In Georgia, calls for Trump impeachment met with caution, zeal, scorn

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, shown in a photo from earlier this year, came to Atlanta on Monday to push for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Steyer is spending $20 million on the effort, and he says his group, Need to Impeach, has collected nearly 5.2 million email addresses. He drew a crowd of nearly 150 to an event near the Capitol, and he also spoke with about 50 students at the Atlanta University Center. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

To some Democrats, billionaire Tom Steyer is a heaven-sent financier with a powerful message built around impeaching Donald Trump. To others, he’s a rogue who could threaten the party’s midterm election hopes at a time when Democrats can ill afford a distraction.

The California philanthropist this week brought his national movement — dubbed Need to Impeach — to Atlanta, where he encountered the same debate over Trump that’s roiling the national party.

Activists hailed him as a hero and encouraged him to dig deeper into his wallet to further his strategy, which aims to build a foundation for Trump's impeachment at the grass-roots level, in part by encouraging voters to demand Congress begin the proceedings.

Others treated him with a mix of skepticism and derision, worried that his singular focus on ousting the president could wind up hobbling Democrats and their mission to retake control of the U.S. House. Many high-profile Democrats steered clear of his town hall meeting, although he met privately with former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and several other contenders for higher office.

Republicans are using Steyer’s drive as their own issue to build enthusiasm within their base and turn it into campaign dollars.

Recent surveys on the subject paint an abstract portrait of American voters that’s hard to interpret. A new NPR/PBS “NewsHour”/Marist poll found that 47 percent of registered voters would definitely vote against a candidate who wanted to remove Trump from office, while 42 percent would definitely vote for a candidate who wants to impeach the president. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Steyer, who is spending $20 million on his effort to impeach the president, seemed unfazed by the mixed reception. He pointed to the nearly 5.2 million email addresses his group has collected as proof of the group’s momentum, and he said it will focus on selling the message to conservatives as well.

To the roughly 150 people who attended his event Monday near the Georgia Capitol, he offered a grave message on the importance of proceeding with impeachment even before special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election is complete.

“We don’t view this as a partisan issue,” Steyer said. “We view this as a question of patriotism.”

He appeared on stage with two prominent allies — Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and CNN commentator Bakari Sellars — who each echoed some of his main points. But after the event, he nodded to the staunch opposition to his movement from prominent party leaders.

“There are huge institutional constraints on them,” said Steyer, who added that he hasn’t even talked to his own congresswoman — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — about his effort.

“Why? I mean, our goal here is to organize American citizens, and I think she’s expressed the fact that she’s worried about that. And we’ve continued to organize American citizens,” he said.

Waiting for Mueller

The prickly debate over impeachment is complicating Georgia politics, too.

Many state Democrats have adopted an anti-Trump message, but they plan to attune broader attacks on Trump’s economic platform and what they see as an ethical cloud around his office rather than focusing now on impeachment.

Both Democrats running for governor — Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans — have been broadly critical of Trump, but neither has emphasized a call for his impeachment. Federal candidates, too, have largely stuck to the same strategy.

Only one of Georgia’s four Democrats in the U.S. House — Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta — supported the two impeachment resolutions brought up for votes on the floor this winter, and most high-profile candidates are staying away from the issue. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia, who often votes with Lewis, said lawmakers must wait for Mueller.

"If the evidence shows that Donald Trump is guilty, then I will be supportive (of impeachment proceedings), but at this point the evidence is not there," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

And although Democratic candidates in Georgia's most competitive House races rail against Trump — one called him a "wannabe dictator" — most also want the inquiry to finish.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, a professor running against U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in the Gwinnett County-based 7th Congressional District, said she has “very serious concerns about the president’s conflicts of interest” and Russia’s influence in American elections. But she also said she wants to “see where the evidence leads.”

Other state Democrats sounded a louder note of caution. Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, who held Republican-leaning territory in Congress before his 2014 ouster, said his party should be focused on “doing everything we can to make it easier for the voters to vote for the change that they want.”

“That’s the only way to get change,” said Barrow, who is running for secretary of state, “and that’s the only way to get change that is sustainable.”

‘I laughed’

Republicans are trying to stoke the divide over impeachment, eager to inflame internal tensions ahead of what’s expected to be a difficult midterm vote for the GOP. And they’ve made Steyer a favorite new bogeyman.

Several groups have used the prospect of a Democratically controlled House bringing impeachment proceedings against the president as fundraising fodder.The Republican Governors Association encouraged Steyer to host a debate between Abrams and Evans so “they can explain to the people of Georgia why they should stand behind his divisive, radical agenda.” And GOP candidates for top office greeted Steyer with a sneer.

“Can you quote that I laughed?” said Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a contender for governor who did, indeed, chuckle when asked about the prospect of impeachment. “That’s what the D.C. crowd has to deal with up there. I’m focused on being governor.”

Georgia’s GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been broadly supportive of Trump and his agenda — each has voted for White House-backed legislation at least 89 percent of the time, according to the political blog FiveThirtyEight — and few have been willing to criticize him publicly, much less entertain Democrats’ impeachment talk.

Democrats, meanwhile, are wary of spurning Steyer, whose bank account could be critical to the midterm push to retake Congress. He spent more than $90 million in 2016 and is poised to be the party’s leading donor again this election cycle.

He has made no commitment to pump significant funds into Georgia this year — he's pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars ahead of the midterms — but said he hadn't ruled it out.

He cited the “enormous amount of passion” in last year’s special election race for a suburban Atlanta U.S. House seat and said he was inspired by a day of events in Atlanta that included a prayer breakfast with pastors at Paschal’s restaurant, a tour of the Summerfield neighborhood and a standing-room-only lunch discussion with about 50 Atlanta University Center students.

Many who heard him speak came away impressed. Greg Howard found himself nodding as Steyer spoke. The Atlanta caterer wants to hear more Georgia candidates demand Trump’s impeachment.

“Every day we are getting more and more reason to consider the fact that we have an unjust White House,” Howard said. “I don’t worry about energizing Republicans. I don’t worry about worrying about what other people think. There’s going to be fallout, but you can’t worry about that.”

Caroline Stover, who plunged into politics shortly after Trump’s victory, said she also agrees that the president should be impeached. But she worries a focus on him could betray other Democratic causes.

“Impeaching Trump is a priority,” she said, “but what comes before that is making sure we have Democrats in Congress to make sure that happens.”

Steyer, for his part, is not worried about turning this election into a referendum on Trump. After all, he said, it’s already shaping up to be exactly that. He said his movement is narrowing in on motivating liberals while also convincing Republicans of Trump’s danger.

“The fact is Americans are going to have to — together — decide this president has to go,” Steyer said. “It’s going to have to be like Richard Nixon, where Republicans decide he’s a liar, he’s a criminal and he’s a risk to our country in ways we can see and ways we cannot see.”

Views on impeachment

“If the evidence shows that Donald Trump is guilty, then I will be supportive (of impeachment proceedings), but at this point the evidence is not there.”

— U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia

“This extremism on the left seeks to overturn the results of a fair election. It’s bad for country, it’s bad for our democracy, and Americans should reject this divisiveness. The crazy train may be coming to town, but I don’t think too many people are buying tickets.”

— Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle

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