WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists President Donald Trump has committed crimes and is engaged in a cover-up. She also insists the remedy for these crimes and this cover-up is not an impeachment inquiry, but more investigations ― ostensibly to uncover crimes that special counsel Robert Mueller has already uncovered.
If the bottomless pleas for more oversight seem like a road to nowhere, you may finally understand how leaders plan to quell those in the caucus who want to impeach the president: continued investigations, tough talk about Trump, and calls for even more investigations.
Pelosi has navigated the last 2 1/2 months using some form of that strategy. Whenever the calls for impeachment get too loud, she’s able to hold off Resistance Twitter by saying Trump is “self-impeaching,” or that she’s “done with him,” or that he’s obstructed justice, or he’s throwing a “temper tantrum,” or “engaged in a cover-up,” or belongs in prison. And then she continues touting investigations that have thus far failed to reveal anything remotely as damaging as the Mueller report.
The strategy works for memes and “Yas Queen” T-shirts, but has been wearing thin within Pelosi’s own caucus.
“We’ve done the oversight,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost on Thursday. “They’re committing the crimes. We’ve won in court. They’re committing the crimes anyway. They’ve left us no choice but to impeach and we won’t impeach.”
Ocasio-Cortez has advocated impeaching Trump since the release of the Mueller report, and she agreed calling for more oversight was just a tactic of Democratic leaders to avoid impeachment.
“I don’t know what else we need,” she said.
With the news Friday that Mueller’s testimony is being delayed another week, the progressives who had stood by Pelosi’s strategy finally seem to be realizing they’re getting played.
“It’s beginning to feel like a slow-walk,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said Friday. “I’ll say that.”
“I’m not happy with the glacial pace of accountability,” he said.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who famously said on the first day of Congress that Democrats were going to “impeach the motherfucker,” said on Friday that there was “no time to wait.”
“These are years in time that we can’t get back for the American people,” she said, adding that her election was a referendum on holding this president accountable. “And I just can’t look away from that duty and responsibility.”
But that’s not how most Democrats see it. Like Pelosi, most Democrats are happy to continue calling for more oversight.
“Well, the thing is, we got to continue building the case with the American public,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said.
The excuse HuffPost heard most often from members was that the continued need for oversight was more about bringing the American people along rather than exposing new information. Even Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders saw the need to inform the public.
“The reality is not everybody is as steeped in it as we are on the Judiciary Committee,” CPC co-chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Thursday, though Jayapal is one of the 82 members who have called for opening an impeachment inquiry.
The other CPC co-chair, Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who has also called for opening an inquiry, also suggested Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday could help elevate the calls for an inquiry.
But there’s a distinction between educating the public, which impeachment hearings would help do anyway, and just emptily calling for more investigations as a way of running out the clock on the Trump presidency.
Democrats don’t readily admit that’s what leaders are doing, but if Pelosi and other key committee leaders have already determined Trump has broken the law, what are they waiting on?
The easy answer is that Democrats are in the middle of building the case.
“What we’re doing is, we’re in the data collection process,” Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) told HuffPost.
Larson, who has been in Congress for 20 years, said lawmakers couldn’t put “the cart before the horse.”
“Justice grinds very slow,” he said. “It doesn’t grind at the speed of the next press release or what’s available that day. I mean, that’s why you have a system of due process.”
Many lawmakers still Trust The Process, believing that it could all still lead to impeachment.
“We are engaged in a process,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “And I don’t know where everything ultimately leads to, but let the committees do their work, and let us get the recommendations from the committee, and see where everything leads.”
McGovern himself has seen enough to support opening an impeachment inquiry. “There’s a culture of corruption and criminality around this administration the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” he said. But he doesn’t fault Pelosi for plodding through the oversight.
“Everybody has to make up their own mind as to when there’s enough,” McGovern said. “I’ve reached the point where I think there’s more than enough.”
But believing Democrats are just building a case and that they may yet move forward with impeachment ignores all the efforts Pelosi and other Democrats have taken to downplay the need to impeach Trump.
Every Democrat who says Congress needs to see the unredacted version of the Mueller report and keep investigating is in effect saying they have not yet seen enough. And it ignores how lawmakers view impeachment through a political lens, which will only get more political the closer we get to the general election.
The longer Democrats wait, the more difficult it will be to open an inquiry. The way Congress works ― after July, the House is only scheduled to be in session for 49 more days this year ― it’s easy to see how Pelosi could stave off those pushing for impeachment. Once the presidential primaries begin, many lawmakers are just going to advocate for “impeaching him at the ballot box.”
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), who has been calling for impeachment since almost the beginning of Trump’s presidency, said the no-impeachment “political season” is fast approaching, though he declined to specify the moment it would start.
Green also noted there would been a pattern of no-shows at hearings that makes it impossible to hold the administration accountable through the regular process. On Thursday for example, the Trump administration refused to send a witness from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to discuss the hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Without a witness, I’m not sure that we can have proper oversight,” Green said.
“When a president of the United States says, ‘I’m going to tell witnesses not to come, I’m going to tell witnesses not to produce documents,’ it’s hard to have confidence that traditional oversight will work.”
That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed. Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have regularly rebuked the administration for its refusal to comply with subpoenas. It was Trump’s initial blanket policy of not cooperating that prompted Pelosi to say the president was engaged in a cover-up.
But thus far, leadership’s remedy to that type of obstruction has been negotiations and lawsuits — both of which chew up time. Democrats are just now realizing the strategy doesn’t work.
“When everything is carefully titrated to win a narrow lawsuit for the Ways and Means Committee involving their very narrow legal theory on how to get the tax returns,” Huffman said, referring to the lawsuit to acquire Trump’s tax returns, “I think that crystallizes the frustration.”
“When a president of the United States says, ‘I’m going to tell witnesses not to come, I’m going to tell witnesses not to produce documents,’ it’s hard to have confidence that traditional oversight will work,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), one of the few members of Democratic leadership who believes the House should move ahead with an inquiry.
If there’s one saving grace of the current strategy, Mueller may be it. The former special counsel was slated to testify Wednesday, but Democrats negotiated a new agreement where he’d testify July 24, just two days before lawmakers are scheduled to hit the exits for the August recess.
Members believe that even if Mueller just retreads his findings, it could be the watershed moment Democrats need to break from their holding pattern. But with the August recess so close, there might not be much time for a movement to impeach to actually build.
There is, of course, a difference between oversight directed at exposing the president’s crimes, and routine oversight of the Trump administration. Democrats repeatedly noted out how their new majority had achieved results through the course of their hearings on the White House. Khanna specifically pointed to his efforts to get defense contractor TransDigm to return $16 million to the Pentagon. And he said the recent Supreme Court ruling against a citizenship question on the census was partly due to findings uncovered by the House Oversight Committee.
Among hundreds of hearings this Congress, Democrats have held sessions on drug pricing, banks the Dodd-Frank Act 10 years after enactment, and voting rights.
Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who does not support impeachment, said his panel does valuable work overseeing the Trump administration’s implementation of laws related to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We have a duty to hold the executive branch accountable. And, you know, we may, In fact, find additional evidence that rises to the level of impeachment,” Takano said. But he added that there needs to be a broad consensus ― one that’s only achievable if two-thirds of the Senate agrees. Which seems unlikely.
For his part, Takano said he would listen closely to Mueller’s testimony as he evaluates whether to support an impeachment inquiry.
“I think [the president’s] past business practices make me suspicious that he may be governing in such a way that is potentially corrupt,” Takano said.