Tom Steyer is emphatic that the United States is not addressing its biggest issue. By broaching the subject and forcing others to do the same, he is constantly ruffling feathers. Intentionally or not, the billionaire Democratic activist is creating a major rift within his own party going into midterms.
Over the last eight months, Steyer has been the guy on television calling for impeaching President Donald Trump. He's spent more than $40 million on his Need to Impeach campaign, which has collected over 5.4 million signatures to date.
For some Democrats, the conversation about impeachment is simply premature, given that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has not completed his investigation. Others see working to impeach Trump as a pointless effort, given Republican control of Congress — one that can only hurt the party's chances in an election year.
Steyer says impeachment should be the nation's biggest priority.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
"It is the top issue because it touches on every single other thing," Steyer said.
In a recent open-ended polling question from the Public Policy Institute of California, likely Democratic voters listed jobs/economy, affordable housing and immigration as the most important issues facing the state. The environment, drought, homelessness and education were listed shortly behind. Impeachment didn't make the list.
"It's a very small issue for most California voters," said Wesley Hussey, associate professor of political science at Sacramento State. "It probably makes more Republicans angry than Democrats happy."
As part of a 30-stop town hall tour, Steyer visited Sacramento this week to demand greater urgency on impeachment. He sat down with The Bee on Monday to make his case.
He blasted politicians of all political stripes for not speaking out on the issue, explaining how "the actual process of oversight has completely broken down" and that "we don't have a separation of powers."
There are many components to Steyer's case for impeachment, but it primarily rests on two claims: Trump obstructed justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey, and Trump violates the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution on a daily basis by allowing his businesses — and himself by extension — to accept money from foreign countries.
"We're not scared of having the conversation," Steyer said. "We want to have the conversation. Our point is Americans know we're right. Democrats know we're right. Independents know we're right. A minority of Republicans agree with us. There's something really rotten here."
Few pollsters have measured attitudes about impeaching Trump, but a recent Quinnipiac University poll reported a drop in support for even beginning the impeachment process if Democrats take control of the U.S. House. The majority of Independents oppose beginning impeachment proceedings, according to the poll.
Many national Democrats don't want to have the conversation Steyer is leading. At an April press conference in Washington, D.C., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the issue a "gift to the Republicans." She said the Democratic Party needs to offer voters a substantive policy agenda that is not centered around opposing Trump.
At an August 2017 event in San Francisco, Sen. Dianne Feinstein argued for "patience" with Trump and suggested there was still time for the Republican to "be a good president." But in a statement, she said she has "worked aggressively to hold Trump accountable for his assault on the rule of law." Still, she declined to specifically express her views on impeachment because of her status as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"As a Senator, I would serve as juror in an impeachment trial; for that reason, I feel I must refrain from offering any judgment about impeachment at this time," Feinstein said in a statement.
Some California lawmakers are also declining to comment on impeachment. A spokeswoman for Toni Atkins, California's senate president pro tempore, said Atkins does not want to discuss the issue.
Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, said it makes sense for state and national lawmakers to dodge the subject.
"You're really getting Republicans upset and the Independents upset because they're saying, 'Why are you talking about impeachment when there's no smoking gun?'"
Some top Democratic candidates are offering a more critical tone. A spokesman for Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom said the gubernatorial candidate thinks "there are clear grounds for impeachment but doesn't think Congress should act before the Mueller probe is completed."
Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León is running a progressive senatorial campaign against Feinstein. He is backed by Steyer and is calling for Trump to be impeached immediately. "What this president has done easily surpasses what Richard Nixon did back in Watergate. ... What I've seen to date easily, in my mind, qualifies for impeachment."
Steyer still hasn't gotten many other Democrats on board with that message. Someone has to make the case, he said. He's particularly unhappy with those who suggest he's simply using the issue to test the waters for a 2020 presidential run.
"I view that as a simple attempt to not deal with the truth," he said. "Instead of dealing with the message and confronting it, they keep doing the same thing. It's either attacking the messenger ... or saying it's tactically not smart."