WASHINGTON — House Democrats, confident that public support is growing for their impeachment inquiry as they head into a second week of nationally televised hearings, are sharpening their tone as they make their case that President Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in a bid to force its leader to investigate his political rivals.
Quid pro quo is out. Extortion and bribery are in.
The shift was inaugurated last week by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when she said the “devastating testimony” delivered by top diplomats “corroborated evidence of bribery.” On Monday, the speaker kicked it up a notch, using the word “extortion” to address Republican claims that there was no wrongdoing because Mr. Trump eventually released the aid.
“The fact is, the aid was only released after the whistle-blower exposed the truth of the President’s extortion and bribery,” she wrote in a letter to her Democratic colleagues, “and the House launched a formal investigation.”
As lawmakers plunge into a jam-packed hearing schedule with nine witnesses lined up this week, Ms. Pelosi is clearly trying to tighten the screws on the president — and target her message to skeptical voters — with words that evoke criminal wrongdoing.
In part, her more aggressive language reflects Democrats’ realization that their narrative about Ukraine — a story they once thought would be simple for the public to understand — is not as clear-cut as they thought. After a week of dense hearings, Republicans have succeeded somewhat in muddying it up, and many voters are confused, while others are not even listening.
And focus groups conducted by the House Democrats’ campaign arm showed that the party was not helping itself by using the Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” which loosely translated means “this for that.”
At the same time, after a week of what Ms. Pelosi called “damning testimony” from senior diplomats, Democrats are convinced the hearings have done damage to the president, which accounts for the more full-throated verbal assault.
An ABC News/ Ipsos poll released Monday found that 70 percent of Americans believe Mr. Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine “were wrong” and a slim majority — 51 percent — say he should be impeached and removed from office. The survey found 58 percent of Americans are following the hearings closely or somewhat closely.
“Pelosi throws words around like manhole covers — she doesn’t use them without a purpose,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist and former message guru for President Barack Obama, noting that Constitution specifically identifies bribery as an impeachable offense. The term, he said, conveys “what actually happened — the president apparently withholding military aid in exchange for political favors.”
But accusing Mr. Trump of out-and-out criminal activity also poses risks for Democrats because it might lead voters to think they have prejudged the outcome of their investigation.
“The more you look like you’ve decided what the outcome is, the less effective you are,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, who worked in the White House when President Bill Clinton was impeached. Mr. Emanuel advised Democrats to remind voters that Mr. Trump is blocking lawmakers’ access to documents and witnesses.
“I think the best politics for Democrats is: We’re on a fact-finding mission; all we want is the facts,” he said, “because it juxtaposes well with a narrative that he’s denying access to people and documents, and he looks like he has something to hide.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said her research backed that up: Voters, she said, were much more comfortable with the word “inquiry” than “impeachment” or “removal.” Other phrases that tested well, she said, were “for political gain,” “abuse of power” and “no one is above the law.” All of them feature prominently in Ms. Pelosi’s impeachment lexicon.
Ms. Lake said she was surprised to hear Ms. Pelosi use the word bribery. “I would have assumed the lawyers would say, ‘You can’t say that,’” she said.
While polls show the public is deeply split over impeachment, analysts at Navigator Research, a joint venture of several Democratic polling firms, have concluded that “there is still a segment of ‘soft’ opposition and undecideds” who might be persuaded by the hearings. Nearly half of impeachment opponents — roughly one-fifth of the public — oppose impeachment but do not agree with the president that he did nothing wrong, the group wrote in a recent polling memo. Roughly a quarter of Americans “offer the president full exoneration,” the memo said.
The group also found that so-called impeachment skeptics are likely to think the process is unfair to Mr. Trump — a sign that Republican arguments have been working. Yet among those skeptics, the most powerful argument for impeachment was the suggestion that Mr. Trump was “soliciting a bribe.”
Still, it is unlikely that Democrats who represent Trump-friendly swing districts — the so-called front-line members who face tough re-election races this year — will adopt strong words like “bribery” and “extortion.” They are already being targeted by Republicans over impeachment.
One conservative group, the American Action Network, is running a $2 million digital ad campaign urging 37 House members — 30 Democrats and seven Republicans — to vote no on impeachment.
In a messaging memo about impeachment sent to Democrats on Monday, Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, urged her colleagues to “keep the language simple, direct and values-based.”
Democrats, Ms. Bustos said, should use phrases like “abused his power and put himself above the law” when talking about Mr. Trump, and to say that Republicans who oppose the inquiry are “failing to fulfill their oath of office.”
“Emphasize the core value that no one is above the law,” she wrote.
Whatever words Democrats choose to describe what is clearly a push to Mr. Trump’s inevitable impeachment, they have abandoned the Latin quid pro quo. Representative Jan Schakowsky, who holds a safe Democratic seat in Illinois, laughed about it when asked.
“Oh no, we’re not using that word anymore,” she said wryly. “It’s extortion or bribery, haven’t you heard?”