Transcript: Facing the Voters

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Facing the Voters.
Image: Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., speaks at a community conversation in Rochester, Mich., on Dec. 16, 2019.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., speaks at a community conversation in Rochester, Mich., on Dec. 16, 2019.Carlos Osorio / AP

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Facing The Voters

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, December 16th, and here's what's happening.

Archival Recording: Today we'll hear from Representative Elissa Slotkin. Some will agree with her positions. Some will disagree. Disagreement is expected. It's even healthy. But let's remember we're talking with each other, not at each other.

Kornacki: The full House is gearing up to vote on the articles of impeachment this week. In the remaining days and hours before that big vote, members are back in their home districts, talking to their constituents. At this point, Republicans don't expect anyone from their party to break rank and support impeaching the President.

Politically, this may make sense. There are just three Republicans in Congress who represent districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But there are 31 Democrats who represent Trump districts, and these Democrats face a big dilemma over whether to support an impeachment that may be unpopular with their Republican constituents.

Archival Recording: It is genuinely meaningful to see this level of engagement in our democracy at 11:00 a.m. on a Monday. Let's please welcome to the stage Congresswoman Slotkin.

Kornacki: Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan is one of them.

Elissa Slotkin: Okay. Such a great turnout today.

Archival Recording: Please let her speak.

Kornacki: She held a town hall today in Rochester. That's just outside of Detroit.

Archival Recording: Please respect the people around you who are here to listen.

Slotkin: I am glad to see--

Archival Recording: Duly noted. Please let her speak.

Slotkin: --so much enthusiasm for civic engagement. And I do really believe, to be quite honest, that what we are doing, whether we agree or disagree, is exactly what our founding fathers designed 240 years ago.

Kornacki: Today on Article II, we're asking: How are vulnerable Democrats like Slotkin and others deciding whether to support impeachment or to vote against it? Leigh Ann Caldwell is an NBC News correspondent covering Congress. But today, she is out in the state of Michigan, covering Representative Slotkin's town hall. Leigh Ann, how you doing?

Leigh Ann Caldwell: I'm good. Thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: So these 31 Democrats who have the trickiest political calculation when it comes to impeachment, their party supports impeachment. The voters in their district supported Donald Trump in 2016. Elissa Slotkin, tell us the basics. She got elected in 2018 from a Trump district.

Caldwell: That's right, Steve. Trump won her district by almost seven points. And so this is a conservative district. Then, two years later, unease with the President, and turnout, and the resistance really, they elected Elissa Slotkin in 2018. So she is one of a group of all of these freshman Democrats who came to Washington.

And she has this, one of many of these, who have a background in national security. She's a former CIA officer. She worked for the Defense Department. And so there's this whole group of these freshman Democrats who are from the military, from national security backgrounds.

And they played a huge role in the Democratic Party, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has really listened to them throughout because she knows that these are the majority makers. She knows that they have a lot of respect in their districts. But they also can be much more moderate than some of the Democrats who come from much more liberal districts obviously.

Kornacki: You mentioned the national security background, the Trump district. She was one of seven Democrats, as you say, who really got the ball rolling on impeachment back in September, coming out there publicly and saying, "Hey, there should be an inquiry here." And yet, as this process kind of neared the vote that we're awaiting this week, she let it be known late last week. She said actually she hadn't yet decided, sort of create a little bit of tension, a little bit of drama there I should say. What was that town hall like when you got there?

Caldwell: The room was huge. I didn't think that she would be able to fill how big that room was. It's at a university here in Rochester called Oakland University. There were up to 500 seats in this room. An hour before the town hall, there were a few people in line. And as people started filling in the room, it just filled up.

Every single one of those seats were taken. It was standing room only. And the mood was quite intense. The majority of people there were supporters of Elissa Slotkin who held signs saying that they had her back, that she is someone that they were going to support, that they had a lot of respect for her.

And then on the other hand, the Trump supporters, they were holding up signs saying, "Impeach Elissa Slotkin." It got really rowdy at moments. In the audience, there were people telling each other to shut up. There was one woman, a Trump supporter, who turned to a Slotkin supporter and said that she's a waste of breath. And so there were moments there that became very, very intense. It really showed the political divide in this country and how passionate and polarizing politics is right now.

Kornacki: With all that expectation, that room kinda looking to explode one way or the other, what did she say?

Caldwell: Well, she came out and said that she is going to support impeachment, both articles of impeachment.

Slotkin: And I know it's clear that we don't all agree. But I'm gonna walk you through my logic in an attempt to be transparent. And I know, I knew from the very beginning that this was going to be a controversial decision, right? That was something I understood from the very beginning. But for me, it was something that was important to do--

Archival Recording: Hey. Please stop.

Slotkin: --as a matter of principle--

Archival Recording: Sir. Sir.

Slotkin: So in September, I'm just gonna keep on rollin', folks. In September.

Caldwell: She prefaced it with trying to separate herself a little bit from a lot of her other Democratic colleagues in the House. Some of those who came out for impeachment extremely early. But she said that wasn't enough. It wasn't the right time. And she didn't think impeachment was necessary.

Slotkin: And I didn't because I thought we needed to let the election of 2020 decide what was going to happen in our country. But that changed for me on the very basic facts that the President of the United States came out and his lawyer came out and said very specifically that they had reached out to a foreign power and asked him for information on a political rival.

Caldwell: And she talked a lot about her background in national security and at the Defense Department, saying there was always this back and forth between countries. But she said the difference was it was for national security purposes. It wasn't to benefit an individual in the administration.

Slotkin: As a CIA officer, as a CIA officer and as someone who has sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, reaching out to a foreign power is something fundamentally different.

Caldwell: She said it would set a very bad precedent. And she talked about how hard of a vote it is going to be. But she believed it was the right thing to do.

Slotkin: And short of declaring war, this is one of the biggest decisions that I will be voting on in my short time in Congress. So I took it seriously. And I sat and did what I was trained to do, which was make an objective decision based on the facts.

Caldwell: She talked about how much she thought about it, that she spent the weekend reviewing all of the transcripts. And not only that, that she also looked back at the Nixon impeachment and the Clinton impeachment to look at precedent. And she realized that there was precedent here to impeach a president.

Slotkin: What if that becomes normal? What if next time we have a Democratic president asking the Chinese government for a cyber attack, for something new, for some intrusion? For me, this is something that I cannot abide, that I cannot accept.

Caldwell: Not only on the abuse of power stuff, but on the obstruction of Congress. She said that what the President has done by stonewalling this investigation is much worse than what Clinton and Nixon did, who did participate to some extent with investigators.

Slotkin: And he gave the word to his administration to not produce any documents, to not respond to any subpoenas, and to not appear. That is the President contravening the House's role and responsibility for the impeachment process. So I will be voting yes on obstruction of Congress.

Caldwell: And so she said that this was the right thing to do.

Slotkin: While we may not agree, I hope you believe me when I tell you that I made this decision out of principle and out of a duty to protect and defend the Constitution. I feel that in my bones, and I will stick to that regardless of what it does to me politically because this is bigger than politics.

Kornacki: So she made that statement. Then there were questions, although I guess this portion maybe wasn't as electric as it might have been. The questions were submitted in writing. You didn't have the constituents getting up and taking the microphone themselves, if I understand this right. But what kinda questions did she get?

Caldwell: So it was her deputy chief of staff who was reading the questions.

Archival Recording: Hey folks. These are the questions you're shoutin' at me, so you may want to just listen for one sec to the answer.

Slotkin: Take a breath.

Caldwell: They got questions that many Republicans are asking, including, "Why are you trying to overturn the 2016 election?"

Slotkin: I do not dispute that the President won the election in 2016. And I do not dispute that 2020 will be an important moment in sort of our democratic process and that we will have that opportunity. But the role of impeachment was put into the Constitution by our founding fathers. And they put it there so that no one would be above the law, that we didn't have kings in our country.

Caldwell: And she said looking forward to 2020 and the pattern of abuse by this president in this Ukraine scandal warranted impeachment.

Kornacki: Leigh Ann, I think you talked to some of the attendees afterwards, too, on both sides of this. What were you hearing from them?

Caldwell: Her supporters were all in. They were very happy at the decision she made. I spoke with a woman named Diane Russell. She did not support the President in 2016. She supported Slotkin. And I asked her what she thought about her support of impeachment. She said that she had written her several times.

Diane Russell: Well, when I wrote to her earlier this year, she said she didn't know if she was in favor of it. And she said she was leaning towards not being in favor of it. But then when she came out after reading everything and studying everything, I was so impressed, that she changed her opinion.

Caldwell: But then on the other side, I spoke with Matt Maddock, a Trump supporter who did not support Slotkin. And I asked him what he thought about the tone and the tenor of the town hall today.

Matt Maddock: Little bit rowdy, which is good. I think it's good and important that people express their opinions. But I think it's good for people to participate in the political process. And I think the vote that she did for impeachment is probably gonna end up costing her seat.

Caldwell: You know, the Trump supporters really believe that this could be the end of these Democrats politically for coming out in support of impeachment because they so wholeheartedly oppose the effort by the Congress to impeach this president. (Music)

Kornacki: All right. Leigh Ann, I'm gonna ask you to hang around for just one second. We'll take a quick break and come right back.

Kornacki: Well, let's look at that bigger-picture political question that I think comes out of this Slotkin town hall. We mentioned she is one of those 31 Democrats who's gotta face voters in 2020 who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and in many cases will probably vote for Donald Trump again in 2020.

So Slotkin is now a yes on both articles of impeachment. I saw today Joe Cunningham, he's a Democrat who was just elected in South Carolina, from the Charleston area. This is one of the most pro-Trump districts that's represented by a Democrat. Trump carried this district by double digits in 2016. Cunningham barely won it in 2018. He's announced he's in favor of impeachment. So some news there as well. It sounds to me that most of these 31 Trump district Democrats who've been quiet who are now starting to speak out, I'm hearing mostly support for impeachment from them.

Caldwell: It seems that way. We have heard from more than a handful in the past 72 hours coming out in support of impeachment. Elaine Luria of Virginia, Max Rose of New York, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania. He came out really strongly in support of impeachment. I was at his town hall just a few months ago when he said, "No way. We should not impeach this president."

That was before the Ukraine call. So it was a big switch. And a lot of these people have these national security/military backgrounds. And I think that that is playing a really big role for them, knowing the intricacies of foreign policy. They believe that what this president did was wrong.

Kornacki: There was also a big piece of news to come from another one of these Trump districts that's now represented by a Democrat but that apparently won't be represented by a Democrat for that long. It's the second district of New Jersey. This is south jersey, Atlantic City, Cumberland County, Cape May County, kind of that area.

Jeff Van Drew, freshman Democrat, elected 2018, district that went for Trump by five points in 2016, there's news now that he looks like he's gonna be switching parties. He voted against even launching this impeachment inquiry. He and Collin Peterson from Minnesota were the two Democrats who voted against the inquiry. And now it looks like gonna switch parties. It's obviously a big headline that Republicans are eager to have. Is there a bigger significance to Van Drew's move?

Caldwell: Well, Republicans think that this is great news for them. You know, over the weekend when this news was emerging, texting with sources, Republican sources, and they were beside themselves. They couldn't have thought of better news. But the political calculations are interesting for Van Drew.

He has staff that are resigning. He has no support among Democrats right now. And while apparently he was in talks with the President to get his support, who knows if that's gonna hold? That support hasn't come out directly from the President yet. And so he might be in political no-man's land.

And while Van Drew might have been worried about losing a primary and not winning his reelection, he might be doing long-term damage to his political career. 'Cause who knows if the Republican Party is going to completely embrace him? That we'll all just have to wait to see. (Music)

Kornacki: Lots of interesting political calculations here with this vote on the House floor for both articles of impeachment looming just days away now. Leigh Ann Caldwell, thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Caldwell: Thank you, Steve.

Kornacki: Here's what to expect from the rest of the week in impeachment. Tomorrow, the House Rules Committee meets to set the guidelines for the debate on the articles on the House floor. The full House is scheduled to vote on articles of impeachment on Wednesday.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. A special thank-you today to producer Carol Eggers and the rest of the crew accompanying Leigh Ann in Michigan. Preston Swegert on camera and Ed Shuck on audio. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.