Democrats may not control Congress or the White House, but emboldened by the flood of recent controversies enveloping the Trump administration, they currently have all the swagger in the nation’s capital.
That swagger was on full display Tuesday at the Center for American Progress (CAP) Ideas Conference, which brought together many of the country’s most powerful Democrats — several of whom are weighing presidential runs in 2020 — to discuss fighting Trump, capitalizing on his missteps, and prospects for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
“People have dusted themselves off,” former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told VICE News. “After slowing down [Trump’s] health care bill and now people feeling like Trump both is impulsive and increasingly ineffective, I think people are sensing that they have the ability to affect the course of events even though he has the power that a president has in so many matters.”
Reports on Monday and Tuesday that Trump divulged extremely sensitive and closely held Israeli intelligence to senior Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting has emboldened Democrats and put congressional Republicans on the defensive. Several CAP attendees said that they plan to use the incident to further pressure the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate possible collusion between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia.
In so doing, they pulled no punches.
“I have to hope that someone will counsel the president about just what it means to protect closely held information,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon called Trump “out of control.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York dubbed the current situation at the White House “a whole new level of abnormal.”
And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, long one of Trump’s most vocal and brutal antagonists, said the president’s “desire to impress his Russian buddies does not outweigh the safety, security, and lives of Americans and our allies.”
CAP President Neera Tanden emphasized that it was not an event meant to look ahead to the 2020 election. Likewise, the many potential candidates in attendance — including Warren, Merkley, Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — conspicuously made no real mention of 2020, opting instead to rally Democrats to show up in the 2018 midterms.
In addition to calls for a special prosecutor, which only the DOJ can do, some CAP attendees voiced support for Congress to create an independent commission like the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks. On Wednesday, House Democrats are expected to file a discharge petition —- it can sidestep House Speaker Paul Ryan and bring a bill directly to the floor — to do just that, though it’s extremely unlikely to pass given the strong Republican majority.
Still, there are signs of cracks in the unity between congressional Republicans and the president; for the first time this week, two GOP lawmakers joined the formerly Democratic chorus calling for a special prosecutor.
“There is so much conflicting information from many sources; Americans deserve the opportunity to learn the truth,” Republican Rep. Steve Knight of California said on Tuesday as he announced his support for a special prosecutor. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon even seemed to take pity on his Republican colleagues, telling VICE News that “it’s a hard pivot to make for a Republican majority to investigate a Republican president.”
Capitalizing on Trump’s missteps alone, however, won’t help Democrats come to understand the populist wave that helped define and determine the election last year, and which shows no signs of slowing down. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in April showed that 67 percent of Americans feel the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of most Americans, compared to 58 percent who felt similarly about Trump.
The speeches and panels at CAP championed progressive policies on health care, drug policy, money in politics, and the environment. But impossible to ignore was the fact that the event was held at the Washington, D.C. Four Seasons.
“If we start seeing too much of it, it will be a warning sign,” Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota said of the upscale environs. “[H]aving this one event here I don’t think undermines our core argument as long as we make sure that we are in the VFW halls, the union halls, in the colleges campuses, out in the rural areas, in the churches, the mosques, the synagogues.”