Utah Rep. Ben McAdams finds himself in a no-win situation on impeachment

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ben McAdams is Utah's only member of Congress who is still undecided on whether to vote for or against the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Washington • Rep. Ben McAdams hasn’t decided yet if he’ll vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

But he has seen “Frozen 2.”

At a defining moment in the new, popular animated movie, a character deals with a tough predicament and sings about the choice ahead: “When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again? Then I’ll make the choice; To hear that voice; And do the next right thing.”

Seeing the movie with his kids over Thanksgiving, McAdams — a Utah Democrat in a majority Republican district now facing the most consequential vote of his short congressional career — pondered those lines.

“I don’t know what this decision means for me or where it goes from here, but what I decided is I need to make a decision that is the next right thing and let the consequences be what they are,” McAdams told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday.

The House soon will vote, for only the third time in history, on whether to impeach a president, a historic moment that is especially trying for members like McAdams, who won his seat by one of the thinnest margins in the country in a district that Trump carried by 7 percentage points two years earlier.

McAdams is one of 31 Democrats who represent districts that Trump won in 2016, and all of them face pressure from the left and the right, including a barrage of TV, radio, online and newspaper ads, to vote a certain way.

The Utah congressman said Friday he’ll decide “in the next few days” how he’ll vote. The House is likely to vote Wednesday on two articles of impeachment, one for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress.

Some of McAdams' similarly placed Democratic colleagues already have announced their intentions.

Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada said she would vote to impeach Trump, while Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who was one of two Democrats to oppose the impeachment inquiry, said he was against the articles of impeachment. (According to Saturday media reports, Van Drew is planning to switch parties and become a Republican.)

Certainly, for Democrats like McAdams, this week’s vote will be more difficult than for others from liberal districts.

“Impeachment is a no-win situation for a lot of House Democrats in red districts,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. “They can’t afford a revolt within their own party. They need to hold on to several moderate Republican [voters] to have a path to reelection.”

But there’s good news for McAdams, Wasserman said, including that he doesn’t have a GOP nominee for the district yet to hammer away at him and “at the rate this president generates controversy," the impeachment vote may be a distant memory by November.

Also, while McAdams’ district tilts red, Trump captured less than 40 percent of the vote there in 2016.

Plus, Wasserman added, “There's going to be an entire presidential election between impeachment and November.”

Most of McAdams’ fellow members of Congress have been quick to stake out their impeachment positions, including GOP Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop of Utah. Both are siding with the president.

The Utah Democrat said he found Trump’s actions with Ukraine troubling and eventually voted to launch a formal impeachment inquiry, even if it took him about a week to say so.

Trump has said his actions with Ukraine, which are at the center of the impeachment effort, were “perfect” and called the Democrats’ inquiry a witch hunt.

But the articles of impeachment detail an effort by Trump to leverage hundreds of millions in military and State Department aid to Ukraine in exchange for the country announcing an investigation of Joe Biden, the former vice president and a leading Democratic presidential rival, and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on a Ukrainian energy company board.

Hours of testimony in the past two months have shown officials between Washington and Kyiv worried that Trump was seeking a personal benefit to release the aid and making a White House visit with Ukraine’s new president conditioned on the investigation announcement.

McAdams had joined with some fellow moderate Democrats to try to push the House to censure the president, a move that would castigate Trump without spawning a Senate trial, but the effort went nowhere.

Now, McAdams said, in coming to a conclusion about the pending impeachment vote, he’s reading all the witness testimony and reports issued by congressional Republicans and Democrats, as well as studying the articles of impeachment line by line.

“This is a serious matter, and it will certainly be one of the more serious and consequential decisions I make in my service,” McAdams said. “And I want to make that decision in the most thoughtful and responsible way. And so, for me, that means I’m not going to make my decision based on news stories or social media posts. I think I owe it to my constituents and I owe it to the Constitution that I make a decision based on firsthand information.”

Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican who had said he was keeping an open mind but later noted he opposed impeachment, feels for McAdams.

“I do empathize with him,” Curtis said. "I do believe two very thoughtful people trying to get to the right answer can come up with different answers on this. … I don’t know where he’s going to go, but I’m not going to judge him.”

There are those who will, though.

“I do kind of view him as a Republican lite,” said Daniel Beckstrand, a self-described progressive who announced last week he would run against McAdams. “And in the state of Utah, I guess coming from that mindset, it does make sense. But what I think that does is it also ignores a big progressive base that we have here in the state.”

Still, there are Democrats in Utah who are at least thankful that McAdams has been weighing the pros and cons or impeachment and looking at the facts, rather than taking sides immediately.

“I firmly believe that in McAdams, I have a congressman who is listening to and weighing the information that’s brought to him,” said Shireen Ghorbani, a former Democratic congressional candidate who is now a Salt Lake County councilwoman. “Now, more broadly speaking, I do think that Democrats are very concerned about the lawless and really damaging behavior of this president and what precedent it sets if we do not take the actions that are available to hold him accountable.”

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said McAdams was able to best then-GOP Rep. Mia Love in 2018 by riding a Democratic wave that crossed the country. But 2020 may be different and this impeachment vote will still matter.

“Whomever the Republican challenger is to him, they are obviously going to play up whatever he does here,” Burbank said. “And so I think, you know, again, even after he gets through the vote, this is going to definitely come back to haunt him in terms of the reelection campaign.”

McAdams said that’s not playing into his decision.

He knows either way he goes could aggravate some voters, and he said looking back at decisions he made as mayor of Salt Lake County, such as during a divisive debate on homelessness, that’s just the job.

“I could run different scenarios about different alternatives and what it means, but you can’t predict what it means going forward,” McAdams said. “So I just need to make the decision that I think is in the best interest of this country and not based on how it’ll hurt or help my next election. This decision isn’t about me. It’s about what’s good for our country.”