‘A lot of good evidence pointing to … obstruction of justice…’
(Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times) WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal critics among the Democratic presidential candidates, said on Monday he worried that pursuing impeachment would undercut Democrats’ chances of beating him at the ballot box.
“If for the next year and half all Congress is talking about is Trump, Trump, Trump” rather than issues such as health care and the minimum wage, Sanders said in a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., “I worry that works for Trump’s advantage.”
That put him at odds with Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who appeared after Sanders. She said, for the first time, “Congress should take the steps towards impeachment” because special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report presented “a lot of good evidence pointing to … obstruction of justice” by the president.
Sanders also put himself in rare disagreement with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a 2020 campaign rival who shares most of his progressive views. She was the first major candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment last week after the release of the Mueller report.
The Democratic candidates’ divisions over impeachment surfaced Monday night in a five-hour town hall that featured separate appearances by five leading candidates who were invited to focus on issues of interest to young voters. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appeared first, followed by Warren, Sanders, Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
Warren upbraided Democrats who were resisting impeachment on political grounds. “There is no political inconvenience exception to the U.S. Constitution,” she said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was noncommittal on whether the House should launch impeachment proceedings because, she said, senators would have to serve as the jury in a Senate trial if the House approved articles of impeachment.
“The impeachment proceedings are up to the House. They’re going to have to make that decision,” she said. “I’m not going to predispose things.”
The town hall, co-sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, was conducted before an audience of young people — a testament to how important millennials and younger Gen Z voters may be in the 2020 primary.
A poll of 18- to 29-year-olds taken by the Harvard institute earlier this month found that 43 percent said they were likely to vote in their party’s primary or caucus, up from 36 percent at this stage in 2015. Among young Democratic primary voters, the poll found that Sanders led the field as the top choice of 31 percent; former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to join the race this week, came in second with 20 percent; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke took third with 10 percent.
In the crowded field of Democrats, which is nearing 20, candidates are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and to appeal to that demographic.
Warren discussed her $1.25 trillion proposal, first unveiled early Monday, to address a key issue for millennials: She proposed canceling student loan debt for millions of households and making public college tuition free for all.
Sanders said he had not studied her proposal in detail but that he has long supported free public college. “Elizabeth and I end up agreeing on a lot of issues,” he said.
Klobuchar told the student audience that she opposed such policies because they were unrealistically expensive, and implied that those who promised more were not being honest.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under each one of your chairs,” she said. “I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”
Both Klobuchar and Warren talked about the sexism that female candidates face in U.S. politics. When Warren was asked how she would avoid the fate of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which the questioner said was partly due to sexism, Warren talked about the deep skepticism she faced when she decided to run for Senate in 2012. Democrats warned her that the state was not ready to elect a woman to statewide office.
She ended up beating GOP Sen. Scott Brown by more than 7 percentage points, and said the lesson for 2020 was, “You might say you persist.”
The town hall posed the first high-profile test for candidates who have mostly avoided direct responses to questions about whether Trump should be impeached. Mueller’s report detailed actions Trump took to undermine the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But it did not reach a conclusion on whether the president’s actions constituted illegal conspiracy with Russia.
Democratic divisions and ambivalence reflect the tricky politics of impeachment. It is favored by many in the party’s left wing, who say Trump should be held accountable for behavior they say amounted to obstruction of justice.
But congressional party leaders and many other Democrats are wary of beginning an impeachment process in the House that they say will surely be unsuccessful in the Republican-controlled Senate — and could alienate swing voters they need in 2020 along the way.
Warren said in the town hall that regardless of the prospects in the Senate, members of Congress should have to go on record with their judgment on Trump’s behavior. “They should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives,” she said.
But Sanders — often considered the most radical candidate in the field — took a more pragmatic approach.
“It goes without saying that the Congress has got to take a hard look and do a hard investigation … so we get to the truth,” he said. “But here is my concern: At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not reelected president.”
©2019 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.