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Justin Amash Is Not the Start of Anything

Slate logo Slate 5/20/2019 Jim Newell
Justin Amash wearing glasses: Rep. Justin Amash speaks during a Politico Playbook Breakfast interview on April 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images © Provided by The Slate Group LLC Rep. Justin Amash speaks during a Politico Playbook Breakfast interview on April 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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On Saturday, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican, tweeted that President Trump has “engaged in impeachable conduct,” and that Attorney General Bill Barr “deliberately misrepresented” special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in his topline summary of the document. The Mueller report, Amash said, “reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment.”

In some sense, this was a big deal: Amash is the first Republican congressman to make such a statement, an achievement touted widely in the coverage this weekend. But in another, much more realistic sense, it was not, because Amash is likely the last Republican to make such a statement as well. The lawmaker, now in his fifth term, is an outlier within his caucus. The dam is not breaking.

Amash, one of the most conservative members of the House and a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, came to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave, promising to roll back the size and scope of government and constrain the executive branch. He’s grown isolated from fellow conservatives during the Trump administration, however, as the right flank of the party metamorphosed from small-government ideologues into President Trump’s choir, while he still has the audacity to consider reining in the White House a priority even with a Republican in it.

Too conservative for the House rank-and-file, and too Trump-skeptical for the Freedom Caucus, Amash now finds himself, as CNN’s Haley Byrd wrote in a recent profile, “the loneliest Republican in Congress.” That was especially the case after his friend and nearest analog within the caucus, former North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, died earlier this year.

So the nod to impeachment wasn’t out of the blue. Amash has consistently called out, and voted against, the president. He voted against Trump’s emergency declaration for a border wall and two hardline immigration bills—Kate’s Law and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act—citing constitutional concerns. When Trump talks s**t on Twitter, most Republicans hide under their desks. But Amash is known to return fire. He even used the February hearing with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to ask actual questions about the president rather than run interference on his behalf.

Saturday wasn’t even the first time that Amash has played footsie with impeaching Trump. In May 2017, following Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, Amash told reporters that if Comey’s memos recording his meetings with Trump were true, they could be grounds for impeachment. This came one week after Amash, as the Washington Post wrote at the time, “became the first Republican to express support for an independent investigation into the Trump-Russia matter.” So often when you read a headline that there are “bipartisan” calls to hold Trump accountable for something, the bipartisan group is comprised of all Democrats and Justin Amash.

And how has this particular first from Amash been received within his party? The president tweeted that he was “never a fan of” Amash, which is probably true, and described him as a “total lightweight” and a “loser.” This was to be expected. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was equally unsparing, leveling personal insults at one of his own members.

“This is exactly what he wants, he wants to have attention,” McCarthy said Sunday. “You’ve got to understand Justin Amash. He’s been in Congress quite some time. I think he’s asked one question in all the committees that he’s been in. He votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me. It’s a question whether he’s even in our Republican conference as a whole.”

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted that “it’s sad to see Congressman Amash parroting the Democrats’ talking points on Russia,” adding that “voters in Amash’s district strongly support this President, and would rather their Congressman work to support the President’s policies that have brought jobs, increased wages and made life better for Americans.” A primary challenge to Amash is in the works, though none have been successful in the past. (That’s one reason Amash can tweet these things: He has a close, transparent relationship with his voters, often writing lengthy Facebook explanations for his consequential votes. The voters in Michigan’s 3rd district know who Justin Amash is, and they’ve reelected him four times. He can get away with heresies.)

Still, you wouldn’t look to McCarthy or McDaniel for signs that the dam is breaking. But you might look at McDaniel’s uncle, Mitt Romney. The Utah senator, appearing on CNN on Sunday, didn’t lob insults at Amash and called his statement “courageous.” But Romney also said that Amash “has reached a different conclusion than I have,” and that “to make a case for obstruction of justice, you just don’t have the elements that are evidenced in this document.”

Maybe another Republican legislator or two will get an inconvenient diagnosis of conscience and emerge in the coming weeks in favor of impeachment. But who? Without Walter Jones, the nearest practitioner of Amash’s libertarian politics is Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, and he’s made adequately clear that he takes a dim view of “Russia hysteria.” The relevant statistic here is that about nine out of ten Republicans oppose impeachment proceedings. Unless that changes, calling for Trump’s impeachment would be pure political suicide for most.

Amash, in all likelihood, will stand alone on this one, too.

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