By Mike DeBonis, Rachael Bade, Washington Post–
While Washington was in a frenzy Wednesday over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s first public comments about his investigation and President Trump, 800 miles away, in rural central Illinois, Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos navigated an alternative political universe.
She dedicated a post office to a fallen Marine. She toured a mining equipment factory. And she spent time in a grocery store parking lot, quizzing voters about their concerns.
Mueller didn’t come up once. Neither did impeachment.
The scene in this Midwestern congressional district — one of 31 Democratic-held districts that voted for President Trump in 2016 — highlights the split-screen reality faced by lawmakers who hail from competitive seats: While an increasingly vocal group of their colleagues are clamoring to begin impeaching the president, few of their constituents agree.
That divide underpins the reluctance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team on pursuing impeachment proceedings. Senior Democrats, including Bustos, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fear blowback from “burned out” swing-district voters who could upend their majority in 2020.
“They see it as just more dysfunction in Washington,” said Bustos of impeachment talk. “The president’s going to be what the president is. And rather than just be critical of the president at every turn, what are we doing to make their lives better? What are we doing for this guy who makes $9 an hour and just got his health insurance yanked from him?”
Dozens of other Democrats see things differently, announcing publicly in recent weeks that they favor the launch of an impeachment inquiry as a first step toward potential passage of formal impeachment articles against a president who has refused to cooperate with their investigations. Mueller’s public comments Wednesday, which pointedly did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice accusations, have prompted more to speak out.
Two committee chairmen, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) of the Rules panel and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) of Homeland Security, backed an inquiry in the immediate aftermath of Mueller’s televised appearance. On Thursday, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, joined them, saying in a statement that Congress “must use all means necessary” to protect the Constitution and the rule of law.
Those lawmakers, however, represent districts where Trump lost by double digits. In Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which Trump won by three percentage points, political reality is markedly different.
During a 90-minute town hall there Tuesday night with Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, constituents asked about veterans issues, gun control measures and climate change. The word “impeachment” wasn’t uttered once.
“It has not been something that’s been brought up a lot,” Luria, a freshman who ousted a GOP incumbent last year, said in an interview. “We are carrying on our job in Congress and doing the things that people need in the community and are very focused here on constituent services.”
Speaking to the crowd in her military-heavy district, Luria touted newly passed legislation she sponsored offering tax relief to Gold Star families receiving benefits after the death of loved ones in the military. The retired Navy officer talked about her work addressing the economic impact of rising sea levels, partnerships with Republicans on military issues, and helping constituents recoup delinquent federal benefits. Luria focused on House Democrats’ efforts to expand firearm background checks and civil rights protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals.
At one point during the town hall, held in a predominantly African American church decorated with American flags for Memorial Day, a constituent inquired about the Democratic Party’s plan to counter a president who was turning the country into a “dictatorship.”
Luria’s response: Take him out at the ballot box.
“I think that if people have complaints about how we’re being governed, they should get out and they should vote,” she said, prompting applause from the crowd.
Of more than a half-dozen Democratic attendees surveyed after the town hall, all but one expressed wariness about beginning impeachment proceedings.
Mark Downey, a 52-year-old pediatrician, called impeachment a “double-edge sword” that would hand Trump a talking point: “They’re attacking me.” Gary Cusack, a 63-year-old Navy contract specialist, said Democrats “need the smoking gun” and noted that when former president Bill Clinton was impeached, his poll numbers went up.
“As a Democrat, I don’t want Trump’s poll numbers to go up,” he said.
Polls conducted after the release of Mueller’s report have found the country sharply divided on impeachment proceedings. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey released earlier this month found the country almost evenly split between those who say Trump should finish his term and those who either believe Trump should be impeached now or that Congress should keep investigating toward that end. Among Democrats, however, the poll found only a 30 percent minority favored immediate impeachment. Half favored seeking more evidence.
Back in Washington, Bustos has been a disciplined advocate for keeping Democrats focused on a defined policy agenda — lower health care costs, more infrastructure spending, job creation.
Inside multiple recent closed-door meetings of House members, Bustos has cited her campaign committee’s focus group findings to counsel against impeachment, according to people present who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private exchanges. Voters associate the topic with Washington dysfunction, she had argued, meaning Democrats risk being blamed for the gridlock they hate.
In an interview, Bustos acknowledged the research “shows that people are tired of talk of impeachment.” She declined to elaborate on the specific findings, but she appears to have a sympathetic ear in Pelosi and other top leaders, who have stuck to a strategy of calling for more investigation from House committees and full disclosure of Mueller’s report rather than rushing into an impeachment inquiry that currently seems highly unlikely to lead to Trump’s removal.
“Many constituents want to impeach the president,” Pelosi said Wednesday in California. “But we want to do what is right and what gets results.”
Bustos said she views it as her responsibility to speak up behind closed doors for swing-district Democrats, and she is not shy about pointing out that Democrats would not have the House majority now — not to mention committee gavels and subpoena power — without them.
After the post office event in Pekin, Ill., which kicked off soon after Mueller’s public appearance ended, Bustos pointed out to a visiting reporter eager to get her reaction that the local media did not share that concern in their own interviews.
“The press here, did they ask me about that?” she said. “This is not top of mind for people. Mueller just got done, and did I get one question?” She did not.
A couple of hours later, at the Komatsu America plant in Peoria, Bustos fired up a 2,600-horsepower mining hauler for the first time before fielding questions from some of the plant’s roughly 750 workers.
Some asked about issues largely outside Bustos’s federal bailiwick — the state tax burden, for instance, or violent crime in Peoria neighborhoods. One worker was frustrated about the Affordable Care Act’s tax on generous union health plans. Though Mueller had spoken just hours before — a spectacle that riveted Washington — none even approached a discussion of the investigations that have roiled Washington.
And that evening, outside Haddad’s grocery in West Peoria, she approached a half-dozen shoppers with her standard icebreaker: I’m headed back to Washington in a few days — what should I be working on?
The responses echoed one of Bustos’s frequent themes: Americans want cooperation, not gridlock, out of their elected officials.
“Republican or Democrat, I wish they could work together,” said Orlando Castillo, a union laborer.
“Bringing unity, I think that is our biggest problem,” said Keith Morrell, a project manager.
“The bickering, people are just tired of hearing it,” said Mark Wrhel, the grocery’s owner.
But there was at least some indication that their frustrations with Washington obscure some latent support for removing Trump.
Ted Potts, a painter, told Bustos about his frustrations with his health insurance before sharing his general dismay with Trump. He didn’t mention impeachment until a reporter followed up.
“After today, I say, pull the trigger on it,” he said, after Bustos moved on to another shopper. “I can’t take it. I say, just pull the Band-Aid off right now. Let’s get it rolling.”
Bade reported from Yorktown, Va. Emily Guskin contributed to this report.