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Trump’s Ukraine episode crossed ‘red line’ for Dem freshmen

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The rookie Democratic lawmaker caught House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s eye as the two women brushed past each other in a marbled Capitol hallway. Neither slowed her step. But over her shoulder, Pelosi flashed Rep. Elissa Slotkin a thumbs-up and said, “Congratulations.”

“Thank you!” Slotkin responded.

The lightning-quick moment, just before noon Tuesday, was just what it seemed: a high-five of sorts between Pelosi and one of the vulnerable Democratic freshmen who were, for the first time, getting behind formal impeachment proceedings against the nation’s 45th president.

Slotkin of Michigan and six other freshman Democrats with national security backgrounds had called for Trump’s impeachment from the pages of The Washington Post only the night before, most for the first time, over reports that he had pressured Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden’s son.

“It was a red line,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, another of the column’s co-authors.

Pelosi, monitoring the frenzy of texts, emails and sentiment in her caucus all weekend, read the op-ed Monday night on the flight back to Washington.

What followed was a flash flood of new demands from Pelosi’s leadership team on down to vulnerable newcomers for a formal investigation against the president. And that freed Pelosi to abandon her resistance to impeachment. A few hours after her brush with Slotkin, she announced the House would move.

“Nobody is above the law,” Pelosi said.

In reality, what changed is that Pelosi and the national security freshmen got behind formal impeachment proceedings, which were already in progress. But doing so is acutely risky in some closely-fought districts that in 2018 delivered House control to Pelosi’s party, and divisions between progressives and moderates had roiled the caucus all year.Now, Pelosi told Democrats at a private meeting Tuesday, Democrats were united on the subject.

The moment was rooted in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and Trump had tried to shut down the investigation. More than half the Democratic caucus called for impeachment proceedings just on that basis. But not national security freshmen like Slotkin who had handed Democrats control of the House. And not some of the more senior members such as Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon regarded by Democrats as the conscience of the House.

Only a few minutes after Pelosi congratulated Slotkin and opened the House for business Tuesday, Lewis set the tone with an impassioned speech from the House floor.

“Now is the time to act,” he said.

Many Democrats, including Pelosi, had thought the public didn’t understand or care enough about Mueller’s findings to get behind divisive impeachment proceedings. Not even Trump’s stonewalling was enough.

But that all changed late last week when Trump was reported to have asked Ukraine’s leader on a call to investigate work done for the country by Biden’s son.

As Trump continued to not entirely deny the charge over the weekend, freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger sensed sentiment in her politically mixed Virginia district “pivot” from a “general pit of confusion” over the Mueller report — to clarity.

“I saw a shift on the ground in my district,” said Spanberger, another author of the op-ed. “On the ground there was a change in the conversation. This is something new. It’s a new phase. This is a new type of allegation.”

This time, it was Trump being alleged to have leaned on another country to coerce help in defeating a political rival. Trump said Tuesday that he would authorize the release of the “unredacted” transcript of his phone call with Ukraine’s president, predicting it would show no evidence of wrongdoing. Still, he raged on Twitter about a fresh “witch hunt.”

The Democrats newly in favor of impeachment were not convinced. Leaving a caucus meeting after Pelosi’s announcement, several said they had begun writing the op-ed almost as soon as the first reports of the Ukraine call were reported.

“It’s crystal clear,” said freshman Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, another of the column’s authors. “If this isn’t impeachable, what is?”

“This is a one discrete, very understandable offense that the president could have possibly done while sitting in office … using national security money,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. “I think it’s time to move to that next step.”

Slotkin, for one, suggested the Democrats hadn’t crossed any kind of finish line. In the private caucus meeting, she stood and urged her colleagues to do a better job of building public support for the effort.

“I got up and said, I just think it’s important that we have a process that’s strategic, clear and efficient,” she said afterward. “Those to me are extremely important criteria if we’re going to demonstrate that this is different, that we’re serious, that we have a backbone.”

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Associated Press Writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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Follow Kellman at http://www.twitter.com//APLaurieKellman

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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