CHICAGO — Impeachment talk swirled around Washington Wednesday in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen implicating his past client in a potential felony.
But as Democratic leaders from around the country began gathering in Chicago for the party’s summer meeting, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump's spiraling legal woes barely registered.
The message was clear: stay steady and don’t talk about impeachment.
“The best things for our candidates back home is to focus on the issues that matter to people’s lives like health care,” said David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party. “The drama in D.C. is going to play out no matter what we say. Those are important issues but with 75 days to go our candidates are going to continue what they’ve been doing.”
“That’s not the beach I want to pound the sand on,” Deb Kozikowski, a vice chair of the Massachusetts Democratic party since 1996, told VICE News about the impeachment issue. “We gotta stay on the positive side and let the negative stuff play itself out. People aren’t interested in how bad your opponents are all the time.”
Even if impeachment is not openly discussed, the midterm elections this November will have significant consequences on the topic. If Democrats reach their goal of retaking the majority in the House of Representatives, they would have the power to introduce and pass articles of impeachment (that would then set off a trial in the Senate where 67/100 Senators would have to agree to convict).
And some Republicans are warning of just that. Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that "Today clarifies that November is a referendum on impeachment — an up or down vote.” Republicans have also been whispering anonymously to Politico, The New York Times, and Axios that impeachment is now in the mix.
“People aren’t interested in how bad your opponents are all the time.”
Democrats, meanwhile, would prefer to battle Republicans on anything but impeaching Trump. In the halls of Washington, D.C. Democrats echoed their state counterparts gathered in Chicago by studiously avoiding such talk.
They danced around the subject, calling Trump an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the words of Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Kamala Harris of California, and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that the revelations put Trump “in even greater legal jeopardy.” Pelosi’s office did not respond to an email whether her thinking on impeachment had changed. Nor did Harris or Hirono.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also declined to say if she supported impeaching Trump. "I just want to be effective. And the way that any of us are effective is to say, 'Let's get all of the evidence,'" she told CNN in an interview to promote her new anti-corruption agenda. “Let Robert Mueller finish his investigation,” she added.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer attempted to use Tuesday’s legal fallout to stall the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, saying that the president’s legal troubles could ultimately come before the Supreme Court. “Mr Cohen’s implication of POTUS in a federal crime make the danger of Kavanaugh's nomination to the SCOTUS abundantly clear,” Schumer tweeted. But Republicans, including moderate Sen. Susan Collins, signaled that the hearings would not be delayed. A spokesman for Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley called Schumer’s moves a bad-faith “tactic” from people already opposed to Kavanaugh.
“I-word” avoidance is not a new strategy but rather the continuation of one.
Democratic leaders have long resisted calls on the left from the likes of Rep. Maxine Waters of California and billionaire Tom Steyer to publicly call for impeaching the president, worried that doing so would alienate some voters in the midterm elections. “I think it’s a gift to the Republicans,” Pelosi said of impeachment in a Rolling Stone interview this summer. “[P]eople really want to know how we will improve their lives. We don’t really know what Mueller has,” she explained.
The alleged campaign finance violations don’t appear to have changed that political calculus, at least for now. Steyer’s well-fund Need to Impeach campaign could not point to any Democratic leader who had changed their public rhetoric on impeachment in response to the Cohen plea agreement.
Some Democrats voiced concern that not saying the “I-word” now could inadvertently make it more difficult to do so later. If Democrats excuse campaign finance violations, then why not other violations later, goes the thinking. Or as Sen. Harry Reid’s former chief of staff Adam Jentleson put it:
Regardless of what Democrats decide to do, any impeachment talk would be empty political rhetoric in the short term since Republicans control both chambers of Congress. And Republicans largely shrugged at the Cohen news or avoided talking about it altogether.
"Campaign finance violations, I don't know what will come from that,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of Southern Carolina told NBC. “[T]he thing that will hurt the President the most is if, in fact, his campaign did coordinate with a foreign government like Russia, anything short of that is probably going to fall into partisan camps."
Graham’s position reflects his party’s general calculus when it comes to Trump’s mounting legal troubles — Republicans are fearful of challenging a president who has cultivated such a loyal following among the their party’s base.
Campaign finance violations do not appear to be significant enough for Republicans to challenge the president.
Cover image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen stands behind Trump as a group of supporters lay hands on Trump in prayer during a campaign stop at the New Spirit Revival Center church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, U.S. September 21, 2016. Picture taken September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo