The 2019 Texas Tribune Festival

Texas Tribune 2019 Festival highlights: Impeachment, 2020 and more

It's the third and final day of the annual political extravaganza. Here are some of the high points of the event.

Large crowds turned out for The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.

*Correction appended

The newly launched impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump continued to be a common theme on the final day of the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival.

Democratic presidential candidates and lawmakers and leading public figures from across the political spectrum weighed in Saturday on the probe that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday. That inquiry follows a whistleblower complaint about Trump reportedly asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the son of his political rival.

Pelosi, the festival's keynote speaker, underscored what she sees as a critical moment in the nation's history, emphasizing the solemn importance of what she sees as a constitutional duty to investigate the president's reported actions.

"Let us be prayerful. Let us be solemn. Let us try not to make it further divisive," she said. "But we cannot ignore our oath of office do defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic."

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said he was bothered by some of Trump's comments during the call, but questioned the Democrats' impeachment inquiry — and defended some of the president's comments. Several congressional Republicans shared concerns about how Democrats handled the lead-up to the impeachment inquiry. And U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, predicted the impeachment process would mirror the one President Bill Clinton faced: The U.S. House would vote to impeach but the Senate would decline to convict.

But Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke called for Trump's resignation while U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a fellow 2020 hopeful, said she believes there is a "constitutional duty" to pursue impeachment. Presidential candidate and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro reiterated his support for impeaching the president, adding that he probably would not pardon Trump if elected to succeed him because he believes Trump has "flagrantly abused his office."

U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet expressed a more cautious position, saying he backs the impeachment proceedings but advising his colleagues in Congress against making up their mind before evidence is read — and warning that whatever decision the legislative branch makes needs to be one they can defend to the American people.

—Chase Karacostas and Davis Rich

Nancy Pelosi notes "solemn" constitutional duty as impeachment inquiry moves forward

The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives stressed the grave importance of the present moment in American history, saying she was "heartbroken" over the recent revelations regarding Trump's phone call with Ukraine — while calling reports that White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the call in the following days "a cover-up of a cover-up."

"If this activity, this pattern of behavior were to prevail ... then it's over for the republic," she said in an interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. "We will have the equivalent of a monarchy."

She called for prayer and solemnity as House Democrats launch their investigation into the president's alleged behavior, and bristled at the idea that impeachment could hurt Democrats politically.

"That doesn't matter," she said.

The San Francisco Democrat remains bullish that her party will keep its House majority in 2020. She said she was confident that Gina Ortiz Jones will win Texas' 23rd District, which is being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep Will Hurd, R-Helotes. She added that she will support all House incumbents against primary challengers, mentioning U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, which drew a smattering of boos from the crowd.

Ted Cruz expected Trump's phone call with Ukraine "to be much worse than it was"

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday.

Cruz said he was troubled by Trump's comments about former Vice President Joe Biden during the president's phone call with Zelenksy.

However, he pushed back on the Democrat's launch of an impeachment inquiry.

"I expected it to be much more worse than it was," Cruz said of the phone call summary. He made the remarks in an interview with MSNBC host Chris Hayes.

The Republican senator defended some of Trump's comments and said Democrats aren't focused on the facts.

"They want him impeached and whatever the facts are are fine," Cruz said.

—Abby Livingston

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro expects House to hear from whistleblower

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, explained that he couldn't talk about the negotiations to bring the whistleblower before his committee but said he anticipates hearing from the whistleblower.

The San Antonio Democrat also discussed the impeachment timeline, adding that he hopes the process finishes by spring.

“The whole caucus hasn’t had a discussion of the entire deadline," he said.

The three-term congressman also expressed his concern for what will happen if the potential impeachment doesn't end with Trump out of office, saying that "the stakes couldn't be higher" for the 2020 election.

"The election will be a referendum on two things: white supremacy and lawlessness," Castro said. "If Donald Trump wins the 2020 election, it will affirm both of those things."

When asked if U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr should recuse himself from the impeachment inquiry, Castro quickly responded, "I think he should resign."

—Juan Pablo Garnham

Tense panel between congressional campaign leaders features impeachment talk, 2020 outlook

National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer challenged Democrats for what he called attempts to "undo" the 2016 election through impeachment and avoided, for the most part, actually discussing the content of the whistleblower complaint released earlier this week.

In response, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos produced a copy of the reconstructed phone call transcript and read aloud the section where the president pivots from discussing defense to asking Ukraine's leader to investigate Biden.

Emmert and Bustos also took different positions on the 2020 election. Emmert criticized policies like Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal, which he called "radical," adding that he expects they will alienate voters across the country.

Bustos sighed as Emmert repeated the phrase "socialist Democrats" and took a confident view that her party would keep its majority in Texas given the five Republican retirements in the state and Democratic plans to challenge incumbents in six competitive districts districts near the state's big cities.

"Texas is ground zero in 2020," Bustos said. "It's a very exciting state to be in from a Democratic perspective."

-- Chase Karacostas

Beto O'Rourke says Trump's resignation is "best possible path"

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks with Garrett Haake, a Washington correspondent for MSNBC, during The Texas Tribune Festival.

In a wide-ranging interview Saturday with MSNBC's Garrett Haake, the former El Paso congressman and U.S. Senate candidate took a more extreme position than many of his current and former Democratic colleagues in calling for Trump's outright resignation.

"The best possible path ... is for this president to resign, allow this country to heal and ensure that we come back together with the greatest, most ambitious agenda we've ever faced, none of it possible while he remains in office," he said.

O'Rourke has been calling for the president's impeachment since his 2018 Senate campaign, which he lost to Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

—Patrick Svitek

Amy Klobuchar calls transcript of Trump's call with Ukraine President a “smoking gun”

The Democratic presidential contender, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, said Saturday that she may soon find herself on jury duty if Trump is brought to an impeachment trial.

“I personally think it is the smoking gun,” Klobuchar said, referencing a transcript that surfaced this week of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump asked for the country's new leader to "do us a favor."

Klobuchar called on anyone in the White House with additional information to come forward and doubled down on her months-old contention that impeachment is the right thing to do. She also likened the situation to the Watergate scandal that led to the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.

—Acacia Coronado

Differences emerge as Democrats in Texas Senate race discuss impeachment

A sliver of daylight emerged Saturday in the crowded Democratic primary to take on Cornyn, R-Texas, with five of the candidates supporting an impeachment inquiry against Trump but some hesitant to call for impeachment before the process plays out.

Onstage at the Festival, the Democratic primary lineup was split between ex-Houston congressman Chris Bell and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a longtime organizer for the Latino community, who both endorsed impeachment of the president with Tzintún pointing to the transcripts released by the Trump administration as justification.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards said the president's actions merited investigation but — citing their legal expertise as attorneys — held off on calling for impeachment.

"We need to make sure the committees that are responsible set forth the facts and not just the media set forth the facts," West said.

They were joined by U.S. Senate candidate M.J. Hegar, who noted it was "pretty clear" what the evidence is going to show but criticized those preemptively deciding how they would vote on a possible impeachment.

—Alexa Ura

Freedom Caucus representatives dubious about the substance of the impeachment inquiry

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, speaks at a Tribune event.

Members of the GOP’s House Freedom Caucus expressed skepticism about the move to launch an impeachment inquiry against Trump, saying Democrats rushed into the proceedings without a firm grasp of the facts.

U.S. Reps. Chip Roy of Austin, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio were interviewed at the Texas Tribune Festival by Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, co-authors of the POLITICO Playbook newsletter.

Jordan said the Democrats were going to “do this regardless of truth, regardless of the facts.” For his part, Meadows said the build-up to a formal impeachment inquiry last week was more hype than substance. Roy was also critical of the process that led to impeachment but said he wanted to measure all the information before weighing in fully. Noting that he had “not been out there much yet on this,” Roy said he would look at the inquiry through a “prosecutorial lens.”

“I want to look at the facts, I want to see what’s there,” he said.

—Jay Root

Errin Haines Whack (left) speaks with Nikole Hannah Jones  during a one-on-one panel at The Texas Tribune Festival.

Nikole Hannah-Jones on the 1619 Project's "unvarnished truth" of slavery

Weeks after the release of the 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, Nikole Hannah-Jones gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at her approach to the project.

In a one-on-one interview with Associated Press reporter Errin Haines Whack, Jones said she began working on the project full time in January because "this anniversary is going to pass, and most Americans are not going to know this was the anniversary of anything." She said she wrote a style guide for reporters who contributed to the initiative directing them to not use the words "slave" or "benign plantation."

Jones said teachers in all 50 states have downloaded the accompanying 1619 curriculum. And she's received letters from kids who were grateful to see that they "have a right to claim the country of our birth."

—Alex Samuels

The dilemma of running in a swing district ... but also supporting impeachment

The “Democratic Do-Over” panelists Sri Kulkarni, Wendy Davis, Gina Ortiz Jones and Kim Olson at The Texas Tribune Festival.

Sri Kulkarni has added his name to the list of Democratic candidates in competitive races calling for an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, though he appeared to downplay its urgency.

Kulkarni, a Democratic candidate for the Sugar Land-based U.S. House seat soon to be vacated by Republican Rep. Pete Olson, said reading through the "pretty egregious" whistleblower complaint had led him to support an impeachment inquiry.

Still, "I’ll be honest, when I talk to voters across my district, this isn’t the No. 1 thing that they talk about," Kulkarni said during a Texas Tribune Festival interview of four Democratic congressional hopefuls.

Democratic candidates Gina Ortiz Jones, Wendy Davis and Kim Olson — who are running for Texas-based U.S. House Districts 23, 21 and 24, respectively — also reiterated their support for an impeachment inquiry during the interview.

"It is the job of Congress to investigate and to begin this inquiry," Olson said Friday. "This is about our national security."

—Edgar Walters

Are Texas suburbs turning blue?

On Friday, a group of former and current state lawmakers, along with a recently elected county judge, discussed what's fueling the changing politics of the Texas suburbs. The five panelists all agreed that a number of factors are contributing to the change, including demographic shifts, people moving to the state and voter enthusiasm. As former state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, put it, "people moving to a county found their voice."

The panelists also agreed that it takes more than just "the perfect storm" to produce election results like the ones in 2018. Two Democrats who flipped state House seats that year — Reps. John Bucy of Austin and Erin Zwiener of Driftwood — mentioned how crucial strong grassroots infrastructure was in their districts.

"Without the on-the-ground grassroots work," Zwiener said, "my seat would be represented by a Republican right now. The secret sauce is the work that happened on the ground."

—Cassi Pollock

Will Hurd on a 2024 presidential run

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, speaks with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the opening keynote of the Texas Tribune Festival.

When he announced that he would not be running for reelection in 2020, Hurd became the most high-profile elected official to join the "Texodus" — but now the West Texas representative, who is the only black Republican in the U.S. House, says he might have ambitions for the highest office in the country.

"If they're still not being addressed in a macro way, if I'm still the only person that's still talking about these things, if I'm put in a position in order to evaluate that, then I will do what I have always done when I've had the opportunity to serve my country," Hurd said in an interview with Tribune CEO Evan Smith on Thursday evening, adding that he will "think about" a run for the presidency.

Hurd's narrow win in 2018 made him a top Democratic target for 2020, but the three-term Congressman said he "would have won" if he did run to keep his seat.

—Abby Livingston

Notable moments

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of African-American Republican members of Congress. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd is the only black Republican member of the U.S. House.

Carrington Tatum contributed to this story.

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