GLENDALE, Calif. — On Tuesday evening, Tom Steyer, the Democratic megadonor turned impeachment activist, brought his anti-Donald Trump road show to the MGM Banquet Hall, a small, windowless wedding venue with $10 valet parking in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
At first glance Steyer’s town hall seemed indistinguishable from the 50 others he has staged across the country since launching Need to Impeach in October 2017. (He’s spent $50 million on the effort.) The sign-up sheets in the lobby. The introductory video compilation of Steyer’s many cable-news hits. The inner-city choir as a warm-up act. Even the location in the district of an influential congressional Democrat — in this case, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
And yet this time something was different.
Each of Steyer’s previous events had been held while America waited to see whether special counsel Robert Mueller’s report would decisively prove that Trump had committed an impeachable offense.
Back then, impeachment seemed like a live possibility, depending on what sort of wrongdoing prosecutors uncovered.
The Glendale event, however, was the first to take place in the confusing initial aftermath of Mueller’s investigation. Trump has been publicly cleared of criminal conspiracy with Russia; leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have pretty much ruled out the idea of Congress attempting to remove the president from office. But at the same time, reports are surfacing that the full, still-unreleased Mueller report may be more much damaging to Trump than Attorney General William Barr’s initial summary let on, particularly on the question of whether the president tried to obstruct justice.
As such Tuesday’s gathering provided perhaps the clearest glimpse yet into the bewildered psyche of the pro-impeachment left as it struggles to comprehend the disorienting yet sure-to-be-drawn-out denouement of Mueller’s nearly two-year probe — and to figure out a way forward.
“Did we drink the Kool-Aid about Mueller?” Need to Impeach volunteer Sandi Tang asked Steyer, her voice trembling with emotion. “I didn’t know much about him, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s our saving grace.’ We f***ing saw [Trump] do all this s*** in front of our own eyes! So how did Mueller — this guy we thought was going to tell us the truth — spend millions of dollars and 2 1/2 years and not come up with the things that we all saw, much less all the other stuff we heard about?”
From the start, the event felt more like a group therapy session than a traditional town hall, with Steyer, dressed in black slacks, a blue shirt and a technicolor belt, playing the part of political therapist.
“This is the most corrupt president in American history,” Steyer reassured his followers. “We know that. Everyone knows that.”
But the crowd of mostly middle-aged MSNBC types already seemed to be cycling through the five stages of grief. Denial was perhaps the most prevalent.
“He was impeachable on Inauguration Day!” shouted a bald man in a gray hoodie.
Nearby, a woman in a blue T-shirt and ponytail waved a sign that read “Indict. Impeach. Imprison. Lock them up.”
Others cited Mueller’s partisan affiliation to question whether his report could be trusted at all.
“We’ve all been convinced that Mr. Mueller was going to do right by our nation,” said Krisna Velasco, the correspondence secretary for California’s Chicano Latino Caucus. “But what we’re forgetting is that he is a Republican. We’ve all watched a lot of Republicans that we admire just turn and stand by Trump’s side. What makes us think Mueller hasn’t done the same?”
Anger also surfaced at regular intervals. When a gray-haired senior citizen started her question by saying, “We all know that to impeach there has to be a crime,” she was immediately interrupted by a fellow audience member.
Steyer went on to tell the questioner that, in his opinion, it was “clear that [Trump] obstructed justice” by firing “the person running the investigation,” FBI Director James Comey, even though Mueller did not come to a conclusion on the issue.
Yet obstruction wasn’t enough for the crowd, which began to howl about Trump’s other alleged crimes.
“Bank fraud!” someone shouted.
“Education fraud!” said someone else.
“Three wives!” snapped a woman near the front. “It’s true.”
The simmering tensions soon boiled over when a young woman wearing a “Latinos for Trump” T-shirt stood up and unfurled a Trump 2020 banner.
“I am Hispanic, I am an immigrant, and I support Trump,” declared Jazmina Saavedra, a local pro-Trump activist.
The boos were deafening.
“Shame on you!”
“He hates Hispanics!”
“He puts the American people first!” Saavedra snapped. “Instead of illegals!”
“He violates the Constitution!” someone responded. “You must not know your Constitution.”
Throughout, Steyer worked to soothe his anxious audience. “Everybody gets to make their point,” he said as the crowd tried to drown out Saavedra’s #MAGA slogans; later, he descended from the stage to give her a hug, then tried to transform her provocation into a teachable moment.
“Are we going to accept each other as full human beings or not?” he asked. “If we think we can only get ahead by vilifying other people, that will be the end of the United States.”
But some attendees still seemed to be veering toward the “bargaining” stage of grief — or even “depression.” Sandi Tang wondered aloud whether Steyer & Co. were making a mistake by continuing to contradict Pelosi, who has called Steyer’s impeachment efforts “a waste of time and money.”
“Your movement is not in line with the head of the Democratic Party,” Tang said. “And I’m quite concerned about that.”
In response, Steyer unveiled his main post-Mueller argument:
Nothing has changed.
It was a message he would repeat throughout the night. In 2018, Steyer said, Pelosi and other Democrats had a “sense of concern” that by pushing impeachment, “we were going to invigorate turnout by Republicans, and that would enable them to hold on to the House. But, Steyer argued, “I have never wondered about whether this movement was going to help Democrats to win. I know it is.”
And so, he continued, pro-impeachment progressives have to stay the course. After all, America still hasn’t seen the full Mueller report — only a short summary by Barr, Trump’s handpicked attorney general. (Barr has pledged to release a redacted version of the report sometime this month; the House Judiciary Committee has authorized Chairman Jerry Nadler to issue a subpoena for the full report.
Whenever the Mueller report finally comes out, “there will be good evidence in there,” Steyer said; it may even convince the country that Trump tried to obstruct justice. But, Steyer added, “we already have enough evidence,” even without Mueller’s findings — namely, the eight other impeachable offenses listed at NeedtoImpeach.com, from “profiting from the Presidency” to “violating campaign finance laws.”
“We’ve had one hearing on this,” Steyer concluded. “We should be having dozens of those hearings so Americans can see who these people are. I don’t think it matters whether you’re a Republican, or a Democrat, or an Independent. When we see this kind of criminality ... that will give Americans a chance to make up our own minds about what’s right and wrong.”
In other words, despite the political tides that are turning against it — despite increasing skepticism among congressional Democrats and increasing triumphalism among congressional Republicans — the dream of impeachment is not dead. Not yet. There’s still hope. There’s still time.
The crowd cheered. It was exactly what they came to hear.
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