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CreditCreditElizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

The Freshmen: Elissa Slotkin Confronts the Impeachment Backlash

A moderate House Democrat who supports the impeachment inquiry now faces a district of swing voters who aren’t so sure.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district in Michigan, previously resisted calls from her constituents to impeach President Trump.CreditCreditElizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

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Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Freshmen: Elissa Slotkin Confronts the Impeachment Backlash

A moderate House Democrat who supports the impeachment inquiry now faces a district of swing voters who aren’t so sure.
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Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Freshmen: Elissa Slotkin Confronts the Impeachment Backlash

Hosted by Michael Barbaro, produced by Jessica Cheung and Theo Balcomb, and edited by Lisa Chow and Lisa Tobin

A moderate House Democrat who supports the impeachment inquiry now faces a district of swing voters who aren’t so sure.

michael barbaro
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” Today: Days after moderate House Democrats announced they would support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, they returned home to their swing districts on recess. It’s the first time they’ve faced their constituents since that decision. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan went to three town halls last week. We went with her to all of them. It’s Wednesday, October 9. Congresswoman, I’d love for you to go back to a couple of weeks ago. You’re headed home to your district in Michigan for the first time since you’ve made this decision that you surely knew would upset many of your constituents. Was there any question in your mind whether you would hold town halls while you were back in your district?
elissa slotkin
Oh, no. No. I mean, what we actually did was add more. I obviously knew that the decision was going to be controversial. So no, it was more important than anything for me to get in front of my district and go to the three counties in three days.
mela louise norman
Hi, there. My name is Mela. I’m the congresswoman’s chief of staff. And first and foremost, we did not expect such a big turnout! [CHEERING]
elissa slotkin
And the very first one that we did was just walking in to the Grand Traverse Pie Company in East Lansing, and just basically not being able to get in the door. Now it was surprising how many people were there. And just the physical getting in the room, finding a tiny little corner where I could speak from, making sure people could hear me in the way back —
elissa slotkin
Don’t you guys have anything else going on in the middle of the day? [LAUGHTER] My gosh, I’m thrilled to see so many people here. I wanted to come home to the district and make sure that everybody heard from me directly on what’s gone on in the past week, week and a half.
elissa slotkin
I mean, for me it felt like this is how it’s supposed to work. You know, not everything is going to be unanimously supported by my district. And at a bare minimum, whether people agree with me or not, my job is to make myself available and to let my constituents hear from me directly.
elissa slotkin
In the past week, myself and six other members of the freshman class, all service and veteran — [APPLAUSE] — folk, we all made the decision to come out. We wrote a joint op-ed to The Washington Post. I wrote a similar one here in the Free Press to explain our decision making, and why we are calling for an impeachment inquiry. And I will be honest with you, this was a decision that I did not come to lightly. It is not something that I went to Congress to do. Many of you know, because you called my office, I was reticent to call for impeachment in earlier iterations. But for me, what happened in the past week or week and a half was really something different. The key and sort of most important piece of information is that the president of the United States, the commander in chief, reached out to a foreign president and asked for dirt on an American, on a political opponent. Involving foreigners in our elections in any way, I feel like, has no place in our politics. Today it could be a Republican asking a Ukrainian. Tomorrow it could be a Democrat asking the Chinese to dig up dirt, and on, and on, and on. The idea that there would be any question as to how we got the president that we got, that foreigners played any role in it, was just beyond the pale for me. So I felt it was something that I had to do to uphold my oath of office. [APPLAUSE]
elissa slotkin
And there were people there with strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. There were people who were extremely supportive and had just shown up to thank me for the decision. And there were people who had just shown up to demonstrate their displeasure. And we had to cut it short because the fire marshal was called.
michael barbaro
Because the crowd — because the crowd was too big.
elissa slotkin
The crowd was too big, and it started to be too much for the venue. And so we had to cut it a little bit short.
michael barbaro
So my read from listening to the first of these events that you did, the one that was broken up eventually by the fire marshal, is that people were largely supportive of your decision on the impeachment inquiry, but that might have something to do with the fact that you were in a bluer part of your district.
elissa slotkin
Sure.
michael barbaro
Right?
elissa slotkin
Yes, absolutely. That first one in East Lansing, I mean, that just happens to be a more heavily Democratic area. And so there were more people per capita that were supportive.
michael barbaro
So let’s talk about the second event that you did. Can you give us a picture of that part of your congressional district?
elissa slotkin
So Livingston County is more rural than the other two counties. It’s a place that’s changing, but that tends to be the most conservative part of the district.
michael barbaro
And what percentage, would you say, of the constituents there supported President Trump, and what percentage supported you?
elissa slotkin
So I’d have to look at the exact numbers. But the entire district voted for Donald Trump by seven points. And I’m sure in Livingston County it was stronger than that. I used to joke that our goal in Livingston County was to lose better.
michael barbaro
[LAUGHS]
elissa slotkin
And we did. We won certain areas, like the town of Brighton. And in certain areas we won 50 percent of the vote, but there are certain towns in that area where less than 35 percent.
elissa slotkin
The other piece that, obviously, I’m sure many of you are here to talk about today is the issue of an impeachment inquiry. So let me — [CHEERING]
michael barbaro
So I found it pretty interesting that you could tell right out of the gate that this second town hall was going to be very different.
elissa slotkin
The issue that got to me was this idea that the president, the most powerful man in the world, reached out to a foreigner, a foreign leader, and asked him to dig up dirt on an American, on a political rival.
speaker 1
Not true!
speaker 2
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 3
Not true! We didn’t ask for that.
speaker 4
Fake news. You’re buying into it. He’s your president.
speaker 5
Foreign leaders help each other all the time.
elissa slotkin
It just — I’m sorry, ma’am. They don’t. Not like that.
speaker
This isn’t your job. Do your job.
elissa slotkin
For me, it was extremely —
speaker 1
This is our representative. Let her talk.
speaker 2
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 3
We want answers!
elissa slotkin
O.K.
elissa slotkin
For Michigan, which is a swing state, where we grew up having mixed families — my dad was a Republican, my mom was a Democrat. We have a long tradition of being able to disagree without it being vitriolic. And what’s been hard for us, frankly, I think, as a state, is that some of that vitriol that’s in Washington has been imported to Michigan. And it’s made our Thanksgiving dinners uncomfortable. Moms will tell me all the time, I don’t want to talk to other moms when I drop my son off at school because I don’t want to walk on any minefields. Everyone’s walking on eggshells on politics here. And that’s never how we were.
elissa slotkin
I’m going to wait for the facts.
speaker
Wow.
elissa slotkin
I’m going to look at them judiciously. I’m going to understand the sourcing. I’m going to do what I was trained to do, which is to look at the —
speaker 1
If you’re waiting, why did you send the op-ed —
speaker 2
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 3
Let her talk!
michael barbaro
So I really noticed that in this town hall, the way that kind of national political talking points kept coming up again and again. So I want to get into that. There was this fascinating exchange you had —
speaker 1
I wanted to tell you that we’re at the opposite end. I sent you an email about immigration. And you sent me the coolest letter. [LAUGHTER] And I thought, wow, that’s pretty neat. Then I watched your interview on Fox News, and I thought, holy mackerel, this is a Blue Dog Democrat. I like her. But when you fell off the cliff for me was when you joined the coup against our president.
speaker 2
That’s true.
speaker 3
Yes.
speaker 4
Me, too.
speaker 5
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 1
And it makes me really sad, because you read the transcript between —
elissa slotkin
I did.
speaker 1
— and so did I. The word “dirt” wasn’t in there, and I don’t like when you guys do that. There was —
speaker 6
Exactly.
speaker 1
— he was checking on corruption.
michael barbaro
— where a woman expressed her frustration with you for your use of the word “dirt” in describing what the president was seeking on that call with the president of Ukraine. Can you tell me about that exchange and what you made of it?
elissa slotkin
Sure. Sure. I actually think that was an important point. And people want to know that if we’re going to go through this, that there’s going to be objectivity to it. And language like that is not objective. I used the word “dirt,” which is subjective. I think that I’ve seen that over and over in my district. Language can be very political. It’s like a dog whistle. You know? And I made a point during my campaign to sort of clarify my language as much as possible and keep it out of political dog-whistle words. I think that that was a relevant point.
speaker 1
So I want to know, in that five pages — and I read it — what denotes high crimes and misdemeanors?
speaker
Right.
speaker 1
I mean, honestly. Just be honest with us.
elissa slotkin
Yes.
speaker 1
Because, I mean, you’re a smart kid — I mean, woman. You’re young. God.
elissa slotkin
Thank you for calling me a kid.
speaker 1
Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
elissa slotkin
I love it, a 43-year-old kid.
speaker 1
I would like to know what, specifically, it was that jumps out at you.
elissa slotkin
Sure. So thank you for asking your question. I think the thing that was difficult for me — I have no individual knowledge on what happened or did not happen with the Biden family. I just know that when you’re not sure about something, and you want to investigate, you go to the American authorities. And when the president acknowledged that he went to the — he said it himself. When he said he went to the president of Ukraine, who is a real junior — you know, compared to the United States, that’s a real junior country. Right? They depend on us for a huge amount of their military aid. So when you go to a junior partner like that and ask for a favor —
speaker 1
Because he really didn’t say “favor.”
elissa slotkin
So this is why —
speaker 2
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
elissa slotkin
He did say “favor.” I’m sorry, the transcript says “favor.”
speaker 3
Yes, he did.
speaker 4
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 1
Oh, yeah. You know what? I think you’re right.
elissa slotkin
He did say favor. And what I would say is, for me, that was enough to start an inquiry. Now, if there is different facts to be borne out, if there’s more information to bring to the table, that should come out. And we should be —
speaker 5
But high crimes and misdemeanors?
elissa slotkin
For me, involving foreigners in our political affairs was beyond the pale. It just goes beyond the pale.
speaker 6
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
speaker 1
Oh my God, listen, look at what they — the Dem — I don’t know.
speaker 7
How about Hunter Biden making 50K a month for 14 months from a Ukrainian mining company? No. Nobody is ever going to investigate Hunter Biden.
elissa slotkin
O.K. So the administration is run by the president. He runs the F.B.I. If he was interested in a true and through investigation, he literally could just ask his director to do it. I trust our law enforcement to do the best investigation anywhere in the world, always. And that’s who we should go to. [APPLAUSE]
speaker 8
James Comey —
michael barbaro
And I feel like that exchange opened up a kind of larger conversation about trust in U.S. government institutions. There’s a kind of a recurring tension in these events that’s really, really well-illuminated in your back and forth with the voters.
elissa slotkin
Yes, sir.
bill long
Yeah. My name’s Bill Long. I’m a retired teacher from South Lyon, and a registered Republican. I saw you on Fox, very impressed. I thought, wow, she’s a Democrat? I mean, you made a lot of sense. And I’m thinking if we had more Slotkins and fewer Pelosis and Schumers and Schiffs, we’d all be better off. [APPLAUSE] But you made a statement about Trump should take it to the F.B.I. The problem is, he can’t trust the F.B.I. —
speaker
That’s right.
bill long
— or the C.I.A. right now.
michael barbaro
It’s that you and your colleagues believe that the president should take the kind of questions and requests that he handled directly with the leader of Ukraine — you know, about corruption, the possibility that Biden and his son were tied up in untoward doings — that he should take those to U.S. authorities, that there are proper channels. And some of your constituents are saying, nope. He can’t trust those institutions.
bill long
He can’t trust the intelligence community.
speaker
It’s true.
bill long
There are investigations going on right now, we know that, investigating Comey, McCabe, these intelligence people that he should be able to rely on, and he can’t. So if these investigations turn up facts that show that there was, in fact, a coup to overthrow a democratically elected president, will the Democrats accept that as fact, or will they just call it a conspiracy theory, like they’ve been doing?
elissa slotkin
Yeah. We had that direct exchange in Hartland, and we just respectfully disagreed.
elissa slotkin
We’ll just have to have an amicable disagreement on whether the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. can be trusted. I am a former C.I.A. officer. As someone who spent my life doing everything I could to protect this country from homeland attacks, I know exactly what those people are doing, risking their life every day alongside our military. And frankly, I have a hard time hearing that, I’ll be honest with you. And on the F.B.I. side, these are folks who are sworn law enforcement officers. They are federal officers that are not dissimilar from the folks who work in our communities here every single day. They get up every day for a lot less money than they probably could be making to protect the country, because they believe in it. And I do not believe that they are involved in anything like a coup. [APPLAUSE] We may just disagree. And for me, I also think it’s important that we just be clear on language. A coup is when the U.S. military tries to take over. That is the definition of a coup, sir, when a U.S. military tries to take over the executive branch, the presidency. And I just don’t think there’s any indication that our U.S. military is involved in any way in anything like that.
elissa slotkin
Honestly, I mean, that kind of commentary really gets at me, as a former C.I.A. officer, as a Pentagon official who did three tours in Iraq. My husband was 30 years in the Army. My stepdaughter’s in the Army now. That theme of just inherently not trusting our own government, not to say we’re perfect, but to hear a number of people across a few town halls talking about their inherent distrust, that the president somehow had to go to a foreigner because he couldn’t trust his own law enforcement and intelligence community — that just kind of got me.
^speaker (elissa slotkin)
If there’s concerns about corruption, then you go to the American F.B.I. You go to law enforcement.
speaker
No! Boo! [INTERPOSING VOICES]
elissa slotkin
I’m sorry. I have a very hard time booing the F.B.I., ma’am. You can boo the F.B.I. I will not boo the F.B.I.
speaker
Yeah! [APPLAUSE]
elissa slotkin
That was the one time where I could feel my blood pressure going up.
[music]
elissa slotkin
To me, this is part and parcel of the president really attacking those institutions from day one, and giving permission for everybody and anybody to just callously insult those institutions. Those were some of the hardest moments.
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back. So tell us about the third and last of these coffee hours.
elissa slotkin
Well, we pulled up, and there was just a line just curved around the building of people trying to get in.
speaker
[INTERPOSING VOICES]
elissa slotkin
There were sort of small protests.
speaker 1
(CHANTING) Four more years! Four more years!
speaker 2
In prison. O.K.
elissa slotkin
And there were people in the room on both sides of the issue.
elissa slotkin
We’re so polarized right now as a nation. We have such — I appreciate you videotaping me, sir. That’s very nice, to hear my answer. But I think one of the things that makes it challenging is we are so polarized.
elissa slotkin
And we know that folks were sort of mobilizing and sending around emails to try and get people to come out, and —
michael barbaro
I just want to note briefly that at least one of the Republican emails that went out encouraging people to attend your events said, and I want to quote it, “Elissa Slotkin will today host a town hall where the independent voters who elected her will be completely ignored. Because all Elissa Slotkin cares about is impeaching President Trump and keeping her radical socialist base happy.”
elissa slotkin
[CHUCKLES] If anyone thinks that there is a radical socialist base in my district, they haven’t visited my district. It’s — yes.
michael barbaro
We’d like to know where they are. Where are they?
elissa slotkin
I mean, to me, that is purely cut from some Washington talking points, that I’m on the radical left. And all I can tell you is that, again, the former C.I.A. officer and Pentagon official hopefully has — I have established enough of a record with my district as being independently minded that they know that that’s just not true.
michael barbaro
When you say that at a certain point in these back-and-forths, which, as you’ve just said, are pretty frustrating for you, you have to just say, let’s agree to disagree, does that represent a kind of sense of defeat, that something has happened in this country that maybe no amount of listening, or talking, or looking up a word in the dictionary and telling people what it means versus what they think it means, or presenting the facts as you see them can change people’s minds?
elissa slotkin
No. No. Because for me, you have to remember, as a trained C.I.A. officer, no one would have thought of me as an optimist. But running for office and being an elected representative has literally restored my faith in people.
michael barbaro
How do you say that after experiencing what people are now just hearing happened to you?
elissa slotkin
Because if you look at some of the tougher, more vitriolic exchanges, that’s one thing. But balance that against all the other questions in the room.
speaker
I want to thank you for your service. I’m very impressed with your background. And I appreciate so much your devotion and your focus on the PFAS situation. I do have some property on the chain of lakes.
elissa slotkin
And I actually liked a lot of things that you’re working on, PFAS and our water quality — all the other times that people who did disagree with me asked a civil and decent question.
speaker
I hate to be dreadful, but I have to just ask you, if there’s so much information still coming out, I am disappointed that you would already have moved in that direction, not taken the time to hear more that’s coming forward. I think it’s wrong for America.
elissa slotkin
I just don’t see how it’s good for us, and help me understand. That, to me, is — that is as good as I can expect from someone who doesn’t see the world the way I do. Because they’re asking for me to explain. They want to hear it from me. Even though I don’t know if I convince them or not, but that, to me, gives me hope.
michael barbaro
So now that these events are over, Congresswoman, I wonder, broadly speaking, what you’re reflecting on, having now held all these meetings in the district. Did you leave these town halls with any new perspective on how it is that Americans are seeing the world and processing this moment? I mean, one of the things I was most surprised by personally was that most people at these events were basically in agreement that the president of the United States asked a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political rival — pressured that leader to do so. But not everyone agrees that that was wrong. Was that what was surprising for you, as well?
elissa slotkin
I was surprised that people thought that that was O.K. And I tried to give the example in Hartland that, hey, today, it could be a Republican president reaching out to Ukraine. Tomorrow, it could be a Democratic president reaching out to China. I think it has more of an impact on people, because Ukraine might be difficult for folks to understand, especially since they’re a partner nation. But I think most people in Michigan understand that reaching out to China would be a bad thing. But by the time I got out of the town hall, the president had suggested that.
michael barbaro
Right. He said China should investigate Biden.
elissa slotkin
Yes. And that shocked me. You know, I get shocked. I think that it surprised me because I think if people take a breath and think about it, they do not want Chinese influence and a North Korean cyberattack that helps one candidate over another. I just don’t think we want that. And I know — I know I cannot accept that.
michael barbaro
So finally, Congresswoman, I have to imagine that you are an important perspective back in Washington. Swing district, newly elected, somebody that your party cares very much about re-electing — so for your colleagues, in helping them understand what’s going on in America and how all of this is landing, what are you going to make sure that they hear when you get back to D.C. that you’ve learned from these events that you just did with voters?
elissa slotkin
I would say it is extremely important that this process be handled with seriousness and judiciousness, that we maintain ourselves as the adult in the room, that there’s no need to come out of a meeting where you’ve heard some new testimony and just start talking to the press about how this seals the deal for you, and you’re done. There are people who are seeking an objective process, not just a political process. And that we need to hear that, because this is a big deal, to take the country through this. I have been encouraging and will certainly encourage my colleagues to treat it not as a political talking point, but as a serious thing that history will reflect back on, and that needs us to put the mission and the process above ourselves.
michael barbaro
So having absorbed a lot of talking points, you think it’s really important that you not be spitting out a lot of talking points.
elissa slotkin
I’ll be honest. I’m not sure — if you’re not directly involved in communicating on this, I’m not sure why you need to. The facts are going to come in every single day. We’re going to get new information every single day. But we need to be able to do more than just an impeachment inquiry. I would urge my colleagues to focus just as seriously on other legislation as they are on this inquiry.
[music]
michael barbaro
Well, Congresswoman Slotkin, thank you very much. And thank you for letting us tag along with you to these events. We appreciate it.
elissa slotkin
Thanks very much.
speaker
I mean, frankly, if you guys go ahead and impeach him, we may never have this meeting again. Because you might be out of here and be replaced by a Republican. [APPLAUSE] And that would be sad, because you seem like a bright young lady.
elissa slotkin
Thank you. Thank you. I’ve been called young twice in the past 15 minutes, so I’m already ahead. [LAUGHTER] So, a couple of things —
michael barbaro
In the days since Representative Slotkin called for an impeachment inquiry, two Republicans have announced their plans to challenge her in next year’s election. We’ll be right back. Here’s what else you need to know today.
speaker (adam schiff)
Good morning. We were informed about an hour and a half ago by the attorney for Ambassador Sondland that the State Department would refuse to allow him to testify today.
michael barbaro
On Tuesday morning, the White House blocked the scheduled deposition of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry. Sondland’s testimony was highly anticipated. A series of text messages released last week revealed that he was deeply involved in the efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate President Trump’s political rivals. After Sondland failed to show up, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, called it an act of obstruction and said he would issue a subpoena demanding Sondland’s deposition.
speaker (adam schiff)
The failure to produce this witness we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a coequal branch of government.
michael barbaro
A few hours later, the White House sent a letter to House Democrats saying it would cease cooperating with any element of the impeachment inquiry, calling it an illegitimate effort to “overturn the results of the 2016 election.” Meanwhile, a new national poll found that support for impeachment is growing. The poll, conducted by The Washington Post and George Mason University, found that a majority of Americans support the decision by House Democrats to begin an impeachment inquiry, and that nearly half of them say the House should recommend removing the president from office. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

Days after moderate House Democrats announced they would support an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, a recess began and they returned home to their swing districts. Now they would face their constituents.

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan went to three town halls last week. We went with her.

[For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on “The Daily” podcast come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Read the latest edition here.]

On today’s episode:

  • Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan.

Background coverage:

Tune in, and tell us what you think. Email us at [email protected]. Follow Michael Barbaro on Twitter: @mikiebarb. And if you’re interested in advertising with “The Daily,” write to us at [email protected].

“The Freshmen: Elissa Slotkin Confronts the Impeachment Backlash” was hosted by Michael Barbaro, produced by Jessica Cheung and Theo Balcomb, and edited by Lisa Chow and Lisa Tobin. Abigail Censky and Tyler Scott contributed reporting.

“The Daily” is made by Theo Balcomb, Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Annie Brown, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jonathan Wolfe, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, Adizah Eghan, Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Jazmín Aguilera, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Austin Mitchell, Sayre Quevedo and Monika Evstatieva. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Mikayla Bouchard, Stella Tan, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.