RENO — Rep. Mark Amodei was not prepared for the backlash from his fellow Republicans when he said Congress needed to “follow the facts” and look into whether President Donald Trump should be impeached.
Newspapers declared he was breaking ranks. Conservative constituents branded him a traitor: “I’m Brutus, and Trump’s Julius Caesar,” he said. In short order, he was forced to explain himself to the Trump campaign’s political director, top House Republicans and the acting White House chief of staff. All had the same question: “What the heck are you doing?”
As evidence mounts that Trump engaged in an intensive effort to pressure the leader of Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Amodei is one of a growing number of Republicans who, while not explicitly endorsing the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, are at least indicating an openness to it. None have said Trump should be impeached. But neither are they defending him.
It is a politically delicate but increasingly common approach among independent-minded lawmakers like Amodei, who are working to balance their fear of inviting Trump’s wrath — and that of the party base — with a deep anxiety that there is more to be revealed about the president, some of it potentially indefensible, and the knowledge that history will hold them accountable for their words and actions.
In Michigan, Rep. Fred Upton told an audience at the Detroit Economic Club that while he did not support an impeachment inquiry, “there are legitimate questions” about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, and he had no problem with Democrats’ efforts to get more information.
“We need to know what the answers are,” he said.
In Texas, Rep. Will Hurd — who is retiring, and therefore perhaps feeling liberated to speak his mind — has called on the House to investigate the “troubling” allegations against Trump, though he cautioned against a rush to impeachment. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick said he thinks law enforcement should investigate. In Illinois, Rep. Adam Kinzinger said, “I want to know what happened here.”
In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican whose seat is seen by Democrats as especially vulnerable, also criticized Trump’s decision to call on China to investigate a political rival. “It’s completely inappropriate,” she told the Bangor Daily News on Saturday.
And in Utah, Sen. Mitt Romney, who has emerged as a lonely voice criticizing Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, and last week called the president’s appeal for foreign help investigating the Bidens “wrong and appalling,” appears to have company. Before a whistleblower’s complaint against Trump was made public, a fellow Utahan, Rep. John Curtis, introduced a resolution calling for the White House to release it, and he has said he is “closely monitoring the formal inquiry.”
On Saturday, in a warning shot to Republicans who might cross him, Trump lashed out at Romney on Twitter, calling him a “pompous ‘ass’ who has been fighting me from the beginning” and using the hashtag #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY.”
As they distance themselves from Trump, these Republicans — some in swing districts in tight reelection races — are also taking care to distance themselves from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who they say rushed into the impeachment inquiry. For the most part they are refraining from directly criticizing the president, who has branded the investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”
But neither are they adopting the language of their leaders, whose strategy centers on attacking Pelosi, branding the inquiry politically motivated and changing the subject to Biden and his son Hunter, whose work for a Ukrainian energy company fed Trump’s accusations of a nefarious web of corruption involving one of his top political foes. More than a dozen House Republicans have remained silent.
“It’s a matter of following their conscience and saying what they will be happy defending to their children in later years,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, adding, “Some of them are following the rule that if you can’t say anything good about your president, you should not say anything at all.”
These Republicans still account for a small minority of the 197 in the House. But their comments, at a time when polls show public support for the impeachment inquiry is growing, are the first hint at cracks in party unity. They also offer echoes of the path the party took during the impeachment proceedings against Richard M. Nixon, when even the staunchest defenders of the president eventually abandoned him.
“My sense is that if there were a secret ballot vote on impeachment it would garner significant Republican support,” said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, citing “my private conversations with Republican members of Congress who believe he is wildly unfit to be president. “
But, Wasserman added, “They can’t say that in public, or else their political careers would be torpedoed by one tweet from the Oval Office.”
Here in Nevada, Amodei, 61, a garrulous former federal prosecutor who led Trump’s 2016 campaign in Nevada, is choosing his words carefully.
During a candid hourlong conversation that included a tour of his lovingly restored red-and-white Chevy Silverado flatbed truck (model year 1988 — the same year he switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican), he sounded mystified at the uproar he created. He votes with Trump nearly 99% of the time, but described himself as a “process guy” who believes in congressional oversight.
“I just think you have to respect the process,” he said. “I think you need to be transparent, and you need to tell the truth.”
He said he was not a fan of Pelosi’s process and said she should have put the inquiry up to a vote of the full House. And he lamented that the word “inquiry” has become politically toxic for Republicans — a lesson he learned after he shared his views with local reporters, one of whom wrote that he backed the House inquiry but was withholding judgment on whether Trump “crossed the legal line.”
The characterization was accurate, Amodei said, but it sparked an uproar when news media outlets (including The New York Times) called him the first Republican who had broken ranks to support an impeachment investigation. He quickly recalibrated, issuing a statement making clear he did not support Trump’s impeachment.
“I now know ‘inquiry’ is a special word in the impeachment thesaurus,” he said wryly, “which I’m still looking for on Amazon, but I haven’t found.”
Still, anti-Trump voices within the Republican Party have been emboldened by comments like Amodei’s. Republicans for the Rule of Law, the main initiative of the conservative anti-Trump group Defending Democracy Together, is spending more than $1 million to run television ads on Fox and MSNBC, calling on Republicans to “demand the facts” about Trump and Ukraine.
The campaign began last week with ads in five districts — including Amodei’s, Upton’s and Fitzpatrick’s — and will expand this week to target 12 Republican senators and 15 members of the House.
“Given where they’ve been, for congressional Republicans to say, ‘Well, we need to see all the facts,’ is a pretty important step forward,” said Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and a founder of Defending Democracy Together.
Polls have shown a steady rise in support for the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, with a majority of Americans approving of it. But sentiment is split along party lines. A recent CBS poll found that nearly 9 in 10 Democrats approved of the inquiry, and two-thirds strongly approved, as compared with just 23% of Republicans.
“Overwhelmingly, Republicans oppose the impeachment inquiry,” said Ayres, the pollster. “They want their Republican elected officials to defend the president and protect him from his many enemies.”
But for Republicans in swing districts who have tight reelection races, like Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania, defending Trump at all costs is not an option. In Washington state, for instance, Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler, who represents a district Democrats have targeted, has echoed Amodei, saying that while there is not yet evidence of impeachable offenses, for the “sake of this nation, we should all follow a process that does not put conclusions before facts.”
Here in northern Nevada, though, sentiment runs strong in favor of Trump. Amodei’s district stretches south from Reno, past the cattle ranches and casinos that line the road to the state capital, Carson City, and into largely rural areas like Douglas County, where members of the local Republican women’s club were having their monthly luncheon last week.
“I think it’s a scam and it’s a witch hunt, just like Trump says,” said Gloria Darrington, 77, expressing the views of many here when she said she believed Democrats were simply continuing a long-running quest to undo the results of the 2016 election.
“He lives in a very Republican area, and he ought to be listening to his Republicans,” Elinor Lindberg, 83, said of Amodei.
Amodei, the only Republican in Nevada’s congressional delegation, is not in danger of losing his seat to a Democrat. But he is in danger of drawing a Republican primary challenger from the right, and already some well-known Nevada names — Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general who ran for governor last year, and Danny Tarkanian, a businessman — are being bandied about.
Amodei sounded unworried. He said some Democrats in his district have been thanking him for his open-mindedness.
“I am a member of the legislative branch — I defend that institution,” he said, adding, “Quite frankly, if you don’t believe in the processes of your own institution, what are you doing there?"