Kamala Harris said on Monday that “Congress should take the steps towards impeachment” of President Trump, marking her strongest stance yet on the repercussions the president should face after the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Mueller’s report presented “a lot of good evidence pointing to … obstruction of justice” by the president, Harris said, even as she expressed doubt that congressional Republicans would turn on Trump.
Harris staked the position at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., where an hour earlier, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont took a different stance. Sanders, one of Trump’s most vocal critics among the Democratic presidential candidates, said he worried that pursuing impeachment would undercut Democrats’ chances of beating him at the ballot box.
“If for the next year and half all Congress is talking about is Trump, Trump, Trump” rather than issues like healthcare and the minimum wage, he said, “I worry that works for Trump’s advantage.”
Sanders also put himself in rare disagreement with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a 2020 campaign rival who shares most of his progressive views. She was the first major candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment last week after the release of the Mueller report.
The Democratic candidates’ divisions over impeachment surfaced Monday night in a five-hour town hall that featured separate appearances by five leading candidates who were invited to focus on issues of interest to young voters. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appeared first, followed by Warren, Sanders, Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Warren upbraided Democrats who were resisting impeachment on political grounds. “There is no political inconvenience exception to the U.S. Constitution,” she said.
Klobuchar was noncommittal on whether the House should launch impeachment proceedings because, she said, senators would have to serve as the jury in a Senate trial if the House approved articles of impeachment.
“The impeachment proceedings are up to the House. They’re going to have to make that decision,” she said. “I’m not going to predispose things.”
Buttigieg reiterated his belief that Trump “deserves impeachment” but said it was a decision for Congress on how to proceed.
The town hall, co-sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, was conducted before an audience of young people — a testament to how important millennials and younger Gen Z voters will likely be in the 2020 primary.
A poll of 18- to 29-year-olds taken by the Harvard institute earlier this month found that 43% said they were likely to vote in their party’s primary or caucus, up from 36% at this stage in 2015. Among young Democratic primary voters, the poll found that Sanders led the field as the top choice of 31%; former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to join the race this week, came in second with 20%; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke took third with 10%.
In the crowded field of Democrats, which is nearing 20, candidates are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and to appeal to that demographic.
Harris rolled out new details on how she would impose stricter gun regulations through executive action to get around congressional stalemate on universal background checks.
“Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws,” she said. “And if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action.”
The proposal includes redefining “gun dealers,” who are required to perform federal background checks for gun sales, to include anyone who sells five or more firearms for profit per year. It would subject those dating to the same prohibitions on owning guns if they’re convicted of domestic abuse that currently apply to abusive spouses.
Harris’ plan would also revoke licenses of makers and sellers who willfully break the law, and, in egregious cases, allow the government to sue those entities for criminal liability.
Gun control has been increasingly galvanizing for students calling for government action after school shootings. It also has become an issue for Democrats as a whole; exit polls from the 2018 midterms showed that Democratic voters ranked gun policy as their second-highest concern after healthcare.
“We’re talking about an issue where politics have changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, an advocacy group backing more gun restrictions. “Gun safety was considered more of a third rail in politics. Now the opposite is true.”
Warren discussed her $1.25 trillion proposal, unveiled earlier Monday, to cancel student loan debt for millions of households and make public college tuition free for all.
Klobuchar told the student audience at St. Anselm College that she opposed such policies because they were unrealistically expensive, and implied that those who promised more were not being honest.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under each one of your chairs,’’ she said. “I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”
The candidates also differed on whether those who commit heinous crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bomber or sex offenders, should have the right to vote while in prison. Sanders endorsed the concept, saying the “right to vote is inherent in our democracy — yes, even for terrible people.”
Buttigieg disagreed, stating that “part of the punishment when you were convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom.” He said he did support restoring voting rights to those who complete their sentences.
The town hall posed the first high-profile test for candidates who have mostly avoided direct response to questions about whether Trump should be impeached. Mueller’s report detailed actions Trump took to undermine the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But it did not reach a conclusion on whether the president’s actions constituted illegal conspiracy with Russia.
Warren said during the town hall that regardless of the prospects in the Senate, members of Congress should have to go on record with their judgment on Trump’s behavior. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives,” she said.
But Sanders — often considered the most radical candidate in the field — took a more pragmatic approach.
“It goes without saying that the Congress has got to take a hard look and do a hard investigation … so we get to the truth,” he said. “But here is my concern: At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected president.”