It should come as no surprise that some congressional Republicans are doing their best to sabotage the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible links between President Donald Trump and Russian interference with the 2016 election. To that end, they’re maligning the FBI and resurrecting the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails, settled more than a year ago.
What is surprising is that the probe is also being undercut by vehemently anti-Trump Democrats, including the liberal hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and his allies in Congress. Steyer is bankrolling a “Need to Impeach” drive urging an immediate start to impeachment proceedings against Trump, even before the special counsel has issued any findings. Steyer has a fast-growing digital petition drive and is airing national television commercials and Facebook videos.
But impeachment fever, sure to grow with some of Trump’s recent bizarre behavior and a new book portraying him as a clueless, accidental president, still is premature, and poses political risks for Democrats. It’s infuriating to a collection of progressives working to develop counter-strategies if Trump tries to fire Mueller or pardon anyone under investigation.
“The key battle now is to protect the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller against any interference by President Trump and any efforts by his acolytes to falsely discredit the investigation,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a liberal-leaning good-government group. “Tom Steyer’s ad campaign appears to focus on Tom Steyer,” Wertheimer added, noting that it isn’t helping the effort to defend Mueller.
Steyer claims that there’s no reason to wait for the special counsel’s findings. Trump “is unfit for office and we have laid out the criteria for impeachment,” he said in a telephone interview this week. He cited a December forum with five legal experts who, Steyer said, have concluded that Trump’s impeachable offenses include abusing the power of the pardon, inciting domestic violence, recklessly risking nuclear war and undermining freedom of the press. He said the impeachment drive will serve the purpose of educating citizens about Trump’s misdeeds even though the odds of succeeding in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives are nil.
The campaign certainly is helping the 60-year-old activist’s political footprint. The digital petition drive has about 4 million signatures and has run $20 million worth of commercials in which Steyer plays a featured role.
Last year, Steyer had expressed interest in running for governor of California in November to replace incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown, who is retiring. Now, riding his impeachment campaign, he’s making noises about running for president.
He made his fortune as a hedge-fund and private-equity executive and has committed to spend all of it on philanthropy and political candidates and issues. He has given hundreds of millions of dollars to progressive candidates and causes, especially those involving environmental advocacy.
Steyer claims that Democratic congressional candidates who don’t support impeachment proceedings are ignoring the will of their constituents.
“If you are running for office and say it’s not dangerous, not urgent, you disagree with our analysis, then what is your solution?” he said.
His campaign is gathering momentum; already, 58 House Democrats are calling for action on impeachment. Steyer points to polls showing that 40 percent or more of voters back impeachment. He has prominent supporters like Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, who notes that more Americans favor impeachment proceedings than approve of Trump.
“Why do we take the latter group seriously and ignore the former group?” Tanden said. “Tom is supporting an important conversation about Trump’s fitness.”
But in most polls, a plurality or narrow majority opposes impeachment now, and that worries Democrats who hope to score well in this year’s congressional and statehouse elections by winning in some moderate or conservative venues.
“The last thing Democrats need is a litmus test on impeaching President Trump,” said Paul Begala, a top Democratic strategist. “Democrats can and do resist him with all their might when he tries to gut Medicaid, kill Obamacare, discriminate against Muslims or immigrants, or raises taxes on working folks so he can cut them for corporations. But they should let the Mueller investigation come to a conclusion before they reach for the ultimate punishment of impeachment. Otherwise the risk is that voters think the only thing Democrats stand for is opposing Trump.”
Steyer has insisted that Democrats should be “way past the point” of waiting for the special counsel’s conclusions. Mueller, he insists, is only investigating several of Trump’s offenses, and Steyer says there already is a clear case for the top charge, obstruction of justice.
That’s misguided. Policy disagreements are a poor standard for impeachment.
As the Watergate saga unfolded between 1972 and 1974, congressional leaders took care to build a carefully constructed and documented case for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned in 1974 rather than face certain removal from office. Before that happened, the House Democratic majority leader, Tip O’Neill, was furious at liberal representatives, including one from his home state of Massachusetts, for demanding impeachment proceedings prematurely.
Steyer’s critics within his party, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., make the same point today.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.