In 24 hours alone, dozens of vulnerable U.S. House Democrats joined the calls for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, spurred by new revelations he might have personally pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent.
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham did not count himself among them.
The South Carolina lawmaker — a freshman Democrat heading into one of the cycle’s toughest reelection battles — chose his words carefully on Tuesday, just a few hours before Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of a formal congressional inquiry into whether Trump warranted removal from office.
“Last week brought new and troubling allegations to light that President Trump used the power of his office to pressure a foreign power into investigating a domestic political opponent, and potentially leveraged critical U.S. assistance to do it,” Cunningham, of Charleston, said in a statement. “These are grave assertions, and if true, represent a clear threat to the Constitution, our national security and the democratic process.”
A whistleblower from the U.S. intelligence community has reported that Trump might have withheld foreign assistance to the Ukraine as he personally pressured the country’s president to investigate Democrat Joe Biden — the former vice president and current 2020 presidential contender — and his son.
“The American people deserve to know if the President pressured a foreign leader into targeting an American citizen,” Cunningham continued.
But Cunningham said the answer does not lie with impeachment proceedings but a “bipartisan effort” to “get to the bottom” of the allegations.
He also said that “nothing” he has seen in the past nine months “convinced me to support impeachment, and I’ve warned members of my own party that a partisan rush to impeach the President would be bad for the country.”
Cunningham has long been considered a bellwether for the U.S. House Democratic Caucus’ collective appetite for pursuing impeachment, and his restraint on Tuesday indicated the extent to which there are still serious reservations among moderates in red states.
He is among the 44 freshmen Democrats the national party has designated as the most vulnerable for reelection defeat in 2020. National Republicans have separately singled him out as among their top targets for next year.
This hasn’t stopped many of Cunningham’s colleagues who share these distinctions from coming out in favor of impeachment or, at the very least, in favor of starting an impeachment investigation.
But up until this week, the vast majority of pro-impeachment, vulnerable freshmen Democrats were those from districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, even if by a thin margin. Cunningham, on the other hand, won a district Trump carried in the last presidential election by 12.7 percentage points, making it more politically perilous for him to take an anti-Trump stance.
Now, revelations of Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president have empowered at least three U.S. House Democrats in Trump districts to concede that impeachment proceedings might be the only recourse if allegations of attempted election interference prove true.
Cunningham stopped short of endorsing an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday.
By Thursday, following the declassification and public release of the phone call transcript and the whistleblower’s full complaint, Cunningham conceded that “each day brings new revelations that are troubling from a national security perspective,” but cautioned colleagues “not to get ahead of the evidence and be as deliberate and judicious as possible during this process, while following the facts where they lead.”
Cunningham also has the advantage of not being directly involved in the new impeachment investigation for many months, as he does not sit on any of the committees of jurisdiction over the matter. There is also no guarantee the full U.S. House will ever vote on articles of impeachment against the president.
However, Cunningham will likely be asked to answer for the actions of colleagues and members of leadership, which could open him up for scrutiny. Even his acknowledgment of the gravity of the new charges against the president are sure to energize the pro-Trump Republicans who are running in the primary to challenge Cunningham in the November 2020 general election.
In the hours before Cunningham put out his statement, Joe Jackson, the Republican National Committee’s S.C. spokesman, was blasting his email list with a memo bearing the subject line, “Where does Joe Cunningham stand?”
“While the socialist Democrats call for impeachment, they are forgetting about the very people they represent,” Jackson wrote. “Rep. Cunningham owes it to South Carolinians to take a stance on this far-left nonsense — otherwise, constituents across the Lowcountry will not forget his silence.”
Every congressional Republican currently opposes impeachment, and the GOP members of the S.C. delegation are no exception. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican, has responded to the latest White House scandal by calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the Bidens’ dealings with Ukraine rather than an inquiry into the president’s involvement.
The only other South Carolina Democrat in Congress, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, had been holding back in calling for impeachment proceedings while indicating he saw an opening for Trump to be forced to leave office before the end of his term.
Clyburn is currently mourning the recent death of his wife of 58 years and wasn’t in Washington on Tuesday for leadership meetings to chart the caucus’ path forward.
Tuesday evening, however, he released a statement expressing support for the path forward.
“Recent revelations and allegations that the President used the power of his office to force a foreign government to attack a political rival, and may be directing subordinates to violate the law requiring the transmission of a whistleblower complaint to Congress, constitute an egregious violation of his constitutional duties,” Clyburn said. “This is about protecting our national security, standing up for the rule of law, and patriotism. I support the official impeachment inquiry announced by the Speaker today.”