House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) before a news conference concerning the impeachment inquiry on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
White House officials intent on stopping the House from impeaching President Trump are considering appealing to moderate Democrats in Republican districts to stand with the president, a pursuit at odds with fresh political attacks from the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee.
The nascent outreach campaign would target some of the 31 Democrats from congressional districts Trump won in 2016, many of whom ran on rebuilding infrastructure, improving trade deals and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, according to multiple officials familiar with the strategy.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said the appeal would be based on these Democrats’ 2018 election promises to work with the president — accompanied with a warning that impeachment would hamper possible legislative victories.
White House aides have been closely monitoring statements from these lawmakers to see how many fully back impeachment, whether they have put conditions on any vote, and whether they have offered tepid comments and might be convinced ahead of tough reelection bids.
The discussions underscore the nervousness among some in the White House about an impeachment vote that could jeopardize Trump’s hold on the presidency. For nearly three years, the White House paid little attention to Capitol Hill Democrats’ policy priorities, but over the next six weeks they plan to focus on them in hopes of preventing impeachment.
Democrats face intense pressure on what could be the most consequential vote of their political careers, with tough questions from constituents and Trump’s criticism that they are the “Do Nothing Democrats.” The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee have launched $10 million in television and digital ads that bludgeon many of the same Democrats the White House is courting.
“Democrats are trying to undo the election regardless of facts. It’s nothing short of a coup and it must be stopped,” says one ad unveiled Wednesday. The ad comes days after another that called some Democrats “radicals.”
Democratic leaders dismissed the notion that the White House could win over moderates with policy promises. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said that her caucus is more than willing to work with the president while they continue investigating him. The inquiry is focused on a July 25 call in which Trump pressed the Ukrainian president for help in investigating a domestic political rival.
“Our democracy is not negotiable,” Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Wednesday in a statement. “It is sacred and certainly not to be traded at any price.”
Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), a Democrat from a Trump district who recently endorsed an impeachment inquiry, said Wednesday that she would “absolutely” be interested in working with the White House this fall on policy.
But when a reporter suggested the White House would want her to drop her support for proceedings to do that, she responded: “That’s not the way it works.”
“That’s not the way that our Constitution is written,” she said after a crowded session with constituents in East Lansing. “The president of the United States acknowledged openly that he went to a foreign leader and asked for dirt on an American. I cannot give up the rule of law in some trade. That is not something anyone should be trading away.”
The pressure was evident at town halls this week. In Upstate New York on Tuesday night, an attendee told freshman Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado that he was disappointed in the congressman’s support for an impeachment inquiry.
He challenged the lawmaker to “identify tonight the exact crimes that you think have been committed.”
When Delgado started to explain, several people in the crowd called out at his mention of the whistleblower’s report on Trump’s summertime call with the Ukrainian president. “Secondhand!” and “Hearsay!” they said, although others cheered his explanation.
“The statute makes it pretty clear that it is a crime to solicit anything of value from a foreign national when seeking office or for an electoral purposes,” Delgado said. “That is the letter of the law.”
Pelosi has encouraged Democrats in competitive districts to focus on policy, rather than Trump and impeachment, an approach she tried at her Wednesday news conference.
“Does anyone in this room care about the cost of prescription drugs and what it means for America’s working families?” she asked reporters eager to talk about impeachment.
The GOP ad campaign is unnerving to some Democrats. During a caucus call with Democratic leaders this past weekend, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who flipped a GOP seat near Miami last year, asked Pelosi if leaders intended to give vulnerable Democrats cover from the attacks.
Pelosi urged them to focus on their prescription drug plan — and said outside groups may be stepping in to help.
On Wednesday, during another caucus call, Pelosi referred members to a tweet by a liberal outside group, House Majority Forward, announcing plans to support those members who “took a principled stand for an impeachment inquiry” and are “fighting for the kitchen table issues,” according to two people on the call. An official with the group confirmed that they would be running TV ads to help Democrats.
Adding to the pressure for Democrats are expectations for a full-blown investigation despite the Trump administration’s lack of cooperation. While several Democrats support the inquiry, some are unsure about voting to impeach Trump without more evidence.
Of the 235 House Democrats, 225 back an impeachment inquiry, but just 28 have said publicly they favor impeaching the president, according to a Washington Post analysis. Pelosi would need a majority of the House — 218 votes.
At the very least, these moderate Democrats are asking the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to do more to give them cover, according to multiple Democratic officials — a request a Democratic aide said the DCCC is working on.
“With the Republicans running ads in our Trump districts, it’s critical that the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee steps up and fights back in our districts,” said one moderate Democrat in a Trump district, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
The White House hopes to cast Democrats as the party of impeachment. In the coming weeks, White House legislative affairs staffers, led by Eric Ueland, a longtime Senate aide who had a front-row seat to Clinton’s impeachment, will try to reach out to these Trump-district Democrats to try to get them to work with the White House on legislation.
The pitch, according to those familiar with the strategy, is that these vulnerable Democrats could secure some legislative accomplishments this fall, possibly even passage of a prescription drug bill. Impeachment, however, could ruin that effort.
Part of the argument is that a “political impeachment exercise” would imperil significant bipartisan legislation and will not end successfully, as Republicans control the Senate and convicting Trump in a trial requires a two-thirds vote, said one White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly .
This past Tuesday, Ueland invited Democratic staff from Pelosi’s office, as well those working for the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, to talk with the White House about prescription drugs. U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer met Friday with Democratic lawmakers about trade.
Talk of cajoling Trump-district Democrats comes as the White House has grappled with questions of whether to establish a war room to defend him , just as President Clinton had in 1998. Trump has told aides he does not want anyone hired just to handle impeachment strategy because it would look like an overreaction, current and former aides said.
The result has been scattershot, with Trump taking the lead on his own defense through his favorite medium: Twitter.
During Pelosi’s remarks Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to taunt the speaker: “Nancy Pelosi just said that she is interested in lowering prescription drug prices & working on the desperately needed USMCA. She is incapable of working on either. It is just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment. The Do Nothing Democrats are stuck in mud!”
Underscoring the challenges of Trump World’s mixed strategies, Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), a longtime impeachment skeptic, decided to back impeachment on Wednesday night. Over the weekend, the freshman who won in a Trump district was targeted in an RNC ad.
“Max Rose promised he’d tackle problems facing our country. Rose broke his promise,” said one ad, citing prescription drug costs among the issues. “Rose votes with the radicals for endless investigations of President Trump.”
On the screen is a photo of Rose with those of the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus, including Pelosi and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Instead of scaring Rose from backing an impeachment inquiry, the ad had the reverse effect.
“While the president of the United States might be willing to violate the Constitution to get reelected, I will not. . . . It is for that reason that I intend to fully support this impeachment inquiry and follow the facts,” Rose , an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, said at a town hall Wednesday night in Staten Island.
Mike DeBonis in East Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.