to more bombshells like Michael Cohen's courtroom admission, leaders are going to have to keep re-examining whether they need to change their impeachment strategy.