Democrats still not working off same playbook on impeachment

Mixed messages abound about whether Judiciary is in an impeachment inquiry and where it’s headed

House Judiciary member David Ciccilline says Thursday’s resolution aims to identify what the Democrats are doing and will give “some additional authority to the chairman and to counsel.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Judiciary member David Ciccilline says Thursday’s resolution aims to identify what the Democrats are doing and will give “some additional authority to the chairman and to counsel.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 11, 2019 at 5:00am

House Democrats are struggling to speak with one voice about impeachment, as members returned to Washington this week with mixed messages about whether the Judiciary Committee is already engaged in an impeachment inquiry and where that investigation is headed. 

Judiciary Democrats almost uniformly agree that their panel’s expanding investigation into President Donald Trump’s alleged crimes and abuse of power is an impeachment inquiry. Any disagreement about that definition that may exist among those two dozen members will likely be brought to light Thursday as the committee marks up a resolution defining procedures for its investigation.

[A new flood of Democrats call for impeachment proceedings, but does it matter?]

“There’s no ambiguity,” Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler told reporters Tuesday, noting that the committee’s hearings have long been about whether “to consider the possibility of reporting to the floor articles of impeachment.”

But outside the Judiciary Committee, confusion abides. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, notably, has declined to characterize the panel’s investigation as an impeachment inquiry.

“We’ve been on a path of investigation and that includes the possibility of legislation or impeachment,” the California Democrat said Monday. 

Judiciary Democrats insist there is no daylight between them and Pelosi, noting that nothing they’re doing would happen without her approval.

“I think she wants to be careful in her messaging to say, ‘We are in the midst of the investigation.’ She is probably less likely than anyone else to shorthand it to say an impeachment investigation because she is worried that the press will immediately report that we’re impeaching, which is not the case,” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. 

Despite her hesitance to embrace the phrasing Judiciary Democrats are using, Pelosi said she’s signed off on all of their advances, including court filings that state the committee is considering whether to pursue articles of impeachment and the resolution identifying procedures the panel will use as part of that deliberation.  

Judiciary Democrats say a full House vote to establish an impeachment inquiry is not needed and won’t happen, but Republicans argue the investigation cannot be defined as impeachment proceedings without one.

House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins tweeted that Democrats “know they don’t have the votes for the whole House to impeach, so they’re trying to adopt committee rules to govern an ‘impeachment investigation’ the House hasn’t even authorized.”

“Democrats spent August pretending the House has authorized an impeachment inquiry, and now Democrats will spend Thursday pretending to establish new rules to govern it … and hoping nobody catches on,” the Georgia Republican said. 

New ground?

The resolution would authorize four procedures: Nadler could designate full or subcommittee hearings as part of the investigation. Committee counsel could question witnesses for an additional hour beyond the members. Trump’s counsel can respond in writing to evidence and testimony at those hearings. And evidence could be received in closed session.

A Republican committee aide argued the measure does not expand the committee’s power as House rules already provide the panel authority to make those moves.

While procedural, the resolution is seemingly significant because it is the first vote on text that specifies the Judiciary Committee is deciding whether to impeach Trump. (The only other vote this year that involved the word impeachment was a procedural vote in which a majority of House Democrats joined Republicans in tabling articles of impeachment against Trump that Texas Rep. Al Green sought to bring to the floor.)

But Judiciary Democrats offered mixed signals about how much — if at all — the resolution will shape their investigation. 

“It’s nothing new,” Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline told CQ Roll Call. “I think it’s identifying what we’re doing and giving some additional authority to the chairman and to counsel.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean, however, said that Judiciary staff has said that approving such procedures will signal to the courts — where the House has several ongoing lawsuits to enforce subpoenas for documents and testimony — and to potential witnesses the seriousness of the panel’s investigation and will help to expedite the production of information.

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Expanding the inquiry 

The committee launched its investigation in March planning to examine Trump and his associates’ alleged obstruction of justice, corruption and other abuses of power. But in the months that followed, most of their focus had been on the obstruction of justice component as outlined in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. 

The committee in recent weeks has decided to more aggressively pursue the allegations of corruption and abuses of power, opening up new lines of inquiry involving Trump’s alleged involvement in hush money payments during the campaign, solicitations of foreign and U.S. government business at his private properties and offers to pardon administration officials if they break the law to help build his border wall. 

Rep. Jamie Raskin contrasted the “profusion of events” that Democrats are investigating in the Trump administration to the relatively narrow focus of the impeachment investigation into President Bill Clinton.

“We’ve essentially come through the period with the Mueller investigation, and now there are all of these high crimes and misdemeanors that are coming out fast and furious,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I think it’s a matter of creating a disciplined set of inquiries that deal with the most serious offenses against the Constitution, and it’s a complex task.”

Adding to the complexity is Nadler’s stated goal that he’d like the panel to decide whether to recommend articles of impeachment by the end of the year. That gives them less than four months to close the growing number inquiries that are part of the impeachment investigation. 

Dean, while acknowledging that none have been closed to date, said she thinks the committee will have to time to do so.

“I feel a responsibility to have the time,” she said. “And I told the chairman of Judiciary and the staff, ‘How about staying extra days?’ Whatever it takes.” 

Some Democrats believe it doesn’t matter how much additional evidence they can procure as there’s already enough to move forward.

“Here’s reality: We don’t need more hearings to establish Donald Trump has committed multiple felonies,” California Rep. Ted Lieu told CQ Roll Call. “This is more about educating the American public.”

Jayapal, however, said she thinks there’s more work for the committee to do.

“We’re getting more information, and we’re organizing it,” she said. “And then we’re going to determine whether and if it makes sense for us to move forward. And through the whole process we’re hopefully educating the American people.”