Democrats move closer to impeachment, but still disagree on how to get there

Ukraine allegations shift the caucus, but not to the same page

A woman holds an “impeach” sign in front of the Rayburn House Office Building on Monday as Reps. Al Green, D-Texas, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speak to a group of protesters and the media about the need to impeach President Donald Trump. The event was slated to coincide with the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on corruption, but the hearing was postponed. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A woman holds an “impeach” sign in front of the Rayburn House Office Building on Monday as Reps. Al Green, D-Texas, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speak to a group of protesters and the media about the need to impeach President Donald Trump. The event was slated to coincide with the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on corruption, but the hearing was postponed. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 24, 2019 at 7:31am

ANALYSIS | Several House Democrats’ positions on impeachment have shifted in the past 24 hours, but some have moved farther than others, leaving confusion about the caucus’ next steps.

Allegations that President Donald Trump withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine to spur the country to investigate a potential 2020 rival, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, has given House Democrats’ flailing impeachment investigation new life. 

Several Democrats who’ve supported the Judiciary Committee’s self-proclaimed impeachment investigation say they’re now ready to vote to impeach Trump.

Others who had not previously called for impeachment proceedings are saying the allegations involving Trump’s pressure campaign on the Ukraine — if true — amount to an impeachable offense. 

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And others are issuing new calls for an impeachment inquiry, despite the Judiciary Committee claiming it is already engaged in one over the special counsel’s Russia investigation. 

To sum up, Democrats are moving closer to impeachment, but they still don’t have their messaging straight and their next steps remain unclear. 

‘New stage’

How to proceed will be the subject of discussion during a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday. However, several Democrats have signaled that no final decisions will be made before a House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday on the whistleblower complaint that brought the Ukraine allegations to light. 

Democrats are trying to obtain a copy  of the complaint, saying the law requires its disclosure because the inspector general for the intelligence community has deemed it of “urgent concern and credible.” But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, acting upon counsel from the Justice Department that it’s outside his jurisdiction, has refused. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in an unusual “Dear Colleague” letter to all members of the House (she usually just sends such correspondence to the Democratic Caucus), said that when Maguire appears before the Intelligence Committee on Thursday that he needs to provide the panel with the full complaint and establish a path for the whistleblower to speak directly to the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

“If the administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” Pelosi wrote.

Pelosi has not yet explained what that new stage of investigation would look like. Members of her caucus have floated a variety of ideas, ranging from a House vote to establish a more formal impeachment inquiry to the chamber tapping into its so-called inherent contempt powers to fine, jail or otherwise penalize officials who do not comply with the congressional inquires, to simply voting on articles of impeachment.

Most likely, Democrats will want to solidify evidence that Trump was using the withheld military aid as leverage to get Ukraine to open an investigation into Biden and his family before proceeding with articles of impeachment.

Trump has acknowledged that he spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about looking into allegations that Biden during his vice presidency sought to oust a Ukranian prosecutor that was investigating an energy company of which his son Hunter was a board member. But the president has denied that he withheld aid to force an investigation or otherwise acted inappropriately in suggesting one.

On Tuesday, Trump said he withheld the U.S. aid to Ukraine over frustration that European countries weren’t contributing their fair share. He also said it was “ridiculous” that Democrats want to impeach him over the Ukraine aid matter, noting it’s only because “they can’t stop me” politically

Moderates moving

The most significant position shifts on Monday evening and Tuesday morning came from moderate freshmen who had previously expressed opposition to the caucus moving forward with impeachment. Among those moderates were Reps. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria and  Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens of Michigan and Antonio Delgado of New York. 

Phillips was first to speak on the matter, putting out a statement Monday afternoon saying, “If the reports are corroborated, we must pursue articles of impeachment and report them to the full House of Representatives for immediate consideration.”

Houlahan, Luria, Sherrill, Slotkin and Spanberger published an op-ed in the Washington Post Monday night with Reps. Gil Cisneros of California and Jason Crow of Colorado saying that if the allegations against Trump are true, they “represent an impeachable offense.”

“We do not arrive at this conclusion lightly, and we call on our colleagues in Congress to consider the use of all congressional authorities available to us, including the power of ‘inherent contempt’ and impeachment hearings, to address these new allegations, find the truth and protect our national security,” the seven moderates with national security backgrounds wrote.

Crow had previously called for an impeachment inquiry, and Cisneros had expressed his support for the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation

Some of the members on the op-ed put out their own statements that went a bit further, such as Luria, who said, “The House must move forward with impeachment.” Sherrill said Congress should all of its tools to address the allegations, “including articles of impeachment.”

Delgado went the furthest of his moderate colleagues, saying in a Tuesday statement: “I can only conclude that Congress move forward with articles of impeachment.”

Inquiry only?

Other Democrats shifting away from their opposition to impeachment on Monday weren’t quite ready to go that far. 

“When there is an abuse of power of this magnitude, it is our responsibility to stand up for what is right. This is why I am calling to open impeachment proceedings — immediately, fairly and impartially,” Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig said. 

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell also said on Monday that she supports an impeachment inquiry “because we must follow the facts and hold the President accountable.”

Democrats must build a case and establish “sufficient evidence that will require any rationale member of the Senate to convict,” New York Rep. Tom Suozzi said in a statement calling for an impeachment inquiry.

Some Democrats even added conditions to supporting an inquiry. 

“If the director refuses to comply at Thursday’s hearing, the Trump administration has left Congress with no alternative but for the House to begin impeachment proceedings, which I will support,” Connecticut Rep. John Larson said. 

Although they didn’t say so in their statements, presumably the Democrats newly calling for an impeachment inquiry or proceedings disagree with Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s repeated claims that his panel has been engaged in a formal impeachment investigation for months. 

Ready to vote?

Other Democrats who’ve long supported an impeachment inquiry were upping their own rhetoric with calls to immediately impeach Trump.

“The corruption of this administration has no bottom. From using the Oval Office for self-enrichment, to welcoming foreign interference in our elections, TWICE — the level of lawlessness is staggering,” Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar tweeted. “Our democracy needs defending, now more than ever. I’m ready to impeach.”

Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington also cited the Ukraine matter as reason why Democrats need to vote to impeach Trump.

“This is not the latest thing Trump had done. It is the latest thing we have found out about. Imagine what else he is doing?” she tweeted. “We should stop looking for a smoking gun. Trump IS the smoking gun.”

Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, an impeachment supporter, retweeted statements from his colleagues who were jumping on the impeachment bandwagon, noting in his own tweet, “The dam is bursting.”