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Democrats Are Divided Over Whether To Pursue Impeaching Trump

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi went into a closed-door meeting with House Democrats yesterday to talk about the possibility of impeaching the president of the United States. That is something Pelosi has been reluctant to do. And when it comes to the subject, she has parsed her words very carefully. So it was notable when Pelosi emerged from that meeting and said this...

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NANCY PELOSI: Would you believe that it's important for - to follow the facts? We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up.

MARTIN: Calls from progressive Democrats for impeachment are growing stronger while more establishment members of the party worry about possible political backlash. We are joined now by a man who knows the Democratic Party well. David Axelrod ran both of President Obama's campaigns and was a senior strategist in the Obama White House. He joins us on the line from his home in Chicago.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID AXELROD: Hey, Rachel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to have this fight over impeachment, at least that's what she said. Can she hold the line, though, against the pressure from her caucus?

AXELROD: Well, she got some help this week with these two court rulings that are going to compel the Trump Organization to - or banks and accounting firms that service the Trump Organization to turn over financial records because her argument is, let this play out. Let these subpoenas go to court. Let's see what the courts do and how the president reacts to that. And so these were timely decisions for her and her effort to hold off a decision on impeachment.

MARTIN: But she, as we just heard in that clip, she said explicitly that the president of the United States has engaged in a cover-up. How does she argue there's no impeachable offense at the heart of that?

AXELROD: You know, again, I think her argument is that you may well get to that point, but let's get more facts. And, look. She argues something that, I think, is a legitimate concern, and that is that there is no Republican support for impeachment. Impeachment would die in the Senate. And it would be a very convulsive step to take for the country, so they'd better take it with some care. And that - you know, that's a very, very respectable argument. It's also true that the politics is very unclear on this. You look at polling, and, you know, there is not a majority for impeachment in the country. So...

MARTIN: Where do you stand?

AXELROD: ...I think that also informs her thinking. And Michelle, we should - Rachel, we should point out that, you know, there are 31 members of Congress - new members of Congress who were elected in districts that Donald Trump carried. And I'm sure that's part of what's playing on her mind and how this decision will impact their chances come 2020.

MARTIN: Right, and I want to ask about them. But where do you stand on the issue of impeachment?

AXELROD: You know, I...

MARTIN: Do you agree with Pelosi?

AXELROD: ...I think that Pelosi is right at the moment. It has become a harder position. I was very much opposed to it when the issue first started surfacing in the first months of the Trump administration because I felt that if your complaint about Donald Trump is that he has ripped apart constitutional norms and flouted rules and laws, then don't take a step that looks like a highly political step that isn't informed fully by facts.

Now, you have the Mueller report and this blanket defiance by the president. It is a much closer call now, but it is a convulsive step for the country. And so it would be an easier step to take or - if it were compelled by more information. And they seem to be on the road to getting it.

MARTIN: You mentioned, though, those House Democrats who won back those seats in red districts.

AXELROD: Yes.

MARTIN: I mean, they were elected, many of them on a promise of holding this president to account. So how do they go back to their voters and say, we have held him accountable, if impeachment is off the table?

AXELROD: Well, I think you can certainly see that Congress trying to hold the president accountable. If it comes to the point where they can't get the information that they need to perform their oversight responsibilities, that the courts don't back them up, then impeachment is the next option. But....

MARTIN: I mean, we are seeing that....

AXELROD: I don't...

MARTIN: As members of the...

AXELROD: I just want to challenge one point.

MARTIN: Sure.

AXELROD: I think, in fact, that impeachment was a very low priority for many of the voters in those districts who elected these new reps in the 31 Trump districts. They ran on an explicit promise to pursue, you know, progress on health care and a number of other issues and not make the fight with Trump the primary focus of their time. So it's a very sensitive issue for them.

MARTIN: The president cited Speaker Pelosi's remarks as the reason that he cut off this discussion about infrastructure yesterday. So he has said all bipartisanship is dead right now in terms of moving legislation forward. He said Democrats have this choice between investigation and legislation. So does he win here by framing it that way?

AXELROD: Well, in the short term, he won because he had committed earlier to a $2 trillion infrastructure program that he had no way to fund and for which he has very little support in his own party. So this was a handy way to forestall that discussion. In the long run, I don't think it - you know, it may rally his base, I think, among voters who could or could not vote for him. You know, the sort of going on strike strategy is very risky.

MARTIN: You mentioned that Democrats, many of them, were elected on promises to improve health care. But with this standstill, I mean, in this election, what are the Democrats going to be able to point to as accomplishments?

AXELROD: Well, I think they'll point to bills that they passed in the House, and they'll make the case that without the cooperation of the president, you know, and the Senate, that they couldn't complete it. But they have to get caught trying. And that's, certainly, what they're doing.

MARTIN: David Axelrod, a Democratic campaign strategist and CNN senior political commentator, thanks so much for your time.

AXELROD: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.