WASHINGTON ― After spending more than a month in their districts, Democrats returned to Congress on Monday to confront the same big question they faced when they left for the August recess: What should they do about President Donald Trump?
Support for an impeachment inquiry slowly built during August, with at least 135 Democrats now backing an inquiry. And on Monday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) took the biggest step yet for impeachment, announcing that his committee would vote Thursday on a resolution “to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment.”
If the committee approves the resolution ― as it is expected to do on a party-line vote ― Democrats would have two options: Move forward with a full House vote on the inquiry or just assert that the committee vote sufficiently moves the House into an impeachment inquiry posture.
Either way, the president could be removed from office only if the House voted to formally impeach Trump and then the Senate voted to convict him. Both outcomes remain unlikely, particularly the part involving the GOP-controlled Senate.
But along with inching closer to impeachment, along with appeasing the Democrats who want to move forward, Nadler’s committee vote could also serve the Democrats who would rather this all just go away.
A committee-sanctioned impeachment inquiry could, at least temporarily, placate those who believe congressional Democrats haven’t done enough to hold Trump accountable while also not subjecting vulnerable House Democrats to a vote on an inquiry. Democrats would simply claim there’s no need for the full House to take a vote on an impeachment inquiry because they’ve already opened the inquiry.
The nebulous state of impeachment proceedings ― Nadler has already claimed Democrats have opened an inquiry, though he has also denied that at times ― has thus far seemed to confuse both House Democrats and voters.
For instance, Judiciary Committee member Ted Lieu (D-Calif) told HuffPost on Monday that the vote merely sets formal parameters for an impeachment inquiry that was already underway.
“I’m not sure semantics matter, but it’s very clear that for most of this entire year, the House Judiciary Committee has been doing investigations, holding hearings, to decide whether or not we should impeach Donald Trump,” Lieu said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Monday the vote was a “continuation of what we have been doing,” seemingly trying to downplay that this was anything new.
And when we asked Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) Monday night whether the resolution vote Thursday would be a continuation of the existing oversight or would mark a new chapter, he told us it was “both.”
“We have been doing oversight,” McGovern said. “This kind of formalizes the process more and, I think, sharpens the focus on the illegality of this administration.”
The vote on Thursday could, legally speaking, strengthen Democratic efforts to make Trump administration officials comply with subpoenas. The committee vote would also authorize staff to question witnesses before the committee and could draw more attention to Democratic investigations of the president.
But it’s difficult to pinpoint how this really moves Democrats closer to impeachment.
House Democrats can more honestly say they’re investigating the president and considering impeachment, but the House is running out of time for an actual impeachment. There are only 44 more legislative days scheduled in 2019, and the committee vote Thursday will almost certainly take some pressure off Democrats to do anything more than see if administration officials are now more compelled to comply with subpoenas.
Judiciary member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who’s been one of the most bullish members on impeachment since the beginning of Trump’s term, told HuffPost late Monday night that Democrats had been “struggling to get to a point where we can actually reveal the substance of the corruption taking place in the Trump White House.” Though Democrats may have a stronger case to make administration officials comply with subpoenas, the courts haven’t exactly been quick to actually force the White House’s hand.
It will take more time before the courts actually make the government turn over documents ― such as Trump’s tax returns ― and then even more time before Democrats can do anything with them, if they ever do.
Meanwhile, by insisting on more investigations, Democrats have already sent the message that what’s already been revealed ― in the Mueller Report, by Trump himself, by lawyer Michael Cohen and dozens of other former and current administration officials ― isn’t enough to impeach the president.
The impeachment inquiry resolution does point out that the president obstructed justice when he tried to interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Anyone else who did this would face federal criminal prosecution,” Nadler said.
And Nadler also counts at least five episodes when the president’s behavior was “clearly criminal,” adding that the president has also violated the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution, which forbids federal officials from accepting payments from foreign governments. Trump is the first president in modern times to refuse to divest from his businesses, and foreign officials have made a point of booking rooms at his hotels.
“He has dangled pardons, been involved in campaign finance violations and stonewalled Congress across the board, noting that he will defy all subpoenas,” Nadler said.
But the fundamentals of a vote to impeach Trump still remain in the president’s favor. The fact is, even if a majority of Democrats now support impeachment, there are still about 100 Democrats who have refused to back even the inquiry. Add to that number every Republican in the House, and an impeachment vote today looks like it would fail spectacularly.
That has been part of Pelosi’s calculation all along ― the knowledge that she doesn’t have the votes. The politics of impeaching Trump is largely unknowable, but 31 Democrats currently sit in districts that Trump won, and 13 of those Democrats are in districts that Trump won by 6 percentage points or more.
Republicans have made no secret that their plan to take back the House is dependent on Trump. They aren’t distancing themselves at all; they’re embracing him and his tactics.
Democratic aides have told HuffPost repeatedly that Pelosi sees those dynamics and wants to avoid impeachment.
Still, Democrats who are for an impeachment inquiry said Monday that the latest developments were a step in the right direction.
“The important part is we’re there,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said. “I’ll take it.”