WASHINGTON – Minnesota's two new Democratic House members from suburban swing districts, U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, have not decided if President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, a question that has racked their party in the aftermath of the special counsel report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
As some of the Democratic Party's loudest voices press for impeachment proceedings, the stakes are growing for lawmakers like Phillips and Craig, who flipped districts now critical to the Democrats' chances of holding the U.S. House.
With 2020 approaching, many Democratic leaders have urged caution, arguing that impeachment would not only be futile with a Republican-led Senate, but also would be self-defeating.
In Minnesota, both the merits and the politics of impeachment have forced a go-slow approach for two of the state's most vulnerable Democrats.
"I'm going to pass final judgment when I have all the facts," said Phillips, a freshman from Minneapolis' western suburbs.
But as the prospect of impeachment energizes the Democratic base, it has emerged as a premier issue in the Democratic presidential primaries as well as in the coming battle for the House.
Activists like Michelle Beddor, one of Phillips' constituents, wishes he would make up his mind.
"We have a dangerous, unfit, lawless president, and we are doing nothing meaningful to address it," Beddor said, adding she's tired of waiting for more investigations, as Phillips and House Democratic leaders plead for more time. "I just think it needs to happen now," she said.
Beddor, a volunteer political activist from Chanhassen, organized a pro-impeachment demonstration outside Phillips' district office near Ridgedale Mall last week. She said Phillips should see what's obvious to her.
The fast-moving debate among Washington Democrats over what to do about revelations in Robert Mueller's special counsel report about Trump's handling of the Russia probe will have political consequences not just for Trump. It's forcing centrist Democrats like Phillips and Craig to balance legislative priorities and re-election concerns with demands of activists who provide much of the party's grassroots energy.
"The challenge is, we can't afford to just focus on this one thing," said Craig, who like Phillips unseated a Republican incumbent in 2018 with a boost from anti-Trump sentiment. "Americans, and people in Minnesota, can't afford for us to only conduct oversight over the next 18 months."
The worry among some Democrats is that a lengthy, deeply contentious impeachment battle would bring all other activity at the U.S. Capitol to a standstill. First-term Democrats like Craig and Phillips argue that most voters back home are more worried about pocketbook concerns and still expect progress on issues such as health care and prescription drugs costs, infrastructure and immigration reform.
The GOP also senses opportunity. "A majority of the country doesn't want impeachment," said Carly Atchison, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is poised to target both Craig and Phillips next year as the GOP tries to take back the House.
A national CNN poll taken May 28-31 found 54% of voters opposed to impeaching Trump, and 41% in favor. But 76% of Democrats were in favor of impeachment.
The monthslong debate over impeachment intensified at the end of May when Mueller asserted publicly that his report did not exonerate Trump, suggesting that any next moves would be up to Congress. Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul, who had previously stopped short of calling for impeachment, called for the process to start.
"I support establishing a formal impeachment inquiry that allows for a thorough, thoughtful, and fully transparent process," McCollum said in a statement. "I would then expect articles of impeachment to be presented to the House for consideration."
McCollum joins Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, who was the first Democrat in the Minnesota delegation to call for impeachment.
Rep. Collin Peterson, a centrist Democrat from northwestern Minnesota, said in a recent interview with KFGO-AM in Fargo that impeachment would be a futile exercise.
"I think Trump wants to be impeached," said Peterson, who has not responded to Star Tribune requests to talk about his impeachment view. "I think he's baiting us and I think the Democrats are taking the bait, is what I think."
Even if House Democrats voted along party lines to bring articles of impeachment against Trump, the decision on whether to actually remove him from office would fall to the U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
Minnesota's three Republican congressmen oppose impeachment. Its two Democratic senators, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, have also not yet joined the calls for impeachment. "We're not there yet," Smith said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "We need to follow the facts and hear testimony — including from Robert Mueller himself — so that we can fully understand what happened."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been the face of the Democratic argument for moving slow on impeachment. Even as she has been reported to have privately expressed a desire to see Trump go to prison, Pelosi has also said an impeachment debate and vote in the House would likely inflame Trump's supporters ahead of his re-election bid next year.
The House Democratic majority that put Pelosi in power is well stocked with new suburban members like Craig, who picked up a district that went narrowly for Trump two years earlier. Phillips, for his part, represents a district that was in Republican hands for decades. According to a New York Times tally, so far only 59 out of 235 House Democrats (along with one Republican) are on the record in favor of impeachment.
"There's some that feel we should be going full steam into this," said Mark Frascone, the co-chairman of an Indivisible chapter in Eagan and Burnsville, in Craig's district. The national movement sprang up in 2017 in opposition to Trump and his agenda, and active memberships in both Craig's and Phillips' districts helped fuel their 2018 wins.
Frascone said Indivisible's national leadership has been pushing local groups to hold a "day of action" in support of impeachment. But the information security activist, who lives in Eagan, is not personally on board.
"I'm all for using our Congress and its investigatory tools to go and uncover anything we can to expose the criminal activity of this president," Frascone said. But he's worried that impeachment would require a singular focus on the contents of the Mueller report, which he thinks would take attention from other documented or alleged misdeeds by the administration.
"There has to be a vast accounting of all that's taken place," Frascone said. "I'm a little wary of the spectacle of an impeachment."
Even impeachment supporters like Beddor cite issues apart from the Mueller report as they argue for the most serious possible check on the presidency. Beddor cited the treatment of migrants and families separated at the southern border.
"Patience on this is privilege," she said. "It's too much patience."