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Raja Krishnamoorthi steps up to impeachment role

Illinois Democrat brings unique background, portfolio to tough task

Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi listens as the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on the Capitol on Sept. 26. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi listens as the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on the Capitol on Sept. 26. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Raja Krishnamoorthi never stops.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October and Congress is back to work for the first time in more than two weeks. But as a member of two committees tasked with advancing the House’s impeachment inquiry, the Illinois Democrat spent most of the early October recess toiling in the Capitol and then flying home to the Chicago suburbs to explain that work to his constituents — including some impeachment skeptics.

He’s embracing the task, but he wishes it wasn’t necessary.

“Well, you know, I didn’t come to Congress to impeach anyone, or even inquire about impeaching anyone, let alone the president of the United States,” Krishnamoorthi said in his Capitol Hill office, a stately but standard space adorned with political mementos and pictures of his young family. “I really think this is a sad moment for our country.”

Krishnamoorthi would prefer Congress further combat youth vaping, or debate how to help struggling families move from living on meager wages to thriving in the middle class, like his parents did after bringing him, as an infant, to this country from India.

But after the White House released a transcript of President Donald Trump’s summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — during which Trump asked Kyiv for a “favor” — and after a White House whistleblower came forward with a related complaint, Krishnamoorthi knew Congress would have to focus on the president.

“When we see that transcript, and we see what the president allegedly did, you know, that’s something that merits an impeachment inquiry,” the Illinois Democrat says dispassionately. “Now we have to conduct it in a sober, you know, objective fashion, and a fair fashion.”

Few lawmakers are as well situated as Krishnamoorthi to chase down inquiry-related facts.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has delegated investigative impeachment work to the Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Intelligence committees. Krishnamoorthi sits on the latter two panels and, as deputy assistant whip, the sophomore lawmaker is himself a member of Pelosi’s leadership team.

Those high-profile assignments require extra work, and Krishnamoorthi sounds like an honor roll student when he talks about his work on those panels.

He’s pulled all-nighters to prepare for his five minutes of questioning at public hearings. He tells constituents that he does his “homework,” which means spending hours in a secure Capitol facility where he reviews documents and listens to witnesses. Unlike many of his colleagues, he doesn’t rush to television cameras upon leaving that facility. What he just read and heard is supposed to be private.

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Pelosi once aimed to collect all this homework by Thanksgiving, but she’s now preparing her members for a protracted examination. Polling shows that a majority of Americans approve of the investigation, and Krishnamoorthi is trying to convince even more voters to support the probe.

“I think public sentiment has shifted, and now some moderates or independents are basically willing to listen,” Krishnamoorthi said. “But if they’re willing to listen, we need to be willing to talk to them in a way that invites them into the conversation.”

How Democrats handle the ongoing inquiry in the coming weeks, or months, could provide members the opportunity to boost their own profiles and influence the 2020 presidential election. But to preserve their House majority, Democrats need to investigate the president in a manner that doesn’t appear blindly partisan or risk losing the hard-won Trump districts that define their majority.

Krishnamoorthi felt this tension at a recent town hall. Standing before hundreds of his constituents, who skipped Friday night high school football to attend, Krishnamoorthi opened the meeting by explaining his role in the inquiry.

“I am a member of the House Intelligence Committee,” Krishnamoorthi said, “and so I’m helping to lead an impeachment inquiry into the president.”

“About time!” one attendee said in response as the crowd cheered.

Before returning to the topic of impeachment, though, Krishnamoorthi encouraged the audience to praise Trump’s work on vaping.

The president, Krishnamoorthi explained, followed recommendations of the House Oversight subcommittee he chairs to crack down on illegal marketing from e-cigarette companies looking to lure kids to vape.

“Yes, you should applaud,” he told the crowd after hearing a few faint claps. “I give credit where credit is due: President Trump, Secretary [Alex Azar] and the FDA are doing the right thing.”

Shortly after his opening monologue, Krishnamoorthi took written questions from the audience.

The first submitted question: “How can bipartisan support be built for the impeachment inquiry?”

The second: “Don’t you dare impeach Trump.”

Krishnamoorthi flashed a smile.

“We’re starting with the easy questions,” he said before explaining the events that led to the inquiry and that, if the whistleblower and subsequent witnesses are to be believed, how the investigation could reveal disturbing truths of how Trump conducts foreign policy for personal gain.

Ultimately, Krishnamoorthi promised a scrupulous process and transparency, but not a specific outcome.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m honestly trying to keep an open mind.”

Across the aisle

Illinois’ 8th District is firmly Democratic. Krishnamoorthi won the cluster of Chicago suburbs by 32 points in 2018, and with more than $6.3 million on hand in his campaign coffers, $2.5 million more than Illinois senator and Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin, he is safeguarding his seat from any eager GOP challengers.

But after meeting with his constituents, Krishnamoorthi says he believes he can help guide impeachment-curious Republicans through the ongoing inquiry.

One Republican constituent gave him some tips on how to talk to GOP voters with questions about the probe. A former constituent, another Republican, encouraged him to keep following the facts.

“For the first time they are willing to consider that the President actually committed an impeachable offense,” Krishnamoorthi said of the suburban Chicago Republicans wary of Trump’s conduct after reading the White House transcript, the whistleblower’s complaint and some leaked text messages between American diplomats related to Trump potentially withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors.

“They can’t stomach the possibility that our president would be calling foreign leaders, compromising our foreign security in favor of a purely partisan, political, personal gain,” he added.

Fielding questions

It helps that Krishnamoorthi, 46, speaks GOP as a second language. He grew up in Peoria, Ill., a downstate city with a university and a casino surrounded by corn, soybeans and Republicans.

Parts of his early October town hall would have played well downstate as he admiringly quoted Ronald Reagan, praised Trump and highlighted his work with members of the House Freedom Caucus.

Back in Washington, Krishnamoorthi has even formed a friendship with North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows, a member of that ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.

“He’s a thoughtful member of Congress and certainly always has a smile on his face,” Meadows says. “You can’t help but like him.”

But as a member of House leadership who worked for Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, Krishnamoorthi undeniably resides in the Democratic establishment. In that role, Krishnamoorthi acts as a lighthouse for the members of his own caucus whose committee assignments don’t permit them the same access that Krishnamoorthi has to the impeachment inquiry proceedings.

“I find myself fielding questions,” he says. “People come up to me on the floor, or in different places, and ask for my opinion, like, ‘What do you think is going on right now? Where do you think we’re going next?’”

Krishnamoorthi doesn’t know what’s next. No one does, really. But there are likely more closed-door hearings and depositions to come. Later, there will probably be open hearings for transparency’s sake.

It will be a ton of work. Krishnamoorthi already worked through the night to prepare for acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire’s September testimony before the Intelligence Committee. He knows he may have to do it again.

“I need to read, re-read and be really well-versed with the documents that I have before I start questioning people about it,” Krishnamoorthi said. “And if I don’t, then I don’t feel comfortable asking questions.”

He says his background has prepared him for this moment.

Like many lawmakers, Krishnamoorthi is a lawyer, but he’s also an Ivy League trained mechanical engineer. That discipline rewards diligence and process; it requires deploying deliberate logic to solve a problem while relying on science and data, not emotion, theatrics or misdirection.

“I think people fundamentally recognize when someone is, you know, trying to elucidate a situation, or explain a situation, or bring out facts, as opposed to bringing attention to themselves,” Krishnamoorthi said. “I don’t want to do the latter.”

Many who do the latter already know how they would vote if Pelosi brought the question of Trump’s impeachment to the floor — but not Krishnamoorthi.

“I think that’s such a challenging question,” he says when asked what it would take for him to vote for impeachment.

Before he can decide, he needs more documents. He needs more witness testimony. He needs more depositions. He needs a complete process that produces actual articles of impeachment from the House Judiciary Committee.

Until those articles are in hand, his Democratic colleagues and Republican friends will surely compete for sound bites and airtime. Krishnamoorthi will work.