Vulnerable Democrats seek impeachment guidance from Pelosi

By Andrew Desiderio and Sarah Ferris

Swing district House Democrats are seeking more help from leadership on how to handle the impeachment drive as they enter the most perilous stretch of their brief congressional careers.

Several junior lawmakers on Thursday voiced concerns in a closed-door meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders that they are struggling to keep up with their party’s message on the Ukraine scandal rapidly engulfing President Donald Trump, according to multiple people in the room.

While Pelosi and her deputies listened and took notes, freshmen from competitive districts suggested they needed more real-time guidance to keep up with the fast-moving developments in the age of Twitter and near-instant leaks. Members said they were often dismayed to learn of major news through tweets or in news accounts — and some vented about leaks from internal caucus meetings.

“The speaker listened. That’s all she did today. The speaker listened to us,” Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said, adding that the majority of the vulnerable “front-liners” told Pelosi they want to keep the spotlight on the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden.

“I’m in a district where I think I’ve been reluctant to move forward only from the perspective of, I want to be disciplined, I want to look at due process, and I want to make sure we have all of our facts. And this inquiry will allow us to do that,” Craig added. “And I’m very supportive of Adam Schiff and what he and his committee [are doing].”

Lawmakers also told leadership that they wanted to see new messengers making the rounds on TV as the impeachment inquiry ramps up — not the usual rotation of Judiciary Committee members.

The meeting came a day before Democrats are set to return to their home districts for a two-week recess, where lawmakers will face their constituents for the first time since the House’s leap toward impeachment.

Since Pelosi embraced an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, House Democrats have united in their outrage over Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Earlier Thursday, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire frustrated lawmakers with his explanation of why he initially withheld from lawmakers a whistleblower complaint that detailed Trump’s conduct.

The complaint, which was released publicly Thursday morning, states that senior White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s bid to pressure Zelensky and that aides tried to “lock down” records of the phone call.

Some of the discussion during Thursday’s meeting centered on a fear of leaks within the caucus, and lawmakers emerged from the meeting uncharacteristically tight-lipped.

“I’m not going to share what just happened in that meeting,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), a refrain that reporters heard over and over as members exited the private huddle.

Pelosi, who called the meeting, pitched it as a listening session with her and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). Several lawmakers described it as largely a question-and-answer session after weeks of privately fretting about the caucus’ lack of direction and disunity on impeachment.

“What has happened is we have been focused by an event that clearly is a violation of law and a violation of national security. So [to] that extent, yes we’re focused,” Hoyer told reporters as he exited. “I think we want to be unified and I think everybody shares that view.”

The hourlong discussion, which was attended by more than two dozen freshman Democrats from the toughest districts in the country, ended with two rounds of applause.

The meeting comes after a tense week in which many moderate Democrats privately and publicly griped that the Democratic caucus lacked a clear strategy on impeachment at a pivotal point.

Vulnerable Democrats, particularly freshmen, were dismayed by the party’s handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and were eager to change course as the focus shifted to the Ukraine episode.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, has publicly called for a select committee to lead the caucus’ impeachment push; several members privately said they wanted it to be led by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

The idea of a select committee wasn't raised during the meeting, but the freshmen stressed that they wanted Schiff to play a prominent role in the ongoing investigation, according to multiple people in the room.

It’s not just first- and second-term Democrats who have fretted over the party’s strategy.

Two senior members debated the caucus’ tactics in a separate closed-door meeting on Thursday morning. Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-Conn.), said she wanted the Intelligence Committee to take the lead. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) countered that Democrats shouldn’t sideline the other investigations, according to multiple people in the room.

Pelosi, who called the Ukraine scandal a “smoking gun,” later made clear that Schiff’s committee would determine the pace of Democrats’ impeachment investigation, even as the Judiciary Committee will maintain control over the overall impeachment inquiry.

“Our consensus in our caucus is that we will proceed under the auspices of where this matter is relevant and that is in the Intelligence Committee,” Pelosi told reporters at a weekly news conference. “The timeline relates to how the committee proceeds and our timeline will spring from them.”

Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.