(Bloomberg) -- The leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates split Monday night over impeaching President Donald Trump, highlighting a schism in the party over whether a risky effort to expel him from office will distract from talking about the pocketbook issues that voters care most about.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the early front-runner for the nomination, gave his first direct answer on the question of impeachment, saying the House should carry out a “hard investigation,” but he warned that the political battle would play into the president’s hands. His stance put him at odds with some other members of the party’s progressive wing, including rival Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Warren, who was joined in calling for Trump’s impeachment by Senate colleague Kamala Harris of California, made an impassioned argument that Democrats shouldn’t avoid the fight.
“There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” Warren said at her town hall, one of five held in Manchester, New Hampshire.
With the public far from sold on a bruising impeachment fight, Democrats in Congress and the presidential campaign have been grappling with how to respond to the revelations in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign was involved.
Warren was the first among the leading Democratic presidential candidates to call for Trump’s impeachment after the release of Mueller’s conclusions last week. Julian Castro also said Trump should be impeached. Monday night’s back-to-back town hall events on CNN put the divisions among the presidential candidates into sharper focus.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg both deflected on the impeachment question when asked.
Klobuchar called the Mueller report “appalling” and said Trump “should be held accountable” but that impeachment was up to the House.
“They’re going to have to make that decision. I am in the Senate, and I believe we are the jury,” she said. “So if the House brings the impeachment proceedings before us, we will deal with them.”
Buttigieg, who’s risen rapidly in polls in recent weeks, took a similar approach.
“I think he’s made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment,” he said. “I’m also going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.”
Sanders’ position at the top of the ballooning Democratic field -- he leads both in polls and fundraising -- and as a leader in the progressive movement may help House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders keep a lid on impeachment talk in Congress. Like them, Sanders said he was concerned it would distract both candidates and voters.
While calling Trump “the most dangerous president in the modern history of our country,’’ Sanders on Monday said that the most important goal is making sure he’s not re-elected.
“If for the next year, year and a half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump — Trump, Trump, Trump and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller” instead of health care, wages and climate change, “what I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage,” Sanders said.
Harris joined Warren’s call for impeachment but downplayed its prospects of advancing in a Republican-led Senate.
“I believe Congress should take the steps toward impeachment,” Harris said Monday at the CNN town hall, arguing that the Mueller report shows “a lot of good evidence” that suggests Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.
She predicted that Senate Republicans would protect Trump and refuse to provide the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office. “We have to be realistic about what might be the end result. But that doesn’t mean the process should not take hold,” she said.
While many Democrats worry about the politics of impeachment, Warren insisted that the issue was about preserving the American system of government.
“This is not about politics, this is about principle. This is about what kind of democracy we have. In a dictatorship, everything in government revolves around protecting the one person in the center, but not in a democracy and not under our Constitution,” Warren said. “We have to proceed here, understanding our place in history.”
If members of Congress want to let Trump off the hook for a campaign that was receptive to Russian overtures to influence the election, or for potential acts of obstruction, “then they should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”
House Democratic leaders held a conference call with their rank and file earlier Monday to talk about Mueller’s report and their next steps. The leaders cautioned against rushing into impeachment proceedings without congressional inquiries that could help build the public case against Trump, according to lawmakers on the call.
One House Democrat on the call said most of the caucus believes impeachment is not practical at the moment. A second lawmaker said there were different perspectives on the issue, and that Pelosi’s message was that the question of impeachment shouldn’t be a political decision but rather a matter of protecting democracy and the rule of law.
The call lasted an hour and a half, the second lawmaker said.
Some Democratic strategists say opponents of impeachment lack a substantive argument.
“The candidates who oppose impeachment sound like political consultants,” said Adam Jentleson, who was the deputy chief of staff to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “They never argue that Trump doesn’t deserve to be impeached, which makes their reasons for opposing the process sound cheap and political.”
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