Ever since last week when Donald Trump invited foreign adversaries to hack U.S. elections, at least 15 more House Democrats have announced their support for starting an impeachment inquiry into him. The list includes three swing-district members, two committee chairs, and four members from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home state, California.
While that represents real movement, there’s also plenty more members were that came from. “There may be only 72 [pro-impeachment Democrats] in public, but there are 200 in private,” a Democratic aide told Politico. “But they’re holding back out of deference for Pelosi.”
If that aide is right, expect to see more members break with Pelosi over the coming weeks. There’s power in numbers. And some of the members who came out this week have opened the door for other Democrats by changing their political calculation. If a swing-district star of the freshman class like California Rep. Katie Porter can put her seat on the line to uphold her sworn oath, then why can’t others? No politician wants to look like they are placing political expediency over their oath of office—a concern with which they will now have to contend as more members point to “duty” as the impetus for their change of heart.
Another notable convert this week was veteran lawmaker and Pelosi ally Rep. Jan Schakowski of Illinois. Schakowski threaded the needle of parting with Pelosi by praising Democratic leadership for doing a “good job” but saying she had simply come to a “personal decision.” In the wake of Trump’s comments welcoming illegal foreign interference, Schakowski explained, “I feel an obligation now to take my belief that Donald Trump has to be held accountable—that no one is above the law—to the next step.
The steadily growing impeachment caucus is, at least in part, an outgrowth of efforts by several key members of the Judiciary Committee. Behind the scenes, Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Joe Neguse of Colorado and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state have been serving as informal advisers to their peers on impeachment.
“There’s a group of us who are on Judiciary who are deeply ensconced in everything,” one of the lawmakers told Politico. “We’re not whipping, but we’re just talking to people about what we’re seeing and why it’s important. People who are on committees of jurisdiction have a lot more information, so people are coming to us to ask us what’s going on and we’re sharing our views.”
With Trump’s ever-growing escalation in lawlessness, it’s quite possible that the consultancy, as it were, was an organic outgrowth of other Democratic members grappling with how to respond. But the effort also appears to be a response born of frustration among Judiciary members that their fervently held beliefs have been sidelined by Pelosi and her leadership team. Indeed, Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler has reportedly implored Pelosi twice to begin impeachment proceedings only to be rebuffed by the Speaker.
So instead of prosecuting a muscular investigation, the committee has been reduced to a series of slow-but-steady procedural wins that have produced few, if any, notable instances of new information. Nadler, for instance, hailed the near-useless testimony from former Trump aide Hope Hicks as ammunition for the committee’s looming legal battle to compel the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn, who has ignored the panel’s subpoena. Trump’s lawyers blocked Hicks from answering more than 150 questions.
“It very much played into our hands,” Nadler said of the sweeping “absolute immunity” the administration claimed during Hicks’ closed-door hearing. “It’s one thing to tell a judge blanket immunity is not a right thing. It’s another thing when a judge can see what that means in actuality, and how absurd it is.”
More than likely, Hicks’ stonewalling will help Democrats in court in the long run. But in the immediate, small-bore news like blanket immunity and another instance of obstruction isn’t breaking through to much of the American public other than Democratic voters, where support for impeachment is on the rise. In the meantime, the impeachment caucus has yet to land a truly compelling fact witness like that of Michael Cohen, who dropped bombshell after bombshell in testimony earlier this year before the House Oversight Committee that captivated America. Why not pull the trigger on subpoenaing Bob Mueller, the supposed boy scout and infallible patriot who headed up the two-year long Russia probe? Or how about one of Mueller’s top deputies, Andrew Weissmann, who has enough of a story to tell that he just landed a book deal with Random House?
The consultancy Judiciary members themselves are so frustrated, they huddled with Nadler this week to discuss the possibility of Pelosi forming a Select Committee to handle impeachment that might be headed by House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff. Schiff is both a close ally of Pelosi and an outspoken detractor of impeachment. Democratic leadership aides quickly quashed the idea.
But despite their setbacks at the top of the food chain, the Judiciary members appear to be making progress with their peers. It’s a bottom-up approach that will continue to gain steam, slowly pressuring Democratic leaders to reconcile being increasingly out of step with both their caucus and the Democratic voters who showed up in record numbers last year to put a check on Trump’s runaway presidency.