Only one House Democrat was on Capitol Hill the two times in modern U.S. history when Congress moved to impeach a president — and Rep. Zoe Lofgren says she’s not eager to go through it again.
As House Democrats wrestle with whether to pursue an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, the San Jose Democrat has emerged as a leader of the mostly silent majority that is nervous about trying to remove the president.
Lofgren’s skepticism about opening an impeachment inquiry underscores the tough climb ahead for supporters of impeachment. She argues that a convincing case for impeachment hasn’t been made against Trump. She wouldn’t even say whether she believes he committed impeachable offenses.
“It’s hard to know,” she said in an interview. “The threshold is really behavior that is misconduct sufficient to threaten the functioning of the constitutional order.”
Caught between Democrats who support impeachment and skeptics such as Lofgren, the House Judiciary Committee continues to try to build a case against Trump.
On Monday, the panel hosted Watergate-era figure John Dean in a largely theatrical hearing — one Republican member suggested using a Ouija board to conjure a late president. Dean’s testimony was intended by Democrats to draw a comparison between Trump and President Nixon, with hopes of building public support for impeachment.
The House will follow up Tuesday with votes on whether to go to court to enforce its subpoenas against Atty. Gen. William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn.
The impasse between Democrats and the Trump administration was partly defused Monday when the Justice Department agreed to share more of the underlying documents behind the redacted report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The Justice Department will begin providing the Mueller documents to the House Judiciary Committee.
Lofgren is one of the most senior members of the House, the No. 2 ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and, as a former chairwoman of the House Ethics Committee who has had to navigate complicated ethics complaints, a respected voice among many rank-and-file Democrats.
She was a staffer to a member on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, when the committee prepared articles of impeachment against Nixon. And when President Clinton was impeached in 1998, she was a member of Congress and a prominent defender of the president. She called the House’s impeachment vote “an effort to undo the election” and “a pretty sad day for the country.”
Only one sitting member of Congress was in office for both impeachment efforts: Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, the dean of the House.
Like her longtime politically ally, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Lofgren has left open the possibility of an impeachment inquiry, the formal start to an impeachment process. She is holding her cards close to the vest, but she said so far the case against Trump is not as compelling as the one against Nixon.
“If you take a look at Volume One [of the Mueller report], and really try and compare that to … the Nixon impeachment, I think that we’re short there,” she said.
As a staffer to former Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), she looked on in 1974 as the Judiciary Committee hearings began mostly along partisan lines. She watched as members of Congress listened to the Nixon tapes and as Republicans eventually flipped to support the brewing impeachment. And she has vivid memories of the look on the face of former Nixon supporter Rep. Charles E. Wiggins (R-Calif.), when he reversed course to support the president’s removal.
“They presented it in a very orderly and deliberate fashion. And I think because of that, when it became time for the committee to act, members who on the natural would be reluctant to oppose Nixon in fact came around,” she said. “You have to reach some consensus that the activity is threatening to the functioning of the democracy.”
In that way, Lofgren voices many of the concerns cited by Democrats who oppose impeachment for now. They say the evidence isn’t overwhelming, public support isn’t there and the GOP-controlled Senate shows no signs that it would vote to remove the president from office if a House impeachment vote succeeded.
Only about 60 of the 235 Democrats in the House have publicly called to start an impeachment inquiry. And just one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has joined them.
Lofgren stands out on the Judiciary Committee because the majority of Democrats on the panel support impeachment. Fourteen of the 24 Democrats have called for an inquiry and Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has privately urged Pelosi in that direction, too. The committee would be the one that leads an inquiry and is arguably made up of the lawmakers who are most immersed in the details of the House’s investigations into the White House.
While Democrats say they’re trying to build a methodical case, some Republicans say they’re merely afraid of the potential political backlash that might come with starting an impeachment process.
“Unlike Bob Mueller, who needed to find a crime to indict and did not, you don’t need one to impeach Donald Trump,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) said at Monday’s hearing, all but daring Democrats to move forward. The Constitution gives Congress broad leeway to determine what acts justify impeaching the president.
Impeachment skeptics such as Lofgren are putting significant hope in the U.S. court system to uphold Congress’ power to investigate the executive branch. So far, that’s proved fruitful — two courts have ruled in Congress’ favor.
But those cases are now being appealed by the Trump administration, and some Democrats warn against relying too heavily on the courts.
“I have some differences with her about how much we should rely on waiting for these judicial proceedings to run their course,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who supports an impeachment inquiry. “As I look ahead at where these things are likely to land, I see many months of uncertainty. I think she may be a little more comfortable letting the next several steps in these proceedings play out. I’m not, because I’m fairly certain that there will be a lot of delay attached to it.”