Robert Gehrke: House impeachment inquiry puts Utah’s Ben McAdams between a rock and a hard place

Robert Gehrke

Given how willing the White House was to release the reconstruction of President Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, I assumed it would be a dud.

Far from it.

What we got was the president asking a foreign leader to turn up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, right now the Democratic frontrunner for the 2020 nomination.

I suppose one could believe Trump is just really concerned about allegations of corruption anywhere in the world. Maybe he really thought Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, was better suited to represent American interests than the U.S. ambassador or State Department.

Perhaps it was pure coincidence that all this happened in the context of Trump withholding $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. It’s possible that suggesting Zelensky contact Attorney General William Barr about the probe was not at all political, but a gesture of goodwill.

But that is a lot to swallow, even for a zealous partisan like Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. And yet most Republicans are swallowing it. Most.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, reiterated Wednesday that the document released by the White House was “deeply troubling,” though he still didn’t go so far as to endorse an impeachment inquiry (which isn’t really the Senate’s job, anyway).

So far, 214 of 234 Democratic House members have voiced support for an impeachment process as of Wednesday evening, according to a New York Times tally.

All of this puts Utah Democratic House member Ben McAdams in an unenviable position, caught between competing political pressures.

If he doesn’t support the inquiry, he could face the wrath of activists in his own party, like the backlash that forced Rep. Jim Matheson into a primary with Claudia Wright in 2010.

If he jumps in on the side of the impeachment inquiry, he risks alienating some unaffiliated voters and moderate-leaning Republicans who always end up deciding the 4th District race.

His Republican opponents already seem to be predictably lining up against impeachment.

State Rep. Kim Coleman said that, even in a booming economy, all Democrats can do is “spin grandiose fairytale policies and hold impeachment pageants.”

Former radio host Jay McFarland said that what Trump did was wrong, but it was reviewed by the Department of Justice and was found to not violate campaign finance laws. In a partisan Washington, there is no hope of actually getting to the truth — Democrats in the House will impeach Trump and Republicans in the Senate will not vote to expel him. The proper course, he said, would be to let voters decide the issue next year.

Like Matheson in 2010, it would be easier for McAdams to overcome dissent in his own party, even if the Bernie Wing is more powerful than it was.

Raw political calculus says this would be the smart move for McAdams: Follow Romney’s lead and express furrowed-brow concern about the severity of the allegations, acknowledge the impeachment inquiry is underway and commit to following the facts where they lead.

It buys him a little breathing room without any real political risk, apart from having to weather some chirping on social media.

And that seems to be the direction McAdams is heading.

Wednesday evening, he voted with pretty much every member of the House — Republican and Democrat — to call for the release of the whistleblower complaint from the U.S. intelligence officer who sounded the alarm over the Ukraine dealings.

“The phone call summary released by the White House today suggests the president was improperly using his influence with a foreign power to damage a political opponent,” McAdams said in a statement. “On this and other matters we need to get all the facts on the table before deciding how to proceed.”

The problem with McAdams’ approach is that it misses the larger point. If Trump made military aid to Ukraine contingent on Zelensky digging up dirt on Biden, that is a bribe, which the Constitution explicitly says is grounds for impeachment, right after treason.

The Constitution also provides Congress with a path to investigate whether that occurred, and that is impeachment. Because, as I wrote back in June, impeachment is a process and the first step in that process is for the House to gather facts to determine if charges should be presented to the Senate.

A formal impeachment inquiry strengthens Congress’ hand in compelling the administration to comply with subpoenas. If the evidence doesn’t warrant charges, House members can vote that way when the time comes.

Voters, I think, are smart enough to understand that dynamic.

McAdams was right to reserve judgment until he saw the summary of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, frankly, should have done the same. But now that ship has sailed. An impeachment inquiry is happening.

McAdams can (and probably will) try to keep straddling the fence. It’s safe. But soon — whether it’s after the testimony from the director of national intelligence Thursday, or the release of the whistleblower complaint he supported, or testimony from the intelligence official himself — he’s going to need to take a stand.

And if his mission is to really get to the bottom of what happened, the best way to do that is by supporting this impeachment inquiry. The sooner McAdams gets off the fence and on the right side of history, the better for his constituents.