Tensions between liberal grassroots activists and Democratic leaders over how hard to push for the impeachment of President Trump are intensifying.
Senior Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) have all suggested that the time is not yet ripe to mount an impeachment effort.
But activists on the left outraged at Trump’s conduct have found an outlet, of a kind, in the campaign run by California billionaire Tom Steyer.
Steyer, a big Democratic fundraiser who has until now focused mostly on environmental causes, is spending around $20 million on TV and digital ads calling for Trump’s impeachment. An online impeachment petition has collected more than 3.6 million signatures, according to Steyer.
It is difficult to see how that effort stands any real chance of success before November 2018, at the earliest.
That’s when Democrats will get a chance to win control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the midterm elections. But even if they succeed, removing Trump from office would be an uphill battle. The process requires not just impeachment by a majority in the House, but a two-thirds majority for conviction in the Senate.
Barring some outright cataclysm, there is no evidence that Republican lawmakers would even consider voting to impeach Trump.
But the pressure appears to be nudging Democrats in Congress to take a more assertive position. Earlier this month, an impeachment effort on the House floor, spearheaded by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), drew the support of 57 other Democratic lawmakers, more than many pundits had predicted.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed 41 percent of Americans would support Congress holding impeachment hearings. Fifty-four percent oppose the idea.
To more cautious Democratic leaders, those figures suggest that, while there is substantial support for investigating impeachment, such a push could also backfire.
Steyer, however, is adamant that leadership is being too timid.
Trump’s “danger to the American people is not a secret. What he is doing on a daily basis is apparent to almost every American,” Steyer said in an interview with C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that will air Sunday.
“From our standpoint, we don’t really understand the political calculation about whether this is smart or dumb. What we are trying to do is what is right, and we think this is right and important. … I don’t even understand that argument.”
Steyer is based in San Francisco, a liberal redoubt that is also Pelosi’s base.
When the environmentalist’s ad campaign began in late October, Pelosi praised the ad as “great” during an MSNBC appearance but was said to be much less impressed in private. According to one report, from Politico, she called the effort a “distraction.”
In his C-SPAN interview, Steyer claimed that he had never discussed his effort with Pelosi.
“I’ve really never talked to Nancy about this — I don’t think a single time,” he said.
But he reiterated that, “there is no time when we are going to say we don’t think we should stand up for the safety and health of Americans, because it’s not a good time politically to do that. No. We think this is an urgent issue and everybody knows it.”
Steyer’s effort provoked the ire of Trump himself, who described the Californian as “wacky & totally unhinged” in an October tweet.
The campaign has also stoked speculation about whether Steyer might run for office himself.
There are a number of options available. There has been persistent speculation that Steyer could run for governor in the Golden State, where incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown (D) will be term-limited out of office next year.
Steyer could also challenge Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has received some criticism of late from the party’s most liberal wing.
There has also been talk about a presidential run.
Steyer is not closing the door on any of it.
Asked about running for office in general, he said, “I haven’t ruled it out and I’m actually trying to determine what will have the most positive, differential impact. … I am absolutely ambitious to try and be a part of the group of people who get America back on a just and prosperous course.”
The filing deadlines for the California races loom in early March.
Asked if he would leave it until the last minute to make a decision, Steyer replied, “I don’t think so.” The grassroots pro-impeachment operation, he suggested, could not simply be turned off and on. He added that he had been doing a lot of “soul-searching” about how to have the most impact.
Republicans, of course, might rub their hands at the prospect of challenging a billionaire environmentalist from San Francisco — a political persona that fits some damaging caricatures of liberalism.
But Steyer’s language suggests he is on the brink of a run — for something.
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