Hitting back at Donald Trump’s latest tirade was supposed to be easy for House Democrats: a show of unity in criticizing the president’s racists tweets leading to a formal condemnation of his targeting of four Democratic freshman lawmakers.
But as with most attempts to show disapproval with the president, Tuesday’s efforts proved to be ham-fisted. House Democrats formally condemned Trump for his social media missive. But the path getting there was complicated by internal disarray, and overshadowed by the absence of an agreed-upon strategy that culminated in a massive blow-up on the House floor, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused of violating House rules in her attempts to peg the president as a racist.
It was, in the grand scheme of things, a bureaucratic misstep. But for many Democrats it symbolized something far more: yet another illustration of the party’s ineptitude and, ultimately, its timidity in confronting Trump.
“Trump wins all these fights for the simple reason that he’s not getting impeached,” said Adam Jentleson, former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Every half-hearted attempt to hold him accountable just highlights that Democrats are choosing not to use the most powerful accountability tool available to them.”
Jentleson added, “This is an untenable strategy for leaders who promised real accountability.”
Indeed, the promise of impeachment arrived immediately after the vote gaveled out: Rep. Al Green (D-TX), for the third time in three years, read articles of impeachment of Trump on the House floor, setting up a procedural vote within a week that would put the entire Democratic caucus on record over the issue most dividing it. Not everyone in the party was thrilled.
“He listens to no one,” said one senior Democratic aide, who feared that the party’s actual momentum toward building a case for impeachment would be compromised by a rushed attempt to oust the president from office over his latest, controversial tweet storm.
Trump’s tirade against the young, progressive Democrats was initially seen as a gift to the party, letting House Democrats rally against the president on the heels of weeks of bitter infighting between leadership, moderates, and the left flank.
But, as has become customary in the current Congress, Democrats were not on the same page when it came to devising a response to the president’s conduct. Indeed, the divisions have been increasingly apparent for weeks. Over the weekend, the House Democrat’s official Twitter account put out an inflammatory tweet going after the chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) for criticizing fellow Democrats for supporting a bill to fund Customs and Border Patrol with few strings attached. That tweet, sources told The Daily Beast, was sent without clearance from Pelosi’s office.
Pelosi’s office declined to comment for this piece. But the frictions persisted through Trump’s tweetstorm. At a meeting on Tuesday morning, several lawmakers said they preferred a resolution to formally censure the president—a symbolic response with some more historical heft and that would have served as a rebuke to Trump’s conduct beyond the tweets, such as language about his administration’s immigration policy.
As some lawmakers pushed for the tougher censure resolution, Pelosi told the caucus that their rebuke should focus solely on Trump’s tweets about the Democratic lawmakers, according to a senior Democratic official.
Many lawmakers backed the less fiery condemnation measure in hopes it would attract support from Republicans inclined to push back against the president’s words. But just four GOP lawmakers—and one former Republican, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash—ended up voting yes.
Before the vote, lawmakers defended the resolution in the face of criticism it did not go far enough. “This is an unprecedented action we’re doing, having Congress finally take a stand against the president’s words,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “This is significant.”
“To the big impeachment question this always leads to,” said Pocan, “this is important today, but I think you’ll see probably a lot more people making more comments next week.”
Pocan was referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24—a juncture at which many Democrats expect that many of those on the fence about impeachment will make a decision.
Impeachment is gaining some momentum ahead of Mueller’s hearing. On Tuesday, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), who represents a traditionally GOP-leaning district, announced her support for an inquiry. Over a third of the Democratic caucus is now supportive of impeachment.
And others who have long been supportive of launching an inquiry said that Trump’s tweets may be fueling that momentum. “I think every single day, including those comments, the president offers more and more evidence of how he is unfit for office, and that we ought to begin an impeachment inquiry, absolutely,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA).
But even staunch backers of impeachment conceded that the idea wasn’t spreading like wildfire, even as key House leaders denounced Trump’s comments in the harshest terms, saying they were vicious and dangerous to the country.
“A little bit but not much,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), an early impeachment supporter, described the movement on the issue this week. “Probably as much pickup as, I guess, Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign might have got last week."
Green’s introduction of articles of impeachment appeared poised to inflame those tensions. The Texas Democrat has forced votes on impeachment of Trump every year through a rarely used parliamentary procedure. The vote could possibly take place Wednesday or Thursday—immediately on the heels of Mueller’s testimony.
There is some anxiety in the caucus about taking an impeachment vote in that explosive climate. Green told reporters that he had not consulted with colleagues and urged them to “vote his or her conscience.”
Some Democrats see ominous signs in the minefield that faces the party going forward.
“Trump threw us a lifeline and unified us for now,” a senior House Democratic official told The Daily Beast. “But I think what you're seeing here is what is going to play out national during this election: progressives feeling like they're always getting pushed aside for the more moderate position and the frustration will continue to boil over.”
“I don’t think our problems are going away anytime soon.”
—With reporting by Erin Banco