A group of House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee is growing increasingly frustrated with the inability to hold the Trump administration accountable, or even question White House officials, so far.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near completing the work of holding [Trump] accountable,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told Vox.
Trump’s refusal to allow current and former administration officials testify in front of Congress has left Judiciary and other committees in the lurch. Instead of high-profile hearings to hold Trump’s feet to the fire, the Judiciary Committee on Monday featured testimony from Richard Nixon’s former White House counsel John Dean, talking about the parallels between Nixon’s 1974 impeachment and the current situation with Trump. The history lesson may have been informative, but members admitted it didn’t reveal anything new.
On Tuesday, the House took a big step to try to compel witnesses and testimony: passing a contempt of Congress resolution that authorizes congressional committees to issue criminal contempt citations to enforce its subpoenas down the road should it need them. Members hope that will force administration officials to sit in front of their dais. But importantly, several members of the Judiciary Committee acknowledged that Tuesday’s vote is just a first step.
“I think this contempt citation vote is good, [but] many of us have come out for an impeachment inquiry because it gives us significantly more tools to get the information that we’re trying to get,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). “And it prevents the administration from blocking us. I do think we need to utilize more tools in our toolbox.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to hold her caucus together as factions are forming: Some members are openly pushing to impeach Trump, and others are seeking a middle ground on launching an “impeachment inquiry.” Still, others simply want to get rid of the president through the 2020 election. Pelosi herself has been reticent to open the door to impeachment and questioned the point of an inquiry this week.
“If you open an impeachment inquiry, do you get more information?” she said during a CNN interview on Tuesday. “You still end up in the court.” And in any case, she said the public will perceive it as an aggressive move headed toward impeachment.
Still, members of the House Judiciary Committee, who came to Congress to hold Trump accountable, see impeachment as a live possibility.
“There’s no doubt that congressional oversight and investigative power is at its zenith in the context of an impeachment investigation,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) told Vox. “The reason for that is impeachment is an enumerated power of Congress. ... It appears four different times in the Constitution.”
Democrats are still debating the merits of an impeachment inquiry
By Vox’s count, 60 House members now are in favor of launching an impeachment inquiry. With Pelosi so adamantly opposed to impeachment, pro-inquiry Democrats see it as a middle ground between oversight investigations getting dragged out in the courts and the House going full steam ahead on impeachment. They also believe it will bolster Democrats’ legal case in the courts and send a strong signal to the Trump administration.
Pelosi doesn’t agree, arguing strongly that the public won’t distinguish between an impeachment inquiry and Democrats all-out trying to impeach the president. Last week, she reiterated her stance that Democrats need to build an airtight case before they go down that path.
“They think you get impeached, you’re gone,” Pelosi told reporters. “And that is completely not true. When you get impeached, it’s an indictment. So when you’re impeaching somebody, you want to make sure you have the strongest possible indictment, because it’s not the means to the end people think.”
For now, the vast majority of Democrats are falling in line behind the speaker. CNN and Politico have reported Nadler is quietly encouraging Pelosi behind the scenes to greenlight an impeachment inquiry. The Hill has pointed to a growing frustration among Judiciary Democrats with Nadler’s leadership, but committee members told Vox they recognize he’s in a difficult position. Nadler’s public statements haven’t pushed for an inquiry, and unless there is a major push by Nadler and Judiciary members, the rest of the caucus will likely continue to follow Pelosi’s lead.
As Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out, impeachment is an inherently political process: “The founders could have made the impeachment process legal or automatic. Instead, they made it political and discretionary.”
Democrats are still dancing around the politics of impeachment, and some are getting openly frustrated.
“Without a clear boundary, it seems as though we’re kind of sitting on our hands,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told CNN’s Manu Raju. “If now isn’t the time ... what is the bar, what is the line that we’re waiting to be crossed for an impeachment inquiry, and so far it doesn’t seem like there is one.”
What would an impeachment inquiry do?
Depending on whom you talk to, an impeachment inquiry could be a game changer that helps Democrats enforce their subpoenas, or it could simply land them right back where they are now: tied up in the courts.
Impeachment inquiry proponents argue two points. One, they believe an inquiry sends a strong signal to the Trump administration, which many view as lawless. And two, they believe it would help bolster Democrats’ case in court.
“It raises the level of seriousness of what we’re doing,” said Cicilline. “It lets the American people and the administration know it’s not just oversight and investigation, but it’s connected to something more serious, and that’s consideration of whether articles of impeachment should be filed.”
Several pro-inquiry members believe having an impeachment inquiry would be faster and give them more tools to get the information they’re seeking. They see the path they’re currently on, which is mainly being fought in the courts, as being blocked by the Trump administration. Everyone understands that will be a lengthy process; CNN reported that House legal counsel Doug Letter told Democrats their lawsuits against Trump could last months, even stretching into next year.
In a briefing for House Dems, House General Counsel Doug Letter gave a general overview of the state of lawsuits and told members it’s unclear how long they could play out. According to several members present, lawsuits could take months if not last well into next year— Manu Raju (@mkraju) June 12, 2019
Would an impeachment inquiry help speed this up? Not necessarily. It’s true that in the Watergate era, the court said it would give more legal weight to the Senate Select Committee’s attempts to get Richard Nixon’s presidential tapes and documents if Congress brought an impeachment inquiry: “Congressional demands, if they be forthcoming, for tapes in furtherance of the more juridical constitutional process of impeachment would present wholly different considerations,” the District Court opinion from 1974 reads.
However, while an impeachment inquiry may give Democrats more legal tools and avenues to get information, it won’t necessarily make it faster than the current legal battle on oversight that Democrats are engaged in. Pelosi is correct that an impeachment inquiry would probably be challenged by Trump and land right back in the courts.
There’s also a concern that if Democrats go down the inquiry route, they will create a new precedent to open impeachment proceedings anytime a future administration is obstinate in handing over desired documents and witnesses.
For now, at least, it’s looking unlikely Democrats will even get to the point of an impeachment inquiry. They need Pelosi on board, and she’s showing few signs of budging.