For a rare two hours, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig couldn’t do anything but think. She didn’t read the usual 17 local newspapers she takes with her on the flight from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. She sat on the plane and pondered President Donald Trump.
It was early on a September morning, the day after Trump confirmed he talked with the Ukrainian president about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had yet to back impeachment proceedings, and the transcript of the Ukraine phone call — the focus of the subsequent impeachment inquiry — had yet to be released.
Craig and 30 other House Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2016 remained largely in wait-and-see mode. Weighing on her mind midflight was the realization that if she committed to the impeachment inquiry, she would be among the first of those vulnerable House members to do so.
It would be a high-stakes gamble for the moderate freshman who had flipped a seat held by Jason Lewis in 2018 on her second try. Craig’s refrain as she gears up for re-election in 2020 is that 79% of her bills are bipartisan and that the two sides need to work together.
Resisting progressive constituents who were pressing her to act, Craig had not supported impeachment proceedings after the special counsel’s report exposing Russian election interference in 2016 to aid the Trump campaign. As recently as two days before her return trip to Washington, Craig was still publicly defending her decision to reserve judgment on impeachment hearings.
But to Craig, “the facts changed” when Trump told reporters he had talked to the Ukrainian president about the Bidens. The transcript of the call later showed Trump asked for what he termed a “favor” in the form of damaging information just as the Eastern European country was seeking U.S. military aid.
She tested herself on the flight: What would she do if a Democratic president urged a foreign leader to look into his or her political opponent? When she landed in Washington, she had made up her mind. She promptly sent her staff an e-mail. It said, “Let’s talk.”
“The truth is that the politics might have been easier if it had been a Democratic president I stood up against in this district,” Craig said. “But it doesn’t matter what the politics are. It’s wrong on the face of it.”
The political ramifications of her Sept. 23 announcement were almost immediate. The Republican National Committee (RNC) made an approximately $300,000 ad buy that aired on four local TV channels.
“Craig votes with the radicals for endless investigations of President Donald Trump, wasting our tax dollars. Instead of working to create more jobs, Craig wants more hearings,” the ad said.
Vice President Mike Pence would soon follow with a campaign stop in Lakeville, part of a nationwide tour targeting Democrats like Craig who represent districts Trump won in 2016. The RNC targeted ads at many of the same lawmakers in other states.
About 200 people attended a town hall in Eagan on Monday night — Craig’s first since supporting the inquiry — and only four of those who lined up to publicly address Craig mentioned impeachment. Three expressed support for the House probe. But Apple Valley resident Nancy Fuller, who attended President Donald Trump’s Minneapolis rally last week, told Craig said she should focus on other things.
Craig replied that she spends 99% of her time on a handful of policy issues: health care and prescription drug costs, helping family farmers, infrastructure investments in the district, special education funding and supporting technical education.
It’s a record she hopes will cross the impeachment divide in the Second Congressional District — which includes the south metro suburbs and many small towns and agricultural communities farther south. She expects that the swing district will produce voters in 2020 who will cast ballots for both her and Trump.
“This isn’t about party. It’s not about partisanship. This is about abuse of power,” she said at the town hall. “It’s about right and wrong, and at the end of the day we have to get to the bottom of the facts here.”
That comment irked Karen Foster, a Trump supporter from Eagan. She said with Craig’s decision to back the inquiry, “She’s really at risk.”
Foster, like many Trump backers, echoed some of the same arguments that the White House has raised.
She said she worries about the inquiry’s trustworthiness, including how it was launched, whether there will be due process and if the investigation will be bipartisan. Foster said there’s not sufficient evidence for Craig to be talking about an abuse of power.
On the other side are DFL activists like Eagan resident Dan Thomas-Commins, who demanded action. He was the first at the town hall to publicly bring up impeachment.
Half an hour into the event, after people asked about Medicare, trade agreements and other topics, he thanked Craig for coming out for the impeachment probe.
Still, while Thomas-Commins said Craig’s support for the investigation was brave, he said it didn’t come soon enough.
Minnesota’s congressional delegation remains split on impeachment proceedings. Rep. Ilhan Omar said before she was elected last year that she would vote to impeach Trump, and fellow Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum was the first Minnesota member to co-sponsor articles of impeachment against him in January 2018.
Rep. Collin Peterson, among the most conservative Democrats in Congress, is one of a few House Democrats who have not supported the inquiry. None of the state’s Republican members back the probe.
Given the stakes involved in the impeachment battle, Craig knew she had some boxes to check before making her announcement. She gave Pelosi a call after returning to Washington.
The House speaker was monitoring a growing number of centrist members of the Democratic caucus who joined the push for impeachment proceedings.
Craig also talked to fellow Minnesota freshman Rep. Dean Phillips, a moderate who, like her, had flipped a Republican-held district in 2018.
As the two headed back to their offices after a panel on bipartisanship that morning, they realized they had reached the same conclusion.
Pelosi announced a formal inquiry the next day.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044