Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has worked for months to find traction in a crowded Democratic presidential primary, stepped forward on Friday with a call to arms: President Trump must be impeached.
What followed, generally, was conspicuous silence — and not just from her colleagues in Congress.
After sidestepping the explosive issue of impeachment for months by citing the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, most of the other 17 Democratic presidential candidates have responded to the special counsel’s report with tentative remarks about impeaching Mr. Trump, demands for the unredacted Mueller findings, calls for further hearings or attempts to simply change the subject.
Anything, that is, to avoid clearly answering the question of whether lawmakers should remove the president from office.
Underpinning the candidates’ calculations are complex sets of short- and long-term incentives. Democratic hopefuls could receive a fund-raising boost by embracing impeachment and energizing liberal donors. But some strategists and lawmakers say that a failed effort would only strengthen Mr. Trump’s re-election chances, allowing him to claim further vindication.
And many of the candidates, facing a Democratic electorate appalled by Mr. Trump and eager to see him out of office, are weighing whether to risk alienating some progressives by staying silent or to call for impeachment and create a divide with top Democrats in Washington who oppose it.
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For now, according to interviews with multiple Democratic campaign officials, most of the candidates feel no pressure to demand Mr. Trump’s impeachment because they simply do not hear a mass clamoring for it on the campaign trail. And in their polling, impeachment is not a top priority for the party’s voters, who say they are more motivated by defeating Mr. Trump in 2020 and seeing their desired policy agenda put in place.
The Democratic contenders see the Mueller report mostly as a way to build their fund-raising and supporter lists and, ultimately, as a 448-page blunt instrument best used for thwacking the president in next year’s campaign for his behavior.
Indeed, many candidates signaled this weekend that they had no plans to lead a charge for impeachment — Ms. Warren’s campaign hastened to note she would remain focused on her policy platform — and would instead defer to House Democrats.
At least two prominent contenders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, equivocated on how to proceed even as they acknowledged that they personally believed the president probably should be impeached.
“I’m pretty sure he deserves to be,” Mr. Buttigieg said while campaigning in Londonderry, N.H. “But Congress will have to figure procedurally what to do.”
“I wouldn’t blame any member of the House for voting for this,” Mr. O’Rourke said during an appearance in Nashua, N.H. He supported impeachment as a Senate candidate last year, but now suggests that the issue would be best resolved by the voters in November 2020.
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This measured response is partly a function of timing. Party activists have absorbed accounts of Mr. Trump’s aberrant behavior for nearly four years now, dating to the start of his presidential bid. As a result, Mr. Mueller’s report packed less shock value for Democrats who did not need his imprimatur to believe that Mr. Trump’s actions rise to the level of impeachable as well as criminal offenses.
And for progressives who closely follow politics, the presidential race is well underway and the defeat of Mr. Trump is, they hope, just around the corner. Polls show that while a majority of Democrats still favor impeachment, support has waned in recent months as liberals move closer to a plausible end to the Trump presidency without congressional intervention.
Many Democratic voters are also as cleareyed as their elected leaders about the Republican Party’s wide-scale deference to Mr. Trump — and the implausibility of congressional Republicans aiding his ouster. The country is far more polarized now than it was when President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment, and Republican lawmakers today fear the wrath of Mr. Trump and his loyal supporters far more than they do any punishment from a dwindling band of swing voters.
A few Republicans did respond to the report with alarm, most notably Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection” by the president and some in his circle. But the nonchalant reaction from the vast majority of Mr. Trump’s party only reinforced to many Democratic activists that impeachment would be fruitless.
“It galvanizes Trump supporters,” said Larry Drake, the chairman of the Rockingham County Democrats in New Hampshire, adding that he was quite certain that the president had committed impeachable offenses. “If he’s not convicted in the Senate, he can say, ‘Look, I was right! This was just a witch hunt.’ ”
Mr. Drake has encountered fierce dissent from the pro-impeachment side in his own home. “My wife and I have been having a dialogue about this,” he said. “I guess that would be the nice way to put it.”
Other Democrats say the party is making the matter more complicated than it needs to be, insisting that an impeachment case makes both civic and political sense.
The civic argument: If lawmakers truly believe Mr. Trump deserves impeachment, how can political fears be allowed to override constitutional duties?
The political one: The party can do more than one thing at a time. Candidates can campaign on other issues, as Ms. Warren says she will continue doing, while congressional Democrats build on Mr. Mueller’s findings. Besides, supporters of impeachment ask, why is anyone so sure that Mr. Trump would benefit from the public flogging of impeachment hearings during a campaign?
“We reinforce his Teflon-ness by buying into this,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former senior aide to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. “Whether or not he’s Teflon is up to you, as a member of Congress.”
Ms. Palmieri said Democrats had learned the wrong lessons from past episodes like the Republican push to impeach President Bill Clinton, which is thought to have hampered Republicans’ midterm performance in 1998 amid voter concerns about investigative overreach.
“They look to the past, but you’ve got to look to the moment you’re in. And look at the moment we’re in,” Ms. Palmieri said of fellow Democrats. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you stop pursuing what Mueller is putting in front of them, of course voters aren’t going to think it’s important. Voters respond to leadership.”
And as Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee observed, Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign message will most likely be centered on incendiary attacks on the Democrats’ policy and identity more than on their efforts to hold him accountable.
“Trump will have his team stoke on socialism or the ‘ism’ of the day, and impeachment will not be the siren needed to rally the base,” said Mr. Cohen, a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee.
But Democrats in Washington are perhaps even more divided on the subject than the candidates for president are. While some progressive newcomers, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have called for impeachment proceedings, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others in leadership have signaled a strong aversion, often echoed in the rank-and-file.
Representative Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Missouri, said an impeachment effort would only help Mr. Trump’s cause and fuel his supporters’ feelings of grievance, without especially benefiting Democrats.
“If we impeach Donald Trump, he would never be convicted in the Senate,” Mr. Cleaver said, referring to the Republican-held chamber’s role in an impeachment process. “And he would be able to campaign all around the country saying, ‘I’ve been acquitted!’”
For some Democratic primary contenders, the demands may be different, reflecting the political realities of trying to establish a foothold in what is currently an 18-person field. In addition to Ms. Warren, former Mayor Julián Castro told CNN on Friday that initiating impeachment proceedings would be “perfectly reasonable.”
The willingness of both contenders to support impeachment hearings amounts to a refusal to engage in the political gymnastics of their rivals — but also highlights the urgency they feel about their own campaigns.
Mr. Castro has struggled to gain ground and is still working to attract enough individual donors to qualify for the first Democratic debate in June. Ms. Warren has remained in the middle of the pack despite entering the race before any other major candidate and unveiling an array of ambitious policy proposals.
Ms. Warren has also sought to distinguish herself by refusing, at least in the primary, to appeal to major donors. This has increased pressure on her to raise money online from small-dollar givers.
And in the hours after she announced her support for impeachment, she made the most of it, appearing on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, the preferred programming of Mueller-minded Democrats, and posting a clip of it on her social media accounts.
By midday Saturday, Ms. Warren had promoted her new stance on Instagram three times in less than 24 hours, adding a video clip from an appearance in Keene, N.H., earlier that day. “There are some things that are bigger than politics,” she told the crowd there, to cheers. “This is one of them.”
But elsewhere on the trail, the Mueller report was little discussed. Campaigning in South Carolina after the document’s release, Senator Bernie Sanders held forth largely on affordable housing and the consequences of gentrification.
At last, on Saturday morning, Mr. Sanders posted a video targeting Mr. Trump on Twitter — for breaking promises to manufacturing workers in the industrial Midwest.
Matt Flegenheimer reported from New York and Jonathan Martin from Londonderry, N.H. Matt Stevens contributed reporting.