WASHINGTON -- Rep. Ben Ray Luján on Monday became the highest-ranking Democrat in the House to call for an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, saying it's time to hold him accountable.
The New Mexico congressman, third in line behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a 2020 candidate for Senate, said Trump has not tried to secure American elections from foreign interference.
"I support moving forward with an impeachment inquiry, which will continue to uncover the facts for the American people and hold this president accountable," Luján said in a statement . He said former special counsel Robert Mueller's report left no doubt that Trump's campaign made "sustained and frequent attempts...to establish ties to the Russian government and an eagerness to benefit from hacked information. Trump, he added, "is abdicating his responsibility to defend our nation from Russian attacks and is putting his own personal and political interests ahead of the American people."
Mueller concluded there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but he also did not exonerate the president on questions of whether he committed obstruction of justice. Trump has denied wrongdoing and characterized the investigation as a "witch hunt."
Luján's announcement makes him the highest ranking of 121 House Democrats to call for opening an inquiry, according to an Associated Press tally. That's a majority of the 235 Democrats, though not all of those who back an inquiry would vote for Trump's removal from office. Doing so would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
Still, Luján's call is a significant data point in the ongoing assessment of the House Democrats' mood on impeachment. In the House hierarchy, he ranks behind Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.
Pelosi has said Democrats need to wait for court decisions before they decide whether to approve articles of impeachment. At the same time, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, said that what his committee is doing now amounts to "formal impeachment proceedings" — and that Democrats will make a final decision by the end of the year.
Talk of impeachment has escalated in recent months after Trump began fighting subpoenas from Congress. Democrats had originally said they wanted to start by investigating Trump and doing their own review of Mueller's report. But that has proved to be impossible because people Mueller interviewed have, on Trump's orders, defied subpoenas.
The House Judiciary Committee has filed a lawsuit in federal court to force the testimony of one of the Mueller report's key witnesses, former White House counsel Don McGahn. And last month the panel filed a petition to obtain secret grand jury testimony underlying the Mueller report. Both lawsuits made the argument that the committee needs to hear from witnesses and know more about Mueller's findings to decide whether to recommend impeachment to the full House.
Many of the House's moderate Democrats, especially in districts that voted for Trump in 2016 but for Democrats last year, want to stay far away from impeachment proceedings.
And some Democrats are torn. They know impeachment could be politically treacherous and cost them some support from independent voters in the 2020 election. But they also believe that Trump has committed the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that the Constitution lays out, and they don't want to set a precedent for inaction.
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