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By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — It didn’t take long for newly empowered House Democrats to lose control of their message on the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump: less than a day.
A day which began with the spotlight on the incoming Democratic majority ended with it focused on how those members remain splintered over the merits, the politics and the timing of attempting to remove the commander in chief from his job.
The views range from freshman Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s colorful promise on Thursday that Democrats “are gonna impeach the motherf—er” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s careful formulation in a “Today” show interview hours earlier that “we shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason.”
That gap is powered by the competing desires of many Democratic voters to see the president driven from office and the varying degrees to which their elected representatives see that as a worthy, plausible and timely goal.
“There are people who believe the evidence is there and there are people who don’t really care if the evidence is there,” Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said, adding that he’s in a third camp that thinks the House should not act capriciously with “one of the most awesome powers” in the Constitution and is “not unmindful” that the Republican-led Senate would not vote to convict Trump anytime soon.
The discussion has put Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in an uncomfortable spot — caught between the urgent demands of the Democratic base, the risk of a backlash if they are seen to be politicizing a solemn process, the reality that it would take at least 20 Republican votes in the Senate to convict Trump and the deliberate nature of the impeachment process.
That tension could be seen in Pelosi’s response to Tlaib’s remarks.
“I do think that we want to be unified and bring people together,” Pelosi told MSNBC’s Joy Reid in an interview Friday morning. “Impeachment is a very divisive approach to take and we shouldn’t take it … without the facts.”
But rather than reprimand her junior colleague for the substance or tone of the remarks, Pelosi said the desire to impeach Trump is “legitimate” and that the profane name the Michigan lawmaker used for Trump is “nothing worse than the president has said.”
Pelosi, like most Democrats who spoke to NBC News Thursday, said they would not have used the same language as Tlaib.
Trump himself was harshly critical of Tlaib — saying in a Rose Garden press conference that she had “dishonored” both her family and “the United States of America” — but dismissed the significance of the threat.
“We even talked about this today” at the White House as he met with congressional leaders. “I said, ‘why don’t you use this for impeachment?’ And Nancy said, ‘we’re not looking to impeach you.’ I said ‘that’s good, Nancy, that’s good.’ But you don’t impeach people when they’re doing a good job.”
Other Republicans were quick to jump on Tlaib’s comments and present them as representative of a Democratic Party trying to score political points rather than make policy.
“I thought it was vulgar,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the chairwoman of the Republican Conference, told NBC News, adding that the charge to impeach Trump is “pretty indicative of the level of seriousness we’re seeing” on issues like the fight over Trump’s border wall. Democrats are engaging in “real partisanship and game-playing,” she said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warned that it will be difficult for Republicans to work with Democrats on policy matters if Democrats are focused on ousting Trump.
“How do you work with anybody if this is what they really have planned?” McCarthy said. “Where are their priorities?”
That’s a problem senior Democrats are wrestling with in real-time, as many of their constituents — and some of their colleagues — are demanding action on impeachment sooner than later.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said he wouldn’t condemn Tlaib for expressing what she’s hearing from voters in her district every day.
“There are many in the country who want an expedited process,” he said. But, “any reasonable person should conclude that waiting for the Mueller probe to conclude is the best course of action.”
The debate won’t stay centered on Capitol Hill — it will soon be a hot topic out on the trail for the growing field of contenders for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination, no matter what their take on the issue.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is considering a presidential run, said Democrats will remove Trump from office “whether it’s at the ballot box or by Congress” and that it will be a race to see which comes first.
“I think we should give him a fairer investigation than he deserves,” Swalwell said. “If this was Donald Trump justice, Donald Trump would be impeached already.”
But he said “the last thing” he wants to do is make Trump a political martyr.
For Himes, there’s a similar, but perhaps deeper, fear.
“I worry that there could be very, very clear evidence of impeachable offenses and the Congress is unable to act,” he said. If Trump walked down Fifth Avenue and killed someone, he said, “most Republican senators would not vote to convict.”
ACLU sues U.S. border agencies over targeting of activists, lawyers at border
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union has sued three government agencies on behalf of immigration activists who were allegedly surveilled and flagged for questioning when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border because of their work with immigrants, according to court documents filed in the Central District of California.
The complaint alleges that the three plaintiffs — activists Nora Elizabeth Phillips, Erika Da Cruz Pinheiro and Nathaniel Garrett Dennison — were targeted for “detention and interrogation” under a “secret investigative program designed to monitor these humanitarian workers … and impede their ability to travel.” The suit names Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI as defendants, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.
In March, NBC News and NBC 7 San Diego uncovered details of the program after obtaining a CBP list of names of journalists, activists and lawyers who were to be stopped by CBP agents when crossing the border. The ACLU cited the reporting as the impetus for the lawsuit.
“The disclosure of the secret program spurred outrage from civil society organizations, prompted members of Congress to call for an inquiry into the agencies’ actions, and led Customs and Border Protection’s Inspector General to initiate its own investigation into surveillance,” the lawsuit said.
The list obtained in March targeted only immigration workers in the San Diego area, but an NBC News report later found that activists and lawyers in other areas, such as El Paso, were also targeted.
Two immigration lawyers stopped in El Paso said they were held for hours and asked to hand their cell phones over to immigration agents so that they could obtain their contacts.
In the complaint, the ACLU said the “plaintiffs have been singled out and targeted solely because of their protected speech and association, including their provision of legal counsel to asylum seekers, their association with others providing humanitarian aid, and the assistance they provided to clients seeking to redress or to express themselves publicly.”
When the first report was published in March, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, said the individuals were targeted as part of an investigation into violence that erupted at the San Diego-Tijuana border in late 2018 when a so-called migrant caravan arrived. But many of those targeted have said they were nowhere near San Diego at the time and had no involvement with the caravan.
John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News in March that border agents should never target people at the border for inspection based on their profession, including their work with asylum seekers.
The ACLU is asking the court to issue an injunction that would declare the activity of the border agents unlawful under the First Amendment and award damages.
Plaintiff Nora Phillips is the co-founder of Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides legal and mental health services to migrants. Pinheiro is a co-founder of the same group and organizes legal clinics inside Mexico. Dennison is a documentary filmmaker and shelter volunteer.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Mueller makes last-minute request for aide to appear with him during his testimony
One of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime aides will appear alongside him during his highly-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but is not expected to be sworn in.
Mueller’s team made a last-minute request that Aaron Zebley be sworn in and testify with him during his scheduled hearings before Congress on Wednesday, a congressional source familiar with the request told NBC News.
Mueller is slated to testify on his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s influence on President Donald Trump for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, take a break, then appear for at least two additional hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
For the first hearing, Zebley will sit alongside Mueller as his counsel, according to the Judiciary Committee spokesperson. The committee, however, is not updating its guidance to include Zebley as a witness. This means that Zebley will not be sworn in. Mueller can confer with him as he is questioned by the panel, according to committee rules, but cannot answer questions.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said Tuesday that GOP members had “not gotten assurances from the House Democrats on the committee that he [Zebley] will not speak.”
“He’s not supposed to speak in that role to anyone on the committee or asked questions. And we’re asking, and, frankly, that that be confirmed before the hearing. So we don’t have to waste time with it tomorrow,” Collins said.
Jim Popkin, Mueller’s spokesperson, disputed the idea that Zebley’s presence at the hearings amounted to an 11th-hour addition.
“Aaron Zebley was the Deputy Special Counsel and had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the Office,” Popkin said in a statement Tuesday. “He will accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday during a conversation at the Center for American Progress that his panel was still working out what Zebley’s function might be.
Trump lashed out about Zebley’s role in Mueller’s testimony, tweeting Tuesday night that the decision “very unfair.”
“Just got back only to hear of a last minute change allowing a Never Trumper attorney to help Robert Mueller with his testimony before Congress tomorrow,” Trump said. “What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before.”
Zebley is especially close to Mueller, serving as his chief of staff at the FBI when Mueller was the director. Zebley is also an alumnus of the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller worked after leaving the FBI.
Zebley followed Mueller to the Justice Department when he was tapped to be special counsel in 2017. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In June, Mueller agreed to testify before Congress about his Russia investigation after he was subpoenaed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary, and Schiff.
Popkin said Monday that the former special counsel will make a brief opening statement when he testifies about his 22-month investigation, and will offer his 448-page report as his full statement for the record.
In May, Mueller stressed at a press conference that if he were called to testify he would stick closely to his written report. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made,” he said.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
In a letter on Monday, the Justice Department also issued stern guidance to Mueller, stating that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
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