MIDVALE — Reporters and cameras crowded the podium at the Midvale Senior Center on Friday, waiting for Congressman Ben McAdams to step to the microphone and state his position on the impeachment inquiry launched by House leaders last week.
They would have to wait a little longer.
McAdams, whose district supported President Donald Trump in 2016, had not publicly uttered the term “impeachment” since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., launched an impeachment inquiry last week into allegations that Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
McAdams had dodged questions Thursday when reporters cornered him on the matter. Later, a spokeswoman had released a statement that left his position unclear and again avoided the key word.
When McAdams echoed that statement from the podium Friday, reporters cleared the room, leaving the freshman congressman to an hourlong forum on health and wellness, with a quiet audience of mostly seniors.
Still, pressure was mounting. McAdams was one of just 10 House Democrats who had not endorsed the inquiry, all of whom represented districts that supported Trump in 2016, according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, Trump had escalated his defiance of the inquiry. On Thursday, he publicly called on China to investigate Biden and his son — echoing his phone call to the Ukraine president that had sparked the inquiry. This drew predictable outrage from Democrats and a scolding tweet from Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney.
On Friday, the president ratcheted up the pressure on House Democrats to take a public position when he refused to cooperate without a vote on the House floor approving the inquiry.
For McAdams, that was the tipping point, his spokeswoman said. He summoned reporters back to the room after the panel and told them he had mistakenly read an incorrect version of his statement and wished to make a clarification.
“The president’s refusal to further cooperate with congressional oversight without an impeachment inquiry is regrettable,” he said. “We find ourselves today at the point where an inquiry is necessary to get all of the facts on the table.”
The long journey to McAdams’ support for the impeachment inquiry belies the complicated calculus behind it. The lone Democrat in Utah’s congressional delegation was loathe to risk alienating supporters with a word, but pressure from both sides of the political aisle left him little choice but to take a stand that his opponents say makes him more vulnerable in the 2020 election.
- Rep. Ben McAdams listens to a reporter’s question about the impeachment inquiry following a town hall on aging adult and senior issues at the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. McAdams stated he is in favor of an open inquiry but wouldn’t support impeachment at the moment. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
- Jamie Zayac shouts a question on the impeachment inquiry at Rep. Ben McAdams, not pictured, following a town hall on aging adult and senior issues at the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. McAdams had delivered a statement on the inquiry before the town hall and spoke with the press and citizens following the event as well. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
- Rep. Ben McAdams speaks about the impeachment inquiry following a town hall on aging adult and senior issues at the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. McAdams stated that he is in favor of an open inquiry but wouldn’t support impeachment at the moment. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
- Russell Tate speaks to Rep. Ben McAdams about the disrespect he sees for aging citizens before a town hall on aging adult and senior issues at the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
- Rep. Ben McAdams looks down the line of panelists during a town hall on aging adult and senior issues at the Midvale Senior Center in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Colter Peterson, Deseret News
Threading the needle
In response to a question of whether he would vote to support an impeachment inquiry, McAdams explained why he has avoided clearly stating his position.
“My concern all along with an impeachment inquiry is I believe it gives the impression to the public that the outcome has been prejudged, and I think every member Congress, Republican and Democrat, owes it to the public to know that we are making this decision in the best interest of the country and following the Constitution without regard to party,” McAdams said.
But Democratic strategist and HillTV host Jamal Simmons said threading the needle “too finely” can also backfire as voters also want clear answers on where their representatives stand.
“I am loathe to second-guess them because I don’t have the information they do, but people tend to not like complicated answers to simple questions,” Simmons said. “Even if they disagree with your answer, they would rather know your answer and have a sense of where you are, who you are.”
Impeachment wasn’t on the agenda when McAdams’ team scheduled Friday’s town hall in the Salt Lake County suburb.
But circumstances changed last week when Pelosi announced an official impeachment inquiry had been launched centered on a whistleblower’s complaint about a July 25 phone call Trump made to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asking him to help investigate the Bidens. Since then, support for the inquiry among House Democrats has swiftly grown to a large majority from the vocal minority that had been clamoring for impeachment proceedings for months.
Jim Curry, a University of Utah political science professor with expertise on the politics and procedure of the U.S. House of Representatives, said calling the probe an impeachment inquiry does not change anything procedurally. “Pursuing a formal impeachment inquiry changes the political dynamics,” he said. “Before, it was drips and drabs of allowing committees to do some investigation without there being any sort of endgame. Now there’s an endgame.”
Backed into a corner
But declaring the probe an impeachment inquiry has also upped the stakes politically for vulnerable House Democrats like McAdams.
McAdams and several of the nine other holdouts in endorsing an impeachment inquiry have had targets on their backs since they captured traditionally Republicans districts in November. McAdams beat two-term GOP incumbent Mia Love by just under 700 votes.
He is already facing several Republican opponents, including Utah Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland, Kathleen Anderson, a former Utah GOP communications director, and state Rep. Kim Coleman.
Anderson was quick to respond to McAdams’ support for an impeachment inquiry.
“Representative McAdams has joined with the progressive left’s no holds barred mission to impeach President Trump,” she said. “This is no surprise. ... The old saying is true: you cannot serve two masters. Representative McAdams has clearly chosen to align with the progressive left rather than the majority of his constituency in Utah’s 4th District.”
Several national groups backing Trump’s reelection, including the Trump Victory Committee, echoed Anderson’s message.
“Congressman McAdams’ decision to back impeachment will be seared into the mind of every voter as a reminder that his loyalty to the impeachment-obsessed left came ahead of the work his constituents elected him to do,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund.
Pelosi’s earlier resistance to declaring an impeachment inquiry had provided political cover for moderate Democrats like McAdams who helped deliver the House to Democrats by capturing Republican leaning districts in November.
McAdams was asked Friday if the makeup of his district played into how he has responded to the impeachment inquiry.
“Listening to my constituents and reflecting what they want to see is an important part of my analysis in this,” he said. “Now I’m beholden to the Constitution and I have a moral obligation to ascertain the facts and then make a judgment when that process is concluded. But listening to my constituents and working to represent them is a part of the my job I take very seriously.”