WASHINGTON — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick refuses to defend President Donald Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine, but the Pennsylvania Republican is not going to vote to impeach him.
A past critic of the president who has sought to build a reputation on Capitol Hill as a politician untethered to party, Fitzpatrick is also a former FBI agent who spent time in Ukraine advancing anti-corruption efforts. He serves as co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus.
And he’s one of only two House Republicans running for reelection in a congressional district Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — all others retired or were wiped out in the Democrats’ 2018 rout — making him a top target for national Democrats. The other Republican is Rep. John Katko of New York.
But Fitzpatrick is banking on swing voters come November 2020 caring less that he voted against impeachment and more that last week he and just one other Republican joined Democrats to pass a bill to lower drug prices or that earlier in the month he was the only GOP member to vote with Democrats on restoring voting rights protections.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Fitzpatrick spelled out his opposition to impeachment in a lengthy statement in which he called it “a constitutional nuclear option of last resort,” criticized the House probe as rushed and argued that it was “poisoned from the start” when Democratic leaders tapped the Intelligence Committee rather than law enforcement to investigate.
Sitting in his Washington office on Tuesday — his 46th birthday — Fitzpatrick said he doesn’t oppose impeachment because he finds Trump’s July 25 phone call in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to help his reelection bid defensible. Instead it’s because, like many of his Republicans colleagues, he opposes the process Democrats took to get there.
“I’ve just been very, very disappointed with how this has transpired because I haven’t reached the conclusion I have because I don’t view the allegation as serious, quite to the contrary,” Fitzpatrick said. “The reason I’m here now is because I thought it was such a serious allegation that was treated in such a fundamentally unserious manner.”
The question is whether Fitzpatrick will pay a political price in November 2020 for his vote. There were no protests at his Capitol Hill office Tuesday in a corner of the Longworth House Office Building — though around 1,000 people gathered at his district office that night to make their displeasure known. The phone rang every 10 minutes or so in the otherwise silent Washington office, and a young aide recited the same niceties, promising to pass the message along. Those calls were all pro-impeachment, he said.
It’s so different, Fitzpatrick said, from the health-care debate in 2017, when his office was inundated with calls and foot traffic from people urging him to save the Affordable Care Act. That spring, he voted against Republicans’ plan to repeal the law.
“I would have expected to hear a lot more than I do. That’s not to say that I don’t hear about it, I do. But just not to the level that you would expect given the magnitude of this,” Fitzpatrick said.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pressure. In early November, a veterans group called Defend American Democracy released a cable ad in the Philadelphia market calling on Fitzpatrick to “hold the president accountable.” Over Thanksgiving, a coalition of liberal groups drove a billboard around his district that urged people to tell Fitzpatrick to “defend democracy” by voting to impeach Trump. And last week, the editorial board of the region’s major newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that Fitzpatrick needed “to step up on the impeachment vote.”
The two-term congressman eked out a narrow win in 2018 over an unseasoned opponent in a suburban Philadelphia district that has long trended Republican but has in recent years started to turn. Democrats swept local elections this year in vote-rich Bucks County, which makes up the largest share of the district. National Democrats see it as an opportunity to pick up a seat in a cycle in which they’ll otherwise be defending their own moderates.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held a focus group with swing voters in Fitzpatrick’s district in October, said a national Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about internal activity.
The strategist said the focus group participants were “confused” by Fitzpatrick’s effort to build a record as an independent and his vote against impeachment — a narrative the Democrats intend to hammer him on next year.
Chris Pack, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded in an emailed statement that “Fitzpatrick has always put the people of his district above politics and it’s no different when it comes to this sham impeachment process.” He predicted Fitzpatrick would be reelected.
Former Republican congressman Charlie Dent, who represented a similarly bellwether district in southeastern Pennsylvania before retiring in 2018, believes it’s a “manageable political risk” for Fitzpatrick.
But Dent said it did surprise him that no Republicans — other than Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., who left the Republican Party in July — supported impeachment given “the facts and the weight of the evidence.” If he were still in Congress, he said, he would have voted to start an inquiry and likely for the articles of impeachment.
“If your argument is this is bad behavior, highly inappropriate, but not impeachable, which is what a lot of them are using, it’s not a great argument,” Dent said. “If these aren’t impeachable offenses, what are? I thought I understood the rules that you can’t use the office for naked political gain. That’s why I keep scratching and slapping my head.”
Fitzpatrick’s call for an independent law enforcement investigation to remove politics from the process is dismissed by Democrats, who argue that Attorney General William Barr wouldn’t have launched a probe of Trump.
“You don’t not do the right thing because you’re afraid that somebody is going to thwart that. You proceed down the right path and if people try to impede that, then you deal with that and you call them out for doing that,” Fitzpatrick said. “But to never go down that path because you’re assuming that people are going to conduct themselves in an unbecoming manner? I’m not sure that’s the way to go here.”
Asked whether he was worried about Democrats’ campaigning against him next year based on his impeachment vote undermining his independent brand, Fitzpatrick dismissed the concern.
Former Democratic congressman Patrick Murphy represented Bucks County for two terms after beating Fitzpatrick’s older brother, Michael G. Fitzpatrick, in 2006, then losing to him in 2010 over support of the Affordable Care Act. Murphy understands better than anyone how quickly the political winds can turn.
“I had death threats, but I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t know if I had two years or 20 years to serve, but I did what I believed was right,” Murphy said. “I think it’s going to haunt him.”