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Experts say Democrats have little to gain from pursuing Trump impeachment

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduces articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump at a news conference on Nov. 15, 2017. (CNN)

Declaring President Donald Trump “dangerous to democracy,” six House Democrats introduced articles of impeachment Wednesday, a likely quixotic campaign that some fear could waylay the party as it attempts to retake control of Congress in 2018.

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Al Green (D-Texas), and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) held a press conference to introduce the filing. Cohen said Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) are also on board and others are prepared to join the effort.

The five articles of impeachment released Wednesday include obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause, undermining the judiciary, and attacking the freedom of the press.

“There are already sufficient facts in the public record that warrant the start of impeachment proceedings in Congress. Given the magnitude of this constitutional crisis, there’s no reason to delay,” Cohen said. “I said after Charlottesville I was going to bring impeachment charges. I’ve waited three months.”

“This is not a call in a vacuum,” Espaillat said. “There is a real sentiment in the nation for this to begin.”

Last month, Green had filed his own articles of impeachment focused on allegations of Trump inciting racism and bigotry, making false claims of voter fraud, and encouraging law enforcement to violate suspects’ right.

Another House Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., also drafted an article of impeachment in July citing Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey as a violation of his oath of office.

Neither of those earlier efforts gained any traction in the House, and the sponsors of the new bill do not expect much different this time.

“I don’t expect the House Judiciary Committee, which is operated like a branch of the administration, to have hearings,” said Cohen, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. He plans to hold his own briefings instead.

Democratic leaders have attempted to navigate a very fine line on the issue, making it clear they have no interest in pressing for impeachment at this time without actually defending Trump.

At her weekly press conference Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the public does have questions about Trump’s fitness for office and members are free to pursue that on their own, but she currently has other priorities.

“I’m not one to curb anybody’s enthusiasm for what they believe in,” Pelosi said, “but right now our focus is on defeating this tax bill that’s a disaster for the country.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has taken a similar stance.

“There may be a time. It is premature,” he told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “And to call for it now you might blow your shot when it has a better chance of happening.”

A handful of other rank-and-file Democrats, including Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), have also floated the impeachment idea in recent weeks. At a Glamour Magazine Women of the Year event on Monday, Waters reportedly led the crowd in chants of “Impeach 45!”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders brushed off the cries for impeachment Wednesday, telling CNN that Democrats should be focusing their energy on tax reform instead.

"It's disappointing that extremists in Congress still refuse to accept the president's decisive victory in last year's election," she said in a statement.

Cohen’s fellow Tennessean, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., told WTVC that Democrats should be working with President Trump to move America forward instead of pursuing a doomed effort to kick him out of the White House.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate and I can tell the American people that articles of impeachment will go nowhere in the House right now,” he said.

Cohen and his colleagues are not alone in wanting to see Trump removed from office. Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor reportedly eying his own congressional run in California, is putting his money where their mouths are.

Last month, Steyer launched a $10 million national ad blitz with a minute-long spot in which he argues Trump has already committed several impeachable acts. According to CNN, Steyer is preparing to drop another $10 million to run an ad that primarily focuses on criticizing the Republican tax reform plan but also urges viewers to sign his impeachment petition.

Trump has dismissed Steyer as “wacky” and “unhinged,” but Democrats have not overwhelmingly welcomed his campaign either.

“Steyer impeachment ads seem to me more of a vanity project than a call to action. It is--at least this point--an unhelpful message,” said former Obama White House adviser David Axelrod on Twitter.

The prospect of impeaching Trump has steadily become more popular, but it is still not the will of the majority in the U.S. A recent Public Policy Polling survey found 49 percent of voters support impeachment, although 86 percent of Trump voters oppose the idea.

“I think at this time raising the issue of impeachment is probably injurious to the Democrats,” said Glenn Altschuler, the Litwin professor of American Studies at Cornell University. “It may satisfy some of their most zealous supporters.”

For independents and suburban Republicans who could otherwise be drawn to Democrats’ message, it may just come across as hyper-partisan saber-rattling, if for no other reason than because everyone agrees there is no chance of a Republican-led Congress allowing impeachment to proceed.

“I think this conversation is putting the cart before the horse, to some extent,” said Democratic strategist Matt McDermott. “The House is going to have to determine whether Trump has committed impeachable offenses - and there's a growing mountain of evidence that must be weighed - but for that to happen, Congress must exert its oversight authority over the executive branch, something that Republicans have failed to do.”

That may be one argument Democrats can make in their bid to regain power in the midterms, but McDermott doubts it will be their most convincing talking point.

“Ultimately the midterm elections are going to be decided on the issues that matter most to voters - like Republicans voting to raise taxes on millions of middle-class families to bankroll a tax break for millionaires,” he said, referring to GOP tax reform bills making their way through Congress. “But it would be foolish for Republicans to discount the large swaths of the American electorate that are demanding Donald Trump be held accountable.”

Democrats are currently eying 23 seats up for grabs in 2018 in districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. They need 24 wins to retake control of the House, and last week’s election results added fuel to their fire.

In Virginia, where the race for governor was one of the biggest Democratic victories of the night, nominee Ralph Northam called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” during his campaign but he refused to endorse outright impeachment.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., believes Democrats should learn from their success in the state as they look toward 2018. While he did describe the results as a repudiation of Trump in an interview Wednesday, he emphasized two other factors.

“In Virginia, Democrats ran on bread and butter issues, jobs, health care, education,” he said. “That’s a good lesson to Democratic candidates. The Democrats were unified. They weren’t fighting with each other as happens elsewhere.”

The more a vocal minority of the party bangs the impeachment drum, however, the harder it may be for Democrats to stay on message and stay unified.

“I think it has a chance to be a pretty divisive issue in Democratic primaries next year,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, suggesting it could become a litmus test for progressives if it catches on.

“It’s clear that a couple of backbench members who are pretty liberal are trying to use it to raise money,” he said.

Mackowiak noted the opposition coming from leadership and the general silence from 2020 presidential hopefuls on the matter as a sign that they recognize it is not a winning issue.

“Why pursue something that’s not going to succeed when it divides the Democrats?” he asked.

At the press conference Wednesday, Cohen rejected the suggestion that his impeachment crusade is bad for the party.

“I think this will not hurt Democrats in 2018. The Democratic base needs to be activated,” he said.

The Democratic base is already thoroughly activated, according to Altschuler.

“They don’t need impeachment right now as an excuse to do that,” he said.

Jason Del Gandio, author of "Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists" and a professor at Temple University, is skeptical that there is a large faction of moderate voters left to be offended by the impeachment talk.

"Losing moderate voters doesn't seem like a big risk, since in the face of Trump, there's not much room for moderation," he said. "You're either a Trumper or anti-Trumper, and that's the monster he created."

Mackowiak expects Democrats will try to use what they see as “the Republican playbook” in 2018.

“The lesson they took from the Obama years is you have to resist the president of the other party,” he said.

Democrats will have to decide how much of their own agenda to present, and that may mean reckoning with internal divisions on issues like health care and the residual scars of the 2016 primaries. Opposition to Trump unites the left for now despite its fractures, but posturing over impeachment threatens to become a distraction from more substantive issues if it escalates beyond the party’s fringes.

“The Democrats have been given a range of issues that could well be extraordinarily helpful to them in 2018,” Altschuler said. “They have been concentrating on those issues to significant effect. And impeachment right now is not necessary for them to gin up their base.”

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