How Mitch McConnell Persuaded a Senior House Democrat to Back Impeachment
It wasn’t Robert Mueller’s testimony that pushed Representative Katherine Clark over the edge.
Updated on July 30, 2019 at 2:46 p.m. ET
On its face, Robert Mueller’s testimony last week didn’t seem likely to transform the political dynamic surrounding the impeachment of Donald Trump. The former special counsel offered no dramatic answers or riveting sound bites to galvanize the American public, as Democrats had hoped he would, and he mostly refused to expound on his investigation beyond the conclusions laid out in his 448-page report.
Yet since Mueller’s appearance on Wednesday, more than a dozen House Democrats—and two of their colleagues in the Senate—have been converted: They’ve announced their support for launching an impeachment inquiry into the president. This surge has brought the total number of pro-impeachment Democrats in the House to 107—nearly half of the caucus. Among them are two so-called front-liners, from the group of mostly freshman lawmakers most vulnerable in 2020, as well as a member of House leadership, Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts.
In an interview, Clark told me that, despite the curious timing of her announcement, her newfound support for impeachment wasn’t motivated by Mueller per se. Her chief focus, she said, is protecting the U.S. election system, and she’s dismayed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent handling of election-related bills. Statements from other Democrats don’t explain why lawmakers waited until after Mueller’s testimony to announce, but they share a similar theme with Clark’s comments: American democracy is under threat from foreign influence—as emphasized by Mueller’s report and testimony—and the country has run out of options.
I spoke with Clark, the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, about the Trump administration’s stonewalling of committee investigations and whether time is running out to launch an impeachment inquiry. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Elaine Godfrey: I wanted to start with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony last week. What did you think of it? Did you hear anything new?
Katherine Clark: What really struck me about Mueller’s testimony was his clear assessment that the threat from the Russians to our elections is real, it’s dangerous, and it’s ongoing. That, coupled with the Senate report that came out showing all 50 states had their elections attacked by the Russians, and with the Senate turning around on the same day as Mueller’s testimony and blocking a vote on two bills that could have helped us protect our elections.
Those factors all, for me, came together to convince me that now is the time for us to open an impeachment inquiry and use the strongest tool that we have to get the facts before the American people and to hold this president accountable.
Godfrey: Can you expound on that? What does the Senate’s rejection of election-security bills have to do with Trump’s leadership as president?
Clark: As Mueller said the Russians are continuing to attack our elections right now, as he sat there in that room testifying, on the same day, Mitch McConnell said, We don’t need paper ballots to back up [electronic voting systems]. We’re not going to even bring to a vote legislation that proposed that if you are offered election aid from a foreign power, that you report that. These common-sense protections for the integrity of our vote were brushed aside by Mitch McConnell.
It is part of a pattern of Republicans in the Senate and in the House choosing this president over their country. You see this pattern over and over again, whether it’s them looking away from his racist tweets or taking away health care from millions of Americans; whether it’s the president bragging about assaults on women, his tightening the economic noose on the middle class, or putting kids in cages. Republicans are willing to put aside everything, including the Constitution and national security, to protect this president.
Godfrey: How quickly did you come to the decision to support an impeachment inquiry? Was the decision building over time?
Clark: I have never thought that this president was fit to serve. When I look over his career and his presidency, it often reminds me of a phrase that my grandmother said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” He is a pathological liar. He is a racist. And he is making the winner’s circle in this country very small, just for those who already have great wealth and power.
I didn’t come to this decision lightly. I have great respect for the work that the House committees have been undertaking to try to get the facts out, to get the truth out for the American people, but I felt that it’s time we use the impeachment inquiry, because it is our strongest tool that we have.
Godfrey: Were you waiting to hear from Mueller all along?
Clark: Frankly, I didn’t expect that Bob Mueller was going to add too much to the discussion. I think we know that he is a recalcitrant witness. I’d hoped that hearing him expand on his findings, explain them for the American people, could help really engage the public in a deeper conversation of just what went on with Russia and the president’s actions to obstruct the investigation into that.
But it really was, for me, this sense that nothing was going to change. If it’s enough for you that Mueller’s report said he didn’t legally conspire with Russia—even as the threat to our elections is so real and ongoing, and that we have a president who said he would do it all over again if given the opportunity—that should be of great alarm, not only to the American people but to members of Congress.
To have that reaction—of continued obstruction, and of the Senate stonewalling legislation that can make a difference in people’s lives and can make sure that every voter can go to the polls and cast their vote without foreign interference—was really just one step too far for me.
Godfrey: What does the surge of pro-impeachment announcements reflect within the Democratic caucus?
Clark: I think it reflects our ongoing dismay and frustration with the unprecedented obstruction that we are getting from this administration. They are blocking witnesses from coming and testifying. We are having to take every subpoena to court. And while we’re winning in court, the process is slow. More members coming out in favor of opening a formal process is showing that frustration—and that it’s time we use all the tools we have to try and hold this president accountable.
Godfrey: It doesn’t seem likely that Nancy Pelosi is going to change her position and begin supporting impeachment, at least not for a while. How late do you think is too late for the House to start an impeachment inquiry? Is there a point in the next 16 months that you think is too late?
Clark: I don’t think there is a particular timeline for this inquiry for it to be effective, because we are continuing to press for information, and when we’re not getting it, we are litigating it. I feel that formalizing this process by opening an impeachment inquiry gives us the strongest hand and could help us speed up the timeline of getting the information.
But we are not taking our foot off the accelerator. Our committees are continuing to work and press to get the facts out. So I don’t think there is a danger of this becoming too late. We are going to continue to hold this president to the rule of law and to make sure he understands we are not going to be bullied or intimidated, and that we are going to put his lawlessness into the spotlight.