WASHINGTON — For months, Jeff Van Drew, Chrissy Houlahan, and Andy Kim had avoided talk of impeachment. Last year, all three Democratic House members won swing districts just outside Philadelphia, capturing seats long held by Republicans with promises of pragmatism, not partisan strife.
Now, as they head into a two-week recess, all three are returning home to their districts facing the political reality that the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump is likely to dominate and divide Washington for months.
The shift — brought on when relatively moderate Democrats like Houlahan, of Chester County, and Kim, of Burlington County, spoke up this week in favor of beginning an impeachment inquiry — has left Van Drew as one of only about a dozen House Democratic holdouts on impeachment, and the only one in the Philadelphia region.
The Cape May County freshman said he has not seen enough evidence to warrant impeachment, warned that the latest effort could backfire on his party, and feared a fight that could tear at the country.
“I believe that’s going to split us further apart. It’s the last thing we want,” Van Drew said Friday, arguing that the effort will fail anyway, given Republican control of the U.S. Senate, where any impeachment would be adjudicated.
“Democrats have to be careful what they wish for, because they may secure the presidency for Donald Trump by going through this process," he said, arguing that it should be left to voters whether to remove Trump.
All three Democrats said they would rather focus on bills targeting infrastructure, prescription drug prices, or other “kitchen table” issues that affect their constituents’ everyday lives, and said they would keep trying to put those issues in the spotlight.
But those ideas, already pushed to the background in a deeply divided Washington, are likely to face even longer odds as the Capitol hunkers down for a brutal fight.
The shift has thrown a new wild card into both the 2020 presidential race, and potentially the reelection campaigns of Democrats like these three, who could be on the front line of any political backlash. Van Drew and Kim each represent South Jersey districts that supported Trump in 2016.
Houlahan (an Air Force veteran) and Kim (a former national security aide in the Obama administration) both cited their national security experience in explaining why Trump’s pressure on Ukraine changed their views on impeachment.
“It’s a sitting president, national security, election security and corruption, possibly all in one cocktail,” Houlahan said Friday as House members gathered for their final votes before their break.
For months, she had resisted her colleagues’ impeachment efforts, even as fellow suburban Democratic freshmen got on board, saying that constituent calls to her offices focused far more on concerns such as health care rather than Trump. But the Ukraine revelations changed her thinking.
Kim had been in a similar position, but on Friday pointed to his experience as an aide to the National Security Council in arguing that the pressure Trump exerted is inappropriate.
“I know the amount of preparation that goes into the calls, and I know what’s at stake with these calls,” Kim said. “When the president of the United States … makes an ask to another world leader, that is a very significant action. And there is an understanding that, you know, whether or not they comply with what the ask is, that they’re going to have to deal with the ramifications.”
But Van Drew dismissed this week’s revelations, in many cases echoing Republican talking points that there is no explicit quid pro quo offer or threat to the Ukrainian president.
“There’s things that people could see as unseemly there, that you’re uncomfortable with, but it’s definitely not direct enough in my mind,” Van Drew said.
He compared Trump’s actions to former Vice President Joe Biden’s effort to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor in 2015, calling these situations “blurry,” although Democrats and nonpartisan fact checkers have dismissed any parallels. “I liked the vice president, but evidently, the vice president actually said something, ‘You have to remove this prosecutor.’”
The difference, independent media organizations have noted, is that Biden helped push out a Ukrainian prosecutor who was notoriously light on corruption and who was opposed broadly by the U.S. government and a host of Western leaders. There is no known evidence to support Trump’s claim that Biden’s efforts blocked an investigation into a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter was a board member.
Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, meanwhile, has alarmed critics who see a president using U.S. resources for his personal political gain, and inviting a foreign country to interfere in an American election.
>> READ MORE: Document: Read memo of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president
In the July call in question, Trump repeatedly pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into Joe Biden, asking for the “favor” in the same conversation that the two discussed the military aid that Ukraine relies upon, according to a rough recap of the call released by the White House. Though there was no explicit quid pro quo, Trump had blocked $391 million in aid days before.
The White House then took extraordinary steps to keep details of the conversation secret, according to a whistle-blower complaint at the center of the controversy.
To the vast majority of House Democrats, the implications in Trump’s phone call are clear and a breaking point. Houlahan, whose Washington Post column with several other moderate Democrats helped serve as a catalyst for the political shift, said this incident was “very discrete, very bite-sized, very finite” and easy to grasp.
Now, Houlahan said, Democrats have an obligation to show voters why they should be concerned with Trump’s actions on Ukraine.
Republicans have argued that the impeachment push will boomerang on Democrats. They are already painting the party as obsessed with ousting Trump rather than governing.
Even as the impeachment question dominated the news, all three local Democrats said they hoped to continue focusing on the kind of kitchen table issues they campaigned on. Kim has a town hall meeting scheduled for Saturday to discuss flood insurance at one of the Shore communities he represents, and said he would continue fighting for funding for the joint military base in his district, while Houlahan said her foreign affairs hearing this past week centered on the Marshall Islands, not Ukraine.
Van Drew said he hoped to keep pushing for compromise on infrastructure, prescription drug costs, and other issues. An impeachment fight, he said, will prevent anything from getting done.