Rep. John Lewis has called Donald Trump an illegitimate leader and boycotted his inauguration, but he’s remained conspicuously silent on demands for the president’s impeachment.
Despite his silence, advocates for Trump’s removal see the civil rights icon — a man Democrats describe as the conscience of their caucus — as a singularly powerful potential ally, one of the last publicly undecided lawmakers who could change the calculus inside the Democratic caucus. And Lewis himself says an announcement on impeachment is almost at hand.
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“My time is growing near,” the Georgia lawmaker told reporters this week. He added, “I’ve never been supportive of this so-called president. Before he was inaugurated I said he was not legitimate. So I have some very strong feelings.”
As Democrats gathered support for an impeachment inquiry over the summer, lawmakers and aides privately described Lewis as one of the pivotal decision-makers on the subject. His outsize influence among members of the Congressional Black Caucus and among House progressives — dozens of whom have remained silent on a potential impeachment inquiry — could bring many of them on board.
“No question about it. Who wants to be on the other side of John Lewis?” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who has backed an impeachment inquiry. “When he speaks, everybody listens.”
Lewis has been closely allied with Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the years. An impeachment endorsement from Lewis would intensify questions for Pelosi, who has so far resisted calls to endorse proceedings. That’s why multiple senior lawmakers privately suggested Lewis is unlikely to back impeachment proceedings without her blessing — rendering such an endorsement unlikely.
“When he comes out it will be a signal that the leadership has decided [to support it],” said one Judiciary Committee Democrat who supports impeachment proceedings. “I would be surprised.”
One factor that makes Lewis a wildcard: no one appears to be trying to lobby him. Democratic sources on both sides of the impeachment question insist there’s no active attempt to nudge Lewis into their corner. He’s a singular institution who calls his own shots, they say, and he’s too respected in the caucus for anyone to try to tell him what to do.
But most Democrats acknowledge that Lewis’ imprimatur could move the needle on impeachment proceedings in ways that even prominent endorsements from other House leaders such as Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) haven’t.
“There’s no one more respected than John Lewis in the caucus. When he speaks people listen. So I do think that would have significant weight,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who supports opening an impeachment inquiry. “He has greater moral weight than anyone in this body and I think he would make a big, big difference speaking out.”
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who hasn’t backed impeachment proceedings, called Lewis “the linchpin to most things around here.”
“He is so widely respected that anything he would say – anything he would be a part of – carries a lot of weight,” Larson said.
A third Democrat, a member of the Judiciary Committee, agreed that Lewis’ could provide a substantial lift to efforts inside the Democrat caucus to convince leaders to more aggressively back impeachment proceedings, in part by creating a groundswell of support in corners of the caucus that might naturally support the effort but are so far deferring to Pelosi.
Democratic leaders, too, understand the significance of a Lewis-backed effort and try not to dilute that potency by overusing his influence to further their policy goals. But when senior Democrats want to bring attention to an issue, they try to enlist Lewis to support their cause. For example, when Democrats wanted to take dramatic steps to call attention to GOP inaction on gun violence – staging a historic 25-hour sit-in on the House floor – they rallied Lewis to be the leader of their protest.
Lewis acknowledged that many of his colleagues are interested in where he stands on impeachment — and his open criticism of Trump has left little mystery about where he might land. But despite his tantalizing claim of an imminent announcement, he’s given no timeframe and dodged questions about his position for months.
At the same time, some of his allies say that despite his influence among House Democrats, impeachment is too personal a decision for lawmakers to allow anyone but Pelosi to influence where they stand.
“I wouldn’t put that amount of pressure on John,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and supporter of impeachment proceedings. “He’s a substantial person in the U.S. Congress, he’s a substantial person in the country’s history. But I think people are following their own instincts. I don’t think anybody in particular coming out brings anybody with them.”
A near-term announcement from Lewis would land in the middle of a messaging mess for House Democratic leaders, who have offered wildly different assessments of the House’s posture on impeachment. Though the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), has spent months describing an ongoing “impeachment investigation” — arguing in public statements and court filings that the effort has been longstanding and clear. The committee on Thursday voted along party lines to recognize its impeachment investigation and adopt a handful of procedures meant to define the contours of the probe.
Yet House leaders, who signed off on the Judiciary Committee’s legal position, have been hesitant to publicly characterize it as an impeachment investigation, instead preferring to describe it as a standard House probe. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer flatly denied on Wednesday that an impeachment investigation was ongoing before issuing a clarifying statement supporting the panel’s work.
The House’s No. 5 Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries of New York — a member of the Judiciary Committee — said just minutes before Hoyer’s flub that he wasn’t sure whether the House was in an impeachment investigation, though he later voted to acknowledge one.
And on Thursday, Pelosi wouldn’t utter the word “impeachment” when pressed by reporters on the ongoing probe.
The mixed messages have led to rampant confusion among rank-and-file lawmakers, who have attempted to parse the mixed messages in conflicting ways. Lewis’ decision to weigh in could be a clarifying moment.
“Would I say that his endorsement one way or the other carries weight? Of course it does,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who hasn’t taken a position on an impeachment inquiry. “I also think that the decision of where folks are is such a personal decision — you know, you sleep with yourself at night — and so you’ve got gotta weigh what you think is the right thing to do. But will John’s yes or no, be a factor? Of course it will be.”
Andrew Desiderio and Laura Barrón-López contributed reporting for this story.