How Impeachment Momentum Massively Shifted Among Democrats

September 25, 2019, 1:03 AM UTC

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rode a massive wave in the Democratic caucus in reversing course and backing an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, giving her rhetorical weight to existing efforts by different House committees to investigate the president.

Pelosi said that the chairmen of six committees tasked with investigating the president would “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”

The announcement, though, was much more political than substantive.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has been saying that his committee has been in an impeachment inquiry, and voted on defining the parameters of an inquiry in September. Now, after months of publicly refusing to back an inquiry, Pelosi is saying the same thing as him on impeachment.

“The speaker spoke for the caucus in articulating a massive new sentiment from the caucus that the current situation is intolerable,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a longtime impeachment backer, told Fortune. “The work of the committees is ongoing. There’s been no organizational change, and all of us are working towards a common goal.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said that impeachment was now out in the open after being mentioned in House Democratic legal filings as far back as July.

“It’s one thing to put a footnote in a court document in the grand jury file that you’re exercising your prosecutorial role; it’s another thing for the speaker to stand up and say we are pursuing impeachment,” he told reporters.

The shift in the Democratic caucus happened after bombshell news reports that Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky to investigate 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden in a July phone call. Trump admitted to reporters that he had spoken to Zelensky about Biden.

Dozens of House Democrats broke for impeachment in the hours before Pelosi’s announcement, pushing the number to around 200. They generally represented two groups—Democrats that had held off publicly supporting an impeachment inquiry out of deference to Pelosi, and so-called “frontline” Democrats that represented districts that voted for Trump in 2016, but elected Democratic members in 2018.

Both groups quickly peeled for impeachment starting on September 23. And the revelation of the Zelensky call was a big turning point for both groups.

“The president’s interaction with the government of Ukraine, coinciding with withholding of military aid and funding, and his own concession that, ‘so what if I did?’—this is clear use of leverage to get the government of Ukraine to manufacture damaging narratives about his political opponents,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who had previously demurred on impeachment. “This is impeachable. This is something we need to hold the president accountable for.”    

One freshman Democrat who had resisted impeachment and co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed on September 23 with six other members also said that the Zelensky call was significant in her decision to come out—albeit conditionally—in favor of an impeachment inquiry.

“This is separate—a new issue, and a new allegation,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) told reporters. Referencing her Navy career, she said, “We’re all trained to make hard decisions in tough climates. This was not that hard decision. This was such a clear violation of our norms, of our national security.”

President Trump announced that he would release a “fully declassified and unredacted” transcript of the call in a tweet. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) announced that the whistleblower was looking to speak before his committee. (Politico reported that the White House was “preparing” to release the complaint and underlying inspector general report by the end of the week, but added that the “decision and timing” could change.)

Releasing the transcript only, however, was no consolation to members, who were still seeking the release of the whistleblower complaint that reportedly included the Zelensky call.

“That makes no sense,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “What is in that complaint? Why are they trying to hide it? I’m wondering if what’s in the complaint is worse that anything that’s been reported up to this point.”

Regardless of what might be released by the White House, the Democratic caucus seemed squarely behind an impeachment inquiry. With Pelosi’s backing, that ultimately could lead to the full House voting on articles of impeachment at a to-be-determined point. 

“We’re still in an aggressive inquiry phase focused on the Ukraine,” Raskin told Fortune. “I’m not clairvoyant, but I think all of it will lead to articles of impeachment, and that’s how it’s worked in every other similar case.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The 25 most powerful women in politics
—Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry against Trump
Trump calls impeachment ‘a positive for me’
Biden will back impeachment if Trump obstructs congress
—More than 160 House Democrats support impeachment proceedings against Trump
Trump’s impeachment odds soar to 42%, online betting shows
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