WASHINGTON ― With the Senate preparing to acquit President Donald Trump, you might think Democrats would try to keep the focus on the Ukraine scandal by impeaching other administration officials involved in the scheme. But even the most liberal House Democrats have reservations about that sort of strategy.
“We have one impeachment going on right now, and it’s for the president of the United States,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told HuffPost this week.
Jayapal said “all attention” should be trained on Trump’s impeachment trial ― instead of looking at other officials involved in the politically motivated effort to pressure Ukraine, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr ― and she wouldn’t stray from that message.
“It appears that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate has a choice to make: Are they going to let him get away with that, or are we going to call witnesses and are we actually going to have a fair trial?” Jayapal said.
“This is about the impeachment of a president,” she added. “And if the Senate refuses to have a fair trial in this situation, why would they have a fair trial in any other situation?”
That was a common sentiment among liberal Democrats. And Jayapal wasn’t alone in showing reluctance to go after other officials.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who famously said Democrats were going to “impeach the motherfucker” on the first day of Congress in 2019, told HuffPost that the House Oversight and Reform Committee had already held a number of Trump administration officials in contempt and that Democrats needed to remain focused on the president.
“I think we’re pretty clear that the person that is the one who created the crime that they covered up is really important to hold accountable before we proceed,” Tlaib said.
Another strong advocate of impeachment, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), said that Democrats should continue to exercise oversight but shouldn’t distract from Trump’s actions.
“The focus now is on the president, and it should remain there until it’s completed,” he said.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), a longtime proponent of impeaching Trump, said he was in favor of “tightening the screws of accountability” in any way Democrats can. But, he added, if the Senate fails to conduct a fair trial by not hearing witnesses in the president’s case, then “the tool of impeachment is largely a dead letter until these Republicans pass into the pages of history.”
Huffman suggested he’s particularly interested in holding Barr to account. The attorney general has used his role as the nation’s top law enforcement official to vigorously defend Trump and to advise the administration against turning over documents to Congress related to its investigations. Huffman just didn’t seem to see the utility in impeachment anymore.
“We have a very serious responsibility to throw everything we got at him, especially Barr,” the congressman said. “But there’s a lot of misconduct to address. I just don’t know that the tool of impeachment is ― you know, if the Senate makes a mockery of all this, I don’t think that’s the tool that makes the most sense going forward.”
The case for impeaching other officials is a complicated one.
If Democrats believe Trump abused the power of his office, it’s not difficult to argue that other members of his Cabinet who were involved in the Ukraine scheme also deserve to be impeached. Impeaching other officials might also demonstrate to Republican senators that, even if they conduct one sham trial without witnesses and make an impeachment case disappear swiftly, they will continue to face questions related to Ukraine. The matter won’t just go away.
But impeaching other officials might also cheapen the House’s action against Trump, while putting electorally vulnerable Democrats in a tough position and playing into a GOP argument that Democrats will impeach anyone. The effort could easily backfire, while also chewing up important time needed for other investigations related to Trump, like those into his finances and potential emoluments violations.
Democrats, however, have touted their responsibility to impeach Trump. And if other officials were involved in withholding aid to Ukraine to boost Trump’s reelection campaign and then covering it up, don’t Democrats have a responsibility to impeach those officials too?
The answer may come into better focus after the current case is completed. Democrats, understandably, don’t want to distract from Trump’s trial. But their reluctance seems deeper than just a timing issue, particularly if the most liberal Democrats in Congress are unsure about impeaching anyone else.
Jayapal’s co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), told HuffPost that he hadn’t put “tremendous thought” into impeaching other officials. Like that of other Democrats, his trust in the impeachment process seemed to be shaken.
“First thought would be if you won’t take out the biggest criminal, are you going to go after other folks who violated the law?” Pocan said.
He suggested that Democrats need to weigh more impeachment against other oversight efforts, like obtaining Trump’s tax returns and continuing the Ukraine investigation, and said that Democrats need to keep the “gas pedal” on those inquiries.
“At some point, you got to prioritize the time you have,” Pocan said.