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On impeachment, Democrats weigh principle against popularity

Democrats in the House and on the 2020 campaign trail are divided on whether to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Trump. While many feel his actions warrant impeachment, there is concern that public sentiment wouldn't support it. But Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., thinks refraining from impeachment would violate a fundamental responsibility of Congress, as he tells Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's turn now to the political fallout from the Mueller report, as Democrats debate the best way to respond.

    On the campaign trail, Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first presidential candidate to call for impeachment proceedings.

    In a CNN town hall last night, Senator Kamala Harris was asked where she stands.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    I think we have very good reason to believe that there is an investigation that has been conducted which has produced evidence that tells us that this president and his administration engaged in obstruction of justice. I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Like the Democratic presidential candidates, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are also divided on initiating impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

    Congressman Jared Huffman of California joins us now from San Francisco.

    Congressman Huffman, thank you very much for being with us.

    We know you were on that conference call with Speaker Pelosi, other Democratic members of the House last evening. It's reported that you spoke up at one point during the call and said, "The script has flipped."

    What did you mean by that?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Well, thank you for having me, Judy.

    The point I tried to make to my colleagues is that, for months, we have heard some people say that there is this tremendous downside to initiating an impeachment process, that it would be bad for the country, that it would be politically unwise.

    Now that we have received the Mueller report, and now that we know that the president of the United States is an unindicted co-conspirator known as Individual 1 in an illegal campaign finance conspiracy that extended into his presidency, just on what we already know, I think the burden has shifted to the downside of not acting.

    The Constitution created our impeachment authority for exactly this kind of circumstance. And it's really damaging to the country and to our institutions if we punt on something like this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're saying it's damaging if you don't act?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What is it — be a little more specific about, what is it in the Mueller report that has changed circumstances?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Well, first of all, the Mueller report is done. It was completed by a lifelong Republican whose reputation is beyond reproach.

    It was independent. It was objective. And at least with respect to obstruction of justice, multiple counts of obstruction of justice, it was fairly conclusive. The only reason this president wasn't indicted was an internal Department of Justice policy against indicting that president.

    But every element of the criminal conspiracy for multiple counts of obstruction of justice was met and laid out in great detail by Robert Mueller.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're making this argument.

    But, from everything we can tell, Speaker Pelosi, the leadership of the Democrats, most Democrats in the House at this point are still saying, let the process work its way; let's continue the inquiry, the hearings, calling people to testify, getting documents, but not going ahead with full-blown impeachment proceedings.

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Here's what I think is important, Judy, the investigation, the continued oversight and accountability that has to move forward with even greater urgency now, and that is happening.

    So, functionally, the next steps are the same, whether you call it an impeachment inquiry or whether it is just a full-throated investigation and accountability that Leader Pelosi and others are moving us forward with. And I feel fine with that.

    I think it will inevitably lead to an impeachment process, because I think the Constitution requires that we do our job.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're saying, functionally, it's the same as an impeachment process. But aren't there powers that are granted in that process that you don't have, that members of Congress don't have on the current course?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Some.

    But many of the same investigations, the same inquiries will be moving forward, functionally, the same thing we would need to do in an impeachment inquiry. We are going to be getting at the same information, asking the same questions.

    And, frankly, it's a lot more than what we have just from the Mueller report. There is all of this financial accountability that needs to be brought forward, the tax returns, the Deutsche Bank inquiries that Chairman Maxine Waters is pursuing.

    There is a lot of further investigation. And my guess is that the potential articles of impeachment, the potential grounds for impeachment will only expand as this goes forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Congressman, what do you say to the argument that many Americans, if not most Americans, are just not there, that they are sick of hearing about the Russia investigation, the Mueller probe, and they want to move on, that this is — that if the president — and you even hear Democrats making this argument — that the president should be judged by the voters, and not by a bunch of Democrats in the Congress?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    I don't blame them, because this president has exhausted us.

    He has in some cases intimidated people, to the point where they're just sick and tired of dealing with him. But we have to think carefully about the precedent that would establish. If all of this unpleasantness, if this perception of a political risk causes Congress to punt on a fundamental constitutional responsibility, that is dangerous ground for this country.

    What it really means is that this president for the next year-and-a-half would know he's not going to get indicted by the Department of Justice for anything he does because of their internal policy, and the Congress doesn't have the stomach to carry out its constitutional backstop duties.

    And so I shudder to think what we might see in the next year-and-a-half from Donald Trump. And the precedent that it would establish for future administrations is just as troubling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you saying, though, Congressman, that public opinion really doesn't matter here?

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Public opinion always matters, but if impeachable offenses is not a close call, you don't punt on your duty because you're worried about public opinion.

    Look, I grew up in a household where my parents during the Watergate era were big Nixon supporters. And I remember how hard it was for them and many other Nixon supporters as Watergate — as we began the impeachment inquiry.

    But you know what? That impeachment process, the drawing out of facts, the telling of the full story to the American people, caused people to realize, including my own parents, that this president had done some very terrible things, and we needed to make a change.

    Hopefully, this process will begin to change some minds as we go forward here as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Representative Jared Huffman of California, we thank you.

  • Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.:

    Thank you for having me.

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