At Wednesday’s presidential debate, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro made an argument that most of his fellow Democrats aren’t even making: Impeaching Donald Trump is better politics than not impeaching Donald Trump.
And he may have changed a rival’s mind on the issue.
“I think that folks are making a mistake by not pursuing impeachment,” Castro said onstage in Detroit. “What’s going to happen in the fall of next year, 2020, if [House Democrats] don’t impeach [Trump], is he’s gonna say, ‘You see? You see? The Democrats didn’t go after me on impeachment. And you know why? Because I didn’t do anything wrong.’”
As the crowd cheered, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, continued to press his case that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s attempts to cover it up not only necessitated action, but that such action would boost Democrats in 2020.
“Conversely, if [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is the one that lets [Trump] off the hook, we’re going to be able to say, ‘Well, sure they impeached him in the House — but his friend Mitch McConnell, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook,’” Castro said.
Castro’s argument was a novel response to the prevailing calculation among Democratic leaders, chief among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that while Trump’s actions may merit impeachment proceedings, the political backlash would likely damage Democrats in the end — particularly if and when the Republican-controlled Senate votes to acquit Trump, allowing him to claim vindication in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Pelosi’s thinking was echoed in Wednesday’s debate by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who warned Democrats that “we have to be smart about how we’re running, or we’re gonna give [Trump] a second term.”
“We’ve got the August recess, then we are four months away from the Iowa caucuses,” Bennet pointed out. “I just want to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t end up with an acquittal by Mitch McConnell in the Senate — which it surely would. And then President Trump would be running saying he was acquitted by the United States Congress.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Bennet in cautioning his party about the politics of impeachment.
“Don’t forget to do the people’s business and to stand up for working people, because that’s how we’re actually going to beat Donald Trump,” de Blasio said. “The best impeachment is beating him in the election of 2020.”
But Castro wasn’t having it.
“I really do believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he snapped. “I think that too many folks in the Senate and the Congress have been spooked by 1998” — the year Republicans tried and failed to remove President Bill Clinton from office via impeachment, only to lose seats in the House that November.
The politics of pursuing impeachment are far from clear at this point, which is why it has created so much controversy and conflict among Democrats. In the wake of Mueller’s testimony before Congress last week, more than a dozen additional Democratic House members came out in support of a formal impeachment investigation. That brings the total number of pro-impeachment House Democrats to 114, according to the Washington Post — nearly half of the 235-person Democratic caucus. Rank-and-file Democrats, meanwhile, largely seem to agree: A Politico/Morning Consult poll following Mueller’s appearance revealed that 64 percent of Democrats back impeachment and only 18 percent oppose it.
Yet overall, a mere 38 percent of Americans share that view — which is likely why the Democratic presidential contenders never mentioned impeachment at Tuesday’s debate and have been shying away from the topic on the trail.
So while Castro pushed impeachment as a political winner, others responded Wednesday to questions from the moderators with the more traditional moral justification.
“We swore an oath to uphold the Constitution,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said when asked about impeachment. “The politics of this be damned.”
But ultimately Castro’s case may have been more persuasive. When the Texan predicted that impeaching Trump would allow Democrats to blame McConnell for letting the president “off the hook,” Bennet seemed convinced.
“Sen. Bennet, please respond,” said CNN’s Don Lemon.
“I — I don’t disagree with that,” Bennet stammered. “You just said it better than I did.”
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