WASHINGTON — As Speaker Nancy Pelosi urges caution on impeachment, rank-and-file House Democrats are agonizing over the prospect of trying to oust President Trump, caught between their sense of historic responsibilities and political considerations in the wake of the special counsel’s damning portrait of abuses.
The Democrats — including more than 50 freshmen — are mindful that impeachment poses political risks that could endanger the seats of moderates and their majority, as well as strengthen Mr. Trump’s hand. They ran on kitchen-table issues dear to their constituents and do not want to be consumed in a partisan morass that might unite Republican voters in opposition. But some prominent members of the 55-member strong Congressional Black Caucus and a newly empowered progressive caucus are pressing for action — three Democrats have filed articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump and dozens of others have signaled a willingness to consider that path.
“A realization is setting in that this moment has found us,” said Representative Jared Huffman, a fourth-term Democrat from Northern California, who is advocating for impeachment. “We cannot ignore it. We cannot wish it away. For some, this may be a very, very difficult matter. But this is why we have a House of Representatives. And this is absolutely what our founders imagined when a president did these sorts of things.”
Lawmakers of color, such as Representatives Maxine Waters of California, Al Green of Texas, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, seem to be leaning in the farthest. Ms. Tlaib had a pointed message for those who want to leave the decision to voters, or worry that impeachment would diminish their electoral prospects.
“I think the voters decided in the last election,” she said, noting the record turnout in her district and across the nation in 2018, especially among minorities. “They spoke and they elected not only the most diverse but the most bold freshman class that we have seen in a long time — people who are bold enough to hold this president accountable and not make decisions based on politics, but on putting country first.”
“I don’t ever want to look back — and I think a lot of my colleagues feel the same way — to say that we didn’t do everything in our power to stop this lawless president from jeopardizing our democracy,” she added.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, who fiercely defended President Bill Clinton during his impeachment, said the offenses laid out in the first volume of the report on Russian interference in the 2016 election are more worrisome than past “special counsels, prosecutors, independent investigations among Republican and Democratic presidents” have uncovered.
“I don’t think any member of Congress has ever seen this behavior before by any president of the United States of America,” she said, although she backed Ms. Pelosi’s go-slow approach. She continued, “Certainly, Volume I, which dictates and provides evidence of the seemingly rampant and continuous interaction between campaign operatives and the Trump administration with the adversary, is stunning.”
But just as liberals are invoking the founding fathers to press for impeachment, more moderate Democrats, whose districts will likely control who is in the majority after next year’s elections, are doing the same to urge caution.
“I believe, ultimately, what the founders created for us in our democracy is clear: When you disagree with someone’s approach or believe he or she is abusing the Constitution, you vote them out,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat from New Jersey. “You could impeach them, if it merits it, or you can beat them with better ideas and a better approach.”
The founders left the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors — the criteria for impeachment, along with more specific offenses like treason and bribery — open to interpretation. And the report from Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, did not provide clear guidance.
“The challenge is that the Mueller investigation did a data dump onto the American public and Congress, and the data dump suggests obstruction of justice, which would satisfy the requirement of high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Timothy Naftali, a New York University historian and an author of the recent book, “Impeachment: An American History.” “But the prosecutors didn’t say it, and the Justice Department isn’t saying it. And so it’s up to Congress to decide.”
Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a freshman Democrat from Pennsylvania, has been thrown back to her days as a teenager watching the Watergate hearings and the resignation of Nixon unfold. She said she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about the Mueller report.
“Often you go into these kinds of events with some impostor syndrome: What am I doing here? How did I get here?” she said. “All of a sudden I’m talking with my colleagues about what does this mean for the country and how do we go forward?”
Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a constitutional law professor, has a well-marked copy of the Federalist Papers on his nightstand.
“The media just wants a thumbs up or thumbs down, pro-impeachment or not,” Mr. Raskin said. “They don’t appreciate this is a process, an instrument in the Constitution that is the people’s last defense against a president trampling the rule of law and acting like a king. But it is a process, and it is meant to be a process.”
Mr. Raskin said he believes that the obstruction outlined in Mr. Mueller’s report constitutes impeachable offenses, but he is not yet convinced they warrant proceeding with an impeachment. He urged Democrats to build an independent and full record for the public of what had occurred, rather than relying entirely on the Mueller report as Republicans relied on the Starr Report to impeach Mr. Clinton.
Removing a president from office requires bipartisan buy-in and the acceptance of the American people, as was the case with Richard M. Nixon but not Mr. Clinton. Congress undertook months of hearings on Watergate, beginning in May 1973, before threatening Nixon with impeachment in the summer of 1974. By that time, about two thirds of the American people believed he had participated in the Watergate cover-up.
“If you look at history, articles of impeachment were considered in the House of Representatives two weeks before Richard Nixon resigned; all the rest happened before that,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democrat from a safe seat in Illinois. “By the time that decision was made to go to articles of impeachment, the American people had heard it all and were persuaded.”
Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team appear to be following the Nixon model. The House Judiciary Committee has already issued a subpoena to compel the Justice Department to produce an unredacted copy of the Mueller report and all the evidence his investigation collected so Congress can begin sifting through it.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, its chairman, has invited Attorney General William P. Barr to testify next week, then Mr. Mueller not long after, and also issued a subpoena for testimony from Donald F. McGahn II, a former White House counsel and a key witness in the special counsel’s obstruction investigation, later in May. He has promised to call others to air key facts out in the open to build a congressional record of possible obstruction of justice, abuses of power and corruption in the White House.
“We have not yet had our Sam Ervin moment,” Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, one of the longest-serving members of the Judiciary Committee and a member of its staff in the 1970s, said on Tuesday, referring to the North Carolina senator who led public hearings on Watergate. “We have not yet had public examination of the facts involved in this whole matter.”
That sits well with newer Democrats in tougher districts. At a town-hall meeting outside of Minneapolis on Tuesday night, freshman Representative Angie Craig was pressed by a pro-impeachment constituent. But her seat was Republican last year, and she demurred.
“I believe the next step is for Congress to request the unredacted version of the report, for the committee chairmen to call a number of folks forward and for those folks to fill in the facts for the American people,” she said, even as she declared herself “very troubled by a number of the potential areas of obstruction that are mentioned in the report.”
Bedeviling pro-impeachment Democrats are not other Democrats but a united Republican Party that is not even acknowledging the abuses outlined by the special counsel. And the White House has made clear that it does not intend to cooperate with requests for witnesses and documents — potentially cutting off options for the Democrats.
For now, even those agitating for a vote to open a formal impeachment inquiry appear to be content with the plan laid out by Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team to use the Mueller report as a road map for further investigation. Mr. Huffman called it tantamount to an impeachment inquiry, if not so in name.
Democrats are also mindful that voters sent them to Washington to address kitchen-table concerns — the high cost of health care, jobs, the ravages of the opioid epidemic — and worry about the implications of getting distracted from that agenda.
“Impeachment is designed as an extraordinary constitutional remedy, and it puts members of Congress in an extraordinary situation,” Mr. Raskin said. “The Constitution obligates us to measure the importance of an impeachment investigation against everything else on the public agenda.”
Mr. Huffman and Ms. Waters have urged colleagues to grapple with the implications of failing to act: What if they choose not to try to impeach a president who had been all but accused by the special counsel of obstructing justice and is an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal campaign finance felony in New York?
“If that president cannot face impeachment, then part of our constitutional responsibility is just a bunch of dead words,” Mr. Huffman said. “I think that is pretty bad for the country. I think it invites abuse from this president for the next year and a half. I think it sets a terrible precedent that will be abused by future presidents. And we can’t take that lightly.”
He dismissed arguments from fellow Democrats that anticipated political outcomes should dictate their decision-making as “absurd self-serving readings of the tea leaves by folks who frankly don’t want to step up and make difficult decisions.”