WASHINGTON ― There was a “seismic shift” on impeachment in the House on Tuesday, even if lawmakers themselves are struggling to explain what’s changed.
After a day in which more than a dozen Democrats came out for impeaching President Donald Trump in response to reports that he sought political dirt from a foreign country, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday night that she is supporting “an official impeachment inquiry.”
That would seem to be a significant development, given the reluctance Pelosi has shown for months toward moving forward with any part of impeachment. But it’s also notable that Pelosi only came out for an impeachment inquiry. She even emphasized those words.
“The House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” she said in a formal, on-camera statement. “I’m directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella, of impeachment inquiry.”
Lawmakers insisted the announcement was significant. “All cylinders go, or whatever that phrase may be,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Tuesday before a closed-door meeting with all Democrats. But after the meeting, even though Jayapal still thought the news was momentous, she struggled to explain why.
“I think she’s saying full steam ahead on an impeachment inquiry, which you know, obviously we’re in an impeachment inquiry, but there has been some confusion,” Jayapal said.
The House Judiciary Committee already voted in favor of an inquiry on its own earlier this month, which was supposedly enough to help it with the open court cases in which the committee is seeking information from the Trump administration. (The Trump administration has argued that Democrats lack a “legitimate legislative purpose” for information like Trump’s tax returns, and Democrats contend that the possibility of impeachment is that legislative purpose.)
But Tuesday does mark a new chapter in the impeachment effort.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who’s been a strong advocate of impeachment since early 2017, said that even though nothing is changing statutorily on impeachment, this is a big change.
“She’s been crystal clear in the last many months that you don’t start an inquiry unless you got the goods, and unless you’ve got the votes to get it over the finish line,” Huffman said of Pelosi. “And she’s now saying, ‘Start the inquiry.’”
Huffman emphasized that the fast-moving Ukraine story ― in which Trump seems to acknowledge that he discussed Joe Biden’s son’s Ukranian business dealings with Ukraine’s president and may have even held back $250 million in U.S. military aid until the country helped dig up political dirt on Hunter Biden ― has unified the Democratic Caucus.
The real big change for impeachment wasn’t Pelosi or another dozen lawmakers coming out for the constitutional remedy; it was Trump’s behavior.
“She’s been crystal clear in the last many months that you don’t start an inquiry unless you got the goods. ... And she’s now saying, ‘Start the inquiry.’”
But again, nothing legislatively has yet changed.
“We’re in the midst of impeachment inquiry, which we are intensifying, and we’re moving aggressively,” Judiciary Committee member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said when asked if there would be a House vote.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats are not actually doing impeachment.
“As I have been telling Chairman Nadler for weeks, merely claiming the House is conducting an impeachment inquiry doesn’t make it so,” Collins tweeted. “Until the full House votes to authorize an inquiry, nobody is conducting a formal inquiry.”
In the most recent presidential impeachment episodes, in 1998 and 1974, the full House has voted to direct the committee to conduct its inquiry. But that’s just a tradition ― the Constitution vests the House with impeachment power but doesn’t actually lay out the procedure.
While the development that Pelosi supports a (supposedly) already ongoing impeachment inquiry wasn’t quite as seismic as billed, Democrats clearly left their caucus meeting satisfied.
“Symbolism matters. Words matter,” longtime impeachment supporter Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost. “I think by the end of the week, you would have to say we have begun an impeachment inquiry, an impeachment investigation of the president of the United States.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said there might actually be a vote on some kind of resolution, but he didn’t know what it might say.
“If anyone tells you they know exactly how it’s going to play out this week, they’re mistaken,” Quigley told HuffPost.
“What’s big and different is that the speaker of the House ― the speaker of the House! ― has said the impeachment word,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said. “I’m on record that I’ve felt the president’s behavior has warranted an impeachment. Now, for our leader, the speaker of the House, to say this, has clearly defined that he reached that benchmark of being impeached.”
Asked what changes from what Democrats have already been doing with their committee investigations, Lawrence said, “Well, we’re all together.”
“If anyone tells you they know exactly how it’s going to play out this week, they’re mistaken.”
“What changed, if I had to put my finger on it, is there’s unity like I haven’t seen before with regard to how we’re going to deal with this piece of misconduct,” added Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a longtime proponent of an impeachment inquiry. “It’s clarifying.”
But as to whether he felt the day’s news means the House is more likely to vote on an impeachment resolution, he couldn’t say.
“Nothing was discussed in specifics,” Krishnamoorthi said.
There are no current plans for the full House to vote on an impeachment inquiry, but the developments seem to be coming fast, so that could always change.
The White House has said it plans to release a transcript of the July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. And the whistleblower who originally made a complaint about the phone call has asked the acting director of national intelligence for permission to speak to the House Intelligence Committee.
If the reality is as damning as the allegations, the House could move quickly. While Democratic leaders dithered for months after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, this whistleblower complaint about Ukraine has captured their attention and seemed to cross a new line.
As Jayapal said Tuesday, the Ukraine situation is particularly egregious because it’s the president himself breaking the law, not some underling.
“Donald Trump is the smoking gun,” she said.
This story has been updated with comment from Rep. Doug Collins.