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Why now? How House Democrats shifted to favor starting impeachment proceedings

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Rep. Gil Cisneros of Yorba Linda talks to constituents at his office in Fullerton in July 2019. The freshman Democrat was one of seven lawmakers whose call for an impeachment investigation swayed others in the House.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For months, House Democrats who represent swing congressional districts had largely resisted calls from party activists to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump. But in a matter of four days, the news that Trump had spoken with the leader of Ukraine and asked him to investigate a potential Democratic presidential candidate swept that hesitation away.

Trump’s actions represented a step too far, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) said in an interview Tuesday.

“He’s inviting another foreign country to meddle in our elections. We can’t stand for that. The American people deserve to know the truth of what happened, what he’s been doing, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros, a former Navy officer, was one of seven freshman Democrats with a background in the military or national security who called for an impeachment inquiry in a jointly written Washington Post op-ed Monday, saying that “these new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect.”

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The article came together after a flurry of weekend calls and text messages among the tight-knit group of freshman lawmakers, all of whom represent districts previously held by Republicans. It helped set off a cascade of calls for impeachment from previously reluctant representatives, setting the stage for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry Tuesday afternoon.

Each of the seven represents a swing district key to Democrats’ takeover of the House in 2018. Some of them represent districts that backed Trump in 2016. Cisneros said they knew that doing a joint statement would have more impact on wary colleagues than releasing a statement one by one.

“The fact that we did it together kind of gives us strength in numbers, that allows us to kind of push the conversation to the direction that I think ... we want to go,” Cisneros said.

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The events that set off the sudden change of direction in the House began last week with news that the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, had refused to release to Congress — as mandated by law — a whistleblower complaint that reportedly concerns a call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he repeatedly asked the foreign leader to investigate the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump has said that he spoke with Zelensky in July and talked with him about Biden. He insists that the call was appropriate. On Monday, the Washington Post revealed that days before the call, Trump ordered a holdup of about $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Trump on Tuesday confirmed that happened, but said that, too, was an innocent act.

Pelosi and others on Capitol Hill said Tuesday that it will be easier for Democrats to persuade the public that Trump’s actions toward Ukraine were a serious abuse of power than it would be to convince them about the conduct covered by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and intelligence official who was one of the seven lawmakers who joined in the op-ed article, said the fact that in this case Trump was acting as president, not just a candidate as he was in 2016, and was specifically asking a foreign government for assistance in his election was “beyond the pale.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will announce that the House will pursue an impeachment inquiry of President Trump. What does an impeachment inquiry entail?

Slotkin said she expects her constituents will understand she was upholding her oath to the Constitution by calling for an impeachment inquiry.

“While it may be a controversial issue, when you look at the facts and you look at this specific instance, I think this is a total game changer, this is something new and I think [constituents] understand I have to move with my conscience,” Slotkin said in an interview Tuesday morning on NBC’s “Morning Joe.”

On the same program, another of the signers, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA officer who represents a district that voted for Trump in 2016, called the conduct involved in the latest allegations against Trump “absolutely a threat to our democracy.”

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“For me the calculation that I put into this is, am I standing up for the Constitution I swore to uphold?” Spanberger said. “This is uncharted waters where we are right now, and it’s important for all of us to stand up and ensure that our voters understand the severity, that our constituents understand the severity, of these allegations.”


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