Several key House Democrats are itching to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants aren’t on board yet.
It’s no longer just a small group of progressive members calling for an impeachment inquiry; numerous members of the important House Judiciary Committee say Congress should launch one. The tipping point for multiple Judiciary members came after former White House counsel Don McGahn declined to testify in front of their committee on Tuesday.
“We simply cannot allow the executive branch to decide what Congress will receive in terms of witnesses and documents as we do our oversight work,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), one of the Judiciary Committee members pushing for the inquiry. “If we allow the executive branch to do that, they can effectively extinguish congressional oversight.”
A potential impeachment inquiry is now about much more than the Russia investigation or the Mueller report. It’s based on Democrats’ deep concern about the Trump administration obstructing congressional investigations at every turn. Democrats believe the Trump White House must be held accountable for continuing to flout the US Constitution and act above the law. Several members across the political spectrum have settled on it as their preferred course of action.
“I think it’s time for us to, at the very least, open an impeachment inquiry ... we’ve been given no choice I think, in this scenario,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told Reuters.
Other, more moderate members were saying the same thing.
“I think we have to,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “I think we’re at an inflection point. We’re no longer just dealing with a president who obstructed the Mueller inquiry. He’s now obstructing Congress at every turn, including telling witnesses who no longer work for the government that they cannot speak about public documents.”
Even though more House Judiciary members are calling for an impeachment inquiry, the committee chair, Jerry Nadler (D-NY), hasn’t yet publicly gotten on board. And there’s a larger divide among the Democratic caucus. Other members, including those in leadership, are hesitant.
“I think the majority of Democrats continue to believe we need to continue to pursue the avenue that we’ve been on, trying to elicit information, testimony ... if the facts lead us to broader action, so be it,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.
Even Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry say it’s different from articles of impeachment
Even Democrats calling for the new inquiry are careful to frame it as just an inquiry — not a rush to pass articles of impeachment. They believe it would help Congress gather more facts, using the law around impeachment to compel Trump to comply with subpoena requests after the president issued a blanket denial.
“The American people need to see the evidence, and then they can decide. That’s why it’s an inquiry, not actual articles of impeachment,” Scanlon told Vox. She likened the current situation to the Watergate hearings, which she said helped inform the American public about the threat then-President Richard Nixon’s actions posed to democracy.
As the Trump administration has denied all their subpoena requests for documents and witnesses, Democrats are grappling to figure out how to give their requests teeth. An impeachment inquiry could be another way to strengthen their legal argument, as Pelosi pointed out last week.
Speaking at her weekly press conference last Thursday, Pelosi noted the White House’s legal argument to oppose congressional subpoenas is that Democrats have no legislative purpose for seeking information on Trump, including his tax returns, financial records from the accounting firm Mazars, and the full Mueller report.
Even Pelosi — who is not an impeachment inquiry supporter — countered that impeachment proceedings could be a legal justification for seeking the information.
“When they are saying unless you have a legislative purpose, you cannot ask any questions [and] you cannot investigate — one of the purposes the Constitution spells out for investigation is impeachment,” Pelosi told reporters. “So you can say, and the courts would respect if you said, ‘We need this information to carry out our oversight responsibilities, and among them is impeachment.’”
Pelosi stressed that this doesn’t mean House Democrats are planning to go down the path of impeachment, “but it means if you had the information, you might.”
Now she is dealing with growing calls in her caucus for Democrats to do just that.
Democrats are still divided on an impeachment inquiry
The push this week started on Monday night, when members of the Judiciary Committee took their frustrations to House leadership — angry they were running out of options to get the administration to comply with their investigations. Pelosi will hold a meeting with all House members on Wednesday morning to update them on oversight and investigations.
But she and other members of the leadership team aren’t on board with an impeachment inquiry yet. They believe Democrats should continue pressing on investigations, and pointed to a win Democrats had Monday night in court, when federal Judge Amit Mehta upheld a House Oversight Committee subpoena for Trump’s financial records.
Other Democrats believe Congress should pursue inherent contempt: jailing or fining administration officials who don’t comply with their subpoenas.
“We don’t need impeachment,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), a high-ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “The authority and powers of the Article 1 branch are very clear; they’re laid out. And the penalties are laid out as well. So I say invoke the penalties, you gotta put the heat on these boys. We have the law on our side.”
Scanlon said she understands the reticence among leadership and the caucus. She herself is at an interesting nexus; she’s a first-term Democrat who flipped a longtime conservative Pennsylvania district blue in 2018 after it was redistricted, so she understands the concerns of more moderate members.
But she said the administration’s conduct has gone too far.
“This is not something that anyone wants to do, but we have an administration that’s out of control and I just feel we no longer have a choice,” she told Vox.
Impeachment is a political exercise, and Democrats are afraid of that
On the question of whether to impeach Trump, Democrats could be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Because Congress is split between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, Democrats are nervous that impeachment will be perceived as a political fight, especially if they rush into it.
As Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out, “The founders could have made the impeachment process legal or automatic. Instead, they made it political and discretionary.”
Even though Trump’s 42 percent public approval rating is extremely low, Pelosi and the majority of her caucus only want to move toward impeachment if there’s something so bad that Republicans can also get on board. Right now, impeachment is still an extremely partisan issue, with Republicans rallying to protect Trump and crying foul at every Democratic attempt to subpoena the president.
Democrats remember when Republicans who impeached President Bill Clinton in the 1990s reaped the political consequences in the 1998 midterms, when they lost seats in the House and made few gains in the Senate. Historians later concluded that backlash against Republicans for Clinton’s impeachment resulted in the GOP’s weak showing in the midterms.
That history isn’t lost on Democrats, especially as they stare down a pivotal presidential election in 2020. Pelosi and leadership believe the risk of inflaming the electorate could be too great, and they want to proceed carefully.
Others are frustrated with what they see as Democrats are being too careful.