It was a sober opening to a rather solemn event.
Almost as soon as he took the stage Monday in Atlanta, California billionaire Tom Steyer spoke gravely about the national movement to impeach President Donald Trump. It’s a serious issue to openly broach, he said, but our “democracy is under attack.”
“We don’t view this as a partisan issue,” said Steyer. “We view this as a question of patriotism.”
The former hedge fund manager is spending $20 million on his Need to Impeach campaign to oust the president, arguing that Trump is unfit for office because of mental and moral lapses. About 5.2 million people have signed the group’s petition, and the group plans at least 30 town halls around the nation.
This one, held at the Georgia Freight Depot near the state Capitol, attracted about 150 people who peppered the organizers with questions – some encouraging, others skeptical.
And Steyer and two allies – Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and CNN commentator Bakari Sellers – seemed determined not to make light of the gravity of their call to oust a sitting president.
Sellers said, bluntly, he has little faith “in changing hearts” of Republicans who back Trump and worried that a constitutional crisis was unavoidable.
Tomlinson, a possible U.S. Senate candidate in 2020, said prosecutors are starting to connect the dots to prove Trump “undermined our sacred election process” by colluding with Russians and “selling our foreign policy” for political favors.
And Steyer called the Trump administration “openly racist” and that even Vice President Mike Pence – who would succeed Trump should his movement prevail – is a better alternative in the Oval Office. The root of the nation’s ossification, he said, is an emotional and moral morass.
“We have stale ideas from the 1930s combatting stale ideas of the 1980s,” he said.
The impeachment movement has split Democrats, and many leaders worry Steyer’s campaign could undermine the party’s efforts to retake the U.S. House in November’s elections.
Many state candidates steered clear, too: Neither Stacey Abrams or Stacey Evans, the party’s candidates for governor, appeared in public with Steyer. And no high-profile Democratic politicians were spotted at the event.
Republicans are eager to stoke the divide, happy to inflame internal tensions ahead of what’s expected to be a damaging midterm cycle for the GOP. And they’ve branded Steyer as a favorite new bogeyman.
The Republican Governors Association encouraged Steyer to host a debate between Abrams and Evans so “they can explain to the people of Georgia why they should stand behind his divisive, radical agenda.”
At the event, participants asked for advice on how to help push Trump’s impeachment beyond registering to vote, or worried that the effort gives short shrift to candidates on the November ballot, or wondered whether former FBI Director James Comey’s comments could derail the movement.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, Comey told ABC News he hopes Trump is not impeached because “it would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly.”
The speakers were unfazed by Comey’s remarks. Sellers urged the audience to wait for the report by special counsel Robert Mueller and watch for its impact on “squishy Republicans.” Steyer said there’s no need to wait even for his investigation to be concluded.
“The reason impeachment is so important is because it’s the last tool we have,” Steyer said. “We have more than enough evidence right now. We want the Mueller evidence to come out, so we can have more evidence. But we have enough now.”