WASHINGTON — Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham plans to vote in favor of both articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, concluding after weeks of deliberation that Trump's conduct was "unacceptable."
In an interview with The Post and Courier, the Charleston lawmaker said he took his time because he wanted to give Republicans a chance to present evidence in defense of Trump's move to withhold military aid to Ukraine while asking the country's president to investigate the son of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden.
"I've waited and waited and I have not found any evidence they submitted compelling at all," Cunningham said. "At the end of day, this is simply about the rule of law, whether we're a country with laws or not and what type of precedent we want to set for future presidents."
The Democratic-controlled House is planning to vote on two articles of impeachment Wednesday — one for abuse of power and another for obstruction of Congress. If they pass, as expected, the Republican-controlled Senate is set to hold a trial early next year to determine whether to remove Trump from office.
Members of Congress, including Cunningham, voted to approve the military assistance package for Ukraine to deter Russian aggression as part of a broader spending bill.
"For the president to withhold that to curry a personal and political favor that would help his reelection at the expense of America, I just find that something all of us must stand against," Cunningham said, arguing it would be just as troubling for him if a Democrat had done the same.
National Republican groups have been airing TV ads in Cunningham's Lowcountry district for weeks urging him to vote against impeachment.
The S.C. GOP set its sights on Cunningham's seat as its top 2020 target from the moment he scored his upset victory in the 2018 midterm elections in the coastal 1st Congressional District that Trump won handily in 2016. Those efforts will undoubtedly further ramp up in the wake of this vote.
Within minutes of Cunningham's decision going public, Republican National Committee spokesman Joe Jackson slammed him for "choosing Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats’ unhinged caucus over his Lowcountry constituents."
"Voters won’t forget his cowardice come November 2020," Jackson said. "Joe Cunningham’s political career is over."
Cunningham insisted he was "not making any political calculations" in reaching his decision.
"If I wanted to do what was easy politically, I would just vote no and move on," Cunningham said. "But it's about doing what's right for our country."
In conversations with House Republican colleagues over the past few weeks, Cunningham said he found it "highly concerning" that none were willing to publicly speak out against Trump and that the vote will likely fall along party lines as a result.
"We all swore the same oath, and I've got doubts that they're carrying out theirs by turning a blind eye to what this administration has done involving these allegations," Cunningham said. "But that's not going to deter me from standing up for what I think is right and abiding by the oath that I swore."
Cunningham was one of several moderate Democrats holding discussions in recent weeks about whether to censure Trump rather than impeach him. But he said they were unable to find Republicans open to supporting even that lesser measure of condemnation.
Cunningham spent his final weekend before making the decision holding meet-and-greets in his district, where he heard from a lot of constituents on both sides of the dispute.
While he said voters had not sent him to Washington to reflexively oppose Trump, he believes they also do not want their congressman to "be a rubber stamp" who will protect Trump regardless of the situation.
"Each time I cast a vote, I'm going to make a certain group of people unhappy," Cunningham said. "My job is to go up there and call balls and strikes as I see based upon our shared values here in the Lowcountry."
Cunningham said he was not pressured to vote for impeachment by Democratic Party leaders. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, publicly declared earlier this month that party leaders would allow rank-and-file Democrats to "vote their conscience" rather than try to ensure party unity.
Republican candidates vying for the chance to challenge Cunningham swiftly repudiated him for the decision, indicating it will be a central component of their efforts to defeat him next year.
State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, tweeted Cunningham is "handing his vote over to Nancy Pelosi and the DC Democrats," calling impeachment a "partisan witch hunt."
Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing said Cunningham "will continue to put his Democrat Party over the Lowcountry and political games over facts."
Cunningham noted he has voted against other Democratic leadership priorities, like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he plans to vote in favor of Trump's trade deal with Canada and Mexico in potentially the same week as the impeachment vote.
The first-term lawmaker also touted his bill to ban offshore drilling that passed the House with bipartisan support, as well as other bipartisan legislation he's worked on to help veterans.
"This is just one vote," Cunningham said of impeachment. "Anybody who says this is a focus of mine is simply being deceptive and is not brokering in facts."
Come November 2020, Cunningham argued voters "will sift through all the partisan talking points that are being distributed and recognize the good work we've done so far."
"Don't underestimate the voters and their intelligence," he said. "The negative ads are being run by super PACs, dark money. People are going to see through that. This is something I've been fighting against since day one."