WASHINGTON — The impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump blared on television screens throughout the Capitol and in congressional offices. Reporters and TV cameras swarmed behind velvet ropes outside the heavily guarded hearing room where dramatic public testimony played out for hours.
One floor above the commotion, Conor Lamb returned from an afternoon of votes in the House and strode back to his office, where the television in the waiting area showed only a silent, live feed of the House floor. It’s here, in a quiet corner of the Longworth House Office Building, where Lamb receives regular updates from his staff on the hearings, in addition to reading articles and watching clips.
This “is how real juries are instructed to behave,” explained Lamb, a Mount Lebanon Democrat, reclining in a chair.
He was referring to the remarkably staid approach he has taken to the House Democrats’ eight-week-old inquiry into whether Trump abused his power by pressuring a foreign government to investigate a political rival.
Lamb has remained almost defiantly neutral in the face of rising pressure from both the political right and left — and even as last week’s marathon public hearings unloaded revelations from key witnesses that appeared to build the case for articles of impeachment.
Lamb views the proceedings from a self-imposed jury box, he said, adhering to the standard legal presumption of innocence granted to any defendant in a trial.
Juries “are told to pay attention and follow along, but not to talk to each other or make any decisions until all the evidence is in,” Lamb said. “Because sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a particular piece of evidence until you hear from someone else later in the proceeding.”
Only when the witness testimony ends, the first-term congressman added, will he “drill into the details and make sure any suggested articles [of impeachment] actually matched up with the evidence.”
The perspective in many ways befits Lamb, a 35-year-old former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran.
He swept into Congress last year on the strength of his military and law backgrounds, promising progress in gridlocked Washington by transcending politics and polarization.
The impeachment inquiry, which has consumed the nation’s capital in a new level of partisan vitriol, could challenge that work-together-and-get-things-done ethos that Lamb used to ride to victory — in a special election in March 2018 and a general election in November.
Though Lamb defeated Republican incumbent Keith Rothfus by a comfortable 12 percentage points, Republicans have targeted Pennsylvania’s 17th District, which includes the northwest Pittsburgh suburbs and all of Beaver County, as a seat they can take back in 2020.
On Oct. 30, Republican Sean Parnell, an Army veteran, Fox News contributor, and fellow millennial, announced his run against Lamb. His first shots included criticizing Lamb for voting with Democratic priorities while billing himself as a moderate.
Resisting the call
Earlier this year, Lamb resisted calls for an impeachment inquiry after Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election. During a town hall in August, Lamb described impeachment as a “high bar” that requires a “mountain of evidence.”
Yet the whistle-blower report that surfaced in mid-September, which accused Trump of pressuring Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, persuaded nearly all House Democrats to support an inquiry.
Lamb said in an interview on Sept. 26 he wanted to know the facts of why the U.S. withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from Ukraine, citing national security concerns.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), who first supported an impeachment inquiry in June, was more aggressive in a statement that week: “That the president of the United States would withhold congressionally directed funds to an ally in need, in order to compel it to smear a political rival, seems to amount to blatant extortion for personal political gain.”
On Oct. 31, Lamb voted, with every Democrat, to approve the rules governing the public phase of the impeachment inquiry. Every Republican voted against it.
Last week, the American Action Network, a Washington-based conservative lobbying firm with ties to House Republican leadership, announced it would target Lamb with $200,000 of anti-impeachment advertisements — $150,000 on broadcast ads, and $50,000 on digital ads.
“Conor Lamb promised to be different,” the 30-second ad states, splicing videos of Lamb alongside Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi, who Lamb opposed for Speaker of the House. “Instead of working to secure our border, fix health care and pass a new trade deal with our neighbors that creates real jobs, he’s supported the partisan impeachment investigation.”
Abby Nassif Murphy, Lamb’s campaign manager, called the ads “nonsense.” She pointed out the American Action Network funded attack ads against Lamb in both of his elections last year.
“This dark money group has spent a fortune lying about Conor Lamb for the past two years, so this is nothing new,” Murphy said in a statement. “People in Western Pennsylvania know nonsense when they hear it."
More funding for ads from the right could be on the way. Eric Trump, the president’s son, said on a call with regional reporters this month that the Trump campaign raised millions of dollars since the impeachment inquiry began.
“When you’re raising $15 million in 24 hours, 12 to 15 months out from a campaign, you deploy that money very, very well and very effectively,” he said. “Not only are we raising more money [than Democratic candidates], but we’re raising it earlier.”
At the same time, progressive activists have plans to gather outside his Mount Lebanon office the evening before a yet-to-be-determined House vote on impeachment articles.
Organizers said last week they want to show Lamb “our full and public support of a yes vote on articles of impeachment and that the American people will not tolerate the transgressions of a president who thinks himself to be above the law.”
Questions about impeachment even made it into a town hall in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh’s suburbs last week with high school students.
“There is a presumption of innocence in American law that means that you cannot consider making someone guilty until all the evidence is in the the procedures are completed,” he told the students.
“I think that’s the best way for us to all conduct ourselves to make sure we’re being fair to the president and being fair to anyone who may come after him and may go through this same thing,” he said.
Through it all, Lamb seeks to maintain a sense of calm in Washington, often leaning on a bipartisan group of military veterans.
On a Thursday before Congress adjourned for the Thanksgiving holiday, he woke up, donned a Steelers ball cap, and headed to the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall.
On a crisp, sunny morning, he worked for an hour alongside seven other veterans in Congress — all Republicans — to help the National Park Service spruce up the haunting memorial.
Among the statues of soldiers creeping through vegetation, faces haggard and horrified, Lamb rolled wheelbarrows of pea gravel and spread it with a shovel. The lawmakers clutched coffee cups and cracked jokes.
Impeachment did not appear to come up once.
Lamb shook everyone’s hand and sped off in the direction of the Capitol. Changing into a suit and tie, he submitted his final votes of the week — voting for a workplace violence prevention bill, which passed 251-158.
He rushed back to his office in Longworth, past a gaggle of anti-Trump protesters outside, past all the cameras staged by the first-floor entrance, past the reporters sitting on the ground eating box lunches, past a growing line of people hoping to make it into the public seating area.
He sees himself as any other member of the working American public, trying to focus on his job while trying to process the fast-moving inquiry.
“I don’t get any time to watch the hearings” during the workday, Lamb said in the earlier interview. “I try to spend an hour or two at night kind of catching up.”