Michigan Democrats tread cautiously on Trump impeachment

Lansing — The comment cards were piling up at a town hall here in mid-Michigan. 

Many residents gathered in a high school gymnasium Thursday had the same question for freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin: Should Congress begin impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election?

“When I say that we filter for repetition, this next question is an example why,” Slotkin’s deputy chief of staff Alexa Stanard told the crowd of roughly 200 before reading one of the impeachment cards aloud for the congresswoman to answer.

Slotkin of Holly and Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills represent two of 21 House districts nationwide won by Democrats last fall and by Trump in 2016.

Only two members of Michigan's representatives in the U.S. House are openly calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump: Democrat Rahida Tlaib and Republican Justin Amash.

The freshman lawmakers are treading cautiously amid activist calls for impeachment, even as 60 of their Democratic colleagues — plus West Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash — press for hearings to begin. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit is the only Michigan House Democrat who has called for starting impeachment proceedings.

Some party leaders have warned that voters don't want Democrats to take that route, and that pursuing impeachment could alienate political moderates and risk the loss of vulnerable seats in 2020.

Slotkin, a former Defense Department official elected in November in a traditionally GOP district, told the crowd that Congress has a responsibility to serve as a “check and balance” on the president. But she has not called for impeachment.

“She’s following the speaker,” Doug Weaver of South Lansing says after Slotkin’s town hall at J.W. Sexton High School, referencing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “I like to say, ‘In Nancy we trust,’ but I still believe you’ve got to do it.”

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin greets constituents  at a town hall event at Oakland University, in Rochester, MI on March 21, 2019.

Pelosi has continued to say she won't impeach Trump, while escalating her rhetoric, reportedly telling senior Democrats last week that she’d rather see Trump end up “in prison” after he is defeated at the ballot box in 2020.

Weaver, who told The Detroit News he has a unique perspective after serving as a signals intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, does not expect the GOP-led Senate would vote to remove Trump from office. But he wants to document the process. 

“He’s illegitimate,” Weaver says. “You don’t accept help from the enemy. You don’t gladly do it. I don’t care how naïve you are.”

Several other voters were also agitating for impeachment in Lansing, the liberal stronghold in the moderate 8th District, which stretches from Ingham County through conservative Livingston County and into northern Oakland County.

But a May 28-30 statewide poll shows most Michigan voters oppose launching impeachment proceedings. Slotkin stressed the diversity of the district as she explained her position: She doesn’t get the impeachment question during coffee hours in other areas, Slotkin told the crowd.

“When they get time with their congresswoman, what they want to know is, ‘I can’t afford my insulin. How are you going to help me?’” she said. 

The Glengariff Group survey released to The Detroit News found that nearly 53% of 600 likely Michigan voters are opposed to impeachment, while about 40% support impeaching Trump. Voters were split on whether Trump obstructed Mueller's  investigation, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

Nearly 90% of Republican voters objected to impeachment hearings, but opposition also was high among independent voters at 59%. 

Slotkin confirmed she has read the full 448-page Mueller report, which details Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor and 10 instances when the president potentially obstructed the investigation.

“For me, if you decide to go down an impeachment road, you must be very judicious about that -- very judicious,” she said Thursday.

“And it is a process that requires you bring along the American people. So for me, it has got to be serious, thoughtful, public, and that’s why I think next week is going to be a very important milestone in that process.”

Political risk

While activists push impeachment, some top Democrats point out that focusing on health care and the economy helped the party win the House majority in 2018. In "crossover" districts that Trump won in 2016, Democrats persuaded voters by touting the need for lawmakers to work in a bipartisan manner toward tangible results.

"That’s what voters want to see. People made their decisions on Trump, and for the most part people don’t like him and are ready to vote him out," said Brandon Dillon, who led the Michigan Democratic Party during last year's midterm elections.

"My concern would just be that the Senate has clearly stated that they’re not going to remove Trump from office. So are we taking away from our best message — which is on those core bread-and-butter economic issues that helped us in 2018?"

Dillon, now a consultant and lobbyist in Lansing, noted recent polling that suggests independent voters — a key constituency in Michigan — aren't focused on impeachment. 

"That doesn’t mean Congress can’t keep investigating, holding hearings and educating the public about what’s going on," Dillon said. "But at this point I think they should be very cautious about going too fast and getting out in front of the voters who we need to get this guy out of office." 

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens

Stevens, a Democrat who flipped a Republican seat in Michigan's 11th District last fall, also isn’t calling to begin impeachment proceedings at this time. She wants congressional investigations to play out.

“I do think we need the investigations to happen, and I don't think that we should be in a rush for something as serious as impeachment,” Stevens said last week in an interview in her Capitol Hill office.

Stevens, who served on the auto task force in the Obama administration, has held eight town halls since taking office in January, including one the first weekend in June in Troy, where she heard from voters on both sides of impeachment.  

“A lot of folks saying, 'Hey, we think you should call for this,' and other people saying, 'We don't think it's the right time right now,' or 'Don't do it because, hey, you're sitting with 100-plus bills that have been passed by the House that the Senate hasn't even taken up,'” she said.

“So why go through this and not be successful? This is what I'm hearing from people.”

Personally, Stevens added, she is “appalled” by what she read in the Mueller report.

“I've gone back to the report several times. A lot of questions. The redacted parts kind of leave you wondering, what's going on?” she said. “It's deeply concerning around what the campaign was doing and what was taking place with Russia.”

Congressional inquiries

Stevens said she's been “astonished” that the Trump White House has directed officials not to testify or turn over records to congressional committees, noting that her auto task force team was called before Congress when she worked in the Treasury Department from 2009-11.   

“And it's like, oh, my gosh, I can't believe we have to do oversight while we're trying to save the economy, but guess what? That's how this works,” Stevens said.

“And it made us better at what we were doing. So I think the transparency — I think trust is important, as well as the delivery component.”

She insists that House lawmakers can both legislate and conduct oversight simultaneously, echoing some of what Democratic leaders have said on the subject.  

“I think I can do both, which is walk and chew gum. You know, dribble the balls that need to be dribbled in order to serve to the extent of the oath that I took — which is safety and security of our country, good governance,” Stevens said.

Speaking with The Detroit News after her hour-long town hall, Slotkin reiterated her desire for Congress to gather more information about Trump campaign connections to Russia or obstruction efforts before considering impeachment hearings.

House Democrats should not act alone, she said, suggesting the need to “bring along” the public and the GOP-controlled Senate “if we’re going to take the country through impeachment.”

“Watergate, when it started, wasn’t a groundswell of passion about this issue,” she said, referencing the scandal that ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.

“There was a case built methodically that in the end, turned the tide. I just don’t think we’re there yet for a majority of people.”

Slotkin said she is concerned that beginning impeachment now would exacerbate gridlock in Washington.

Charlene Lowrie of South Lansing said she attended the Slotkin town hall to hear the congresswoman's thoughts on impeachment and other current events.

“I think Congress needs to do something; they need to make up their mind,” Lowrie said. “I don’t think I have enough information yet, but from what I’ve read, absolutely (Trump) needs to go.”

For now, though, Lowrie is trusting Slotkin’s more measured response to the Mueller report.

“I think she’s closer to the issue, so she would have a better judgment,” she said.



Where Michigan delegation stands

Two of Michigan's 14 members of the U.S. House of Representatives say they want to begin impeachment hearings. The rest of the representatives oppose impeachment, though most of the Democrats want to hold more investigative hearings into President Donald Trump's conduct during the campaign and in office.

Support impeachment: Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township

Oppose impeachment: Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden; Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland; John Moolenaar, R-Midland; Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet; Tim Walberg, R-Tipton; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn; Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township; Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield; Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; and Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills