After the Department of Justice refused to hand over the unredacted report on Wednesday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Trump’s “dangerous” and “lawless” assertion of executive privilege had triggered a “constitutional crisis.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed, saying on Thursday that the administration “has decided they are not going to honor their oath of office.” She even suggesting jailing officials for failing to cooperate with subpoenas.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), meanwhile, said the situation “is bigger than Watergate” in a Thursday interview on MSNBC.
But as much as Pelosi and other top Democrats ratchet up the rhetoric ― railing against the unprecedented nature of a president bent on ignoring just about every means of congressional oversight ― they remain hesitant about actually opening impeachment proceedings, the most powerful tool at their disposal.
The incongruous message appears designed to contain anger among the Democratic base ahead of what is shaping up to be a contentious election in 2020, one in which talk of impeachment could backfire to the advantage of Trump and Republicans in the Senate.
Pelosi maintains that the country needs to be persuaded into impeachment. (and public opinion is on her side). But her true feelings on the matter are quite clear when she argues that Democrats don’t need to impeach Trump because he’s “almost self-impeaching,” as she remarked in an interview earlier this week.
“I think she knows this is a cul-de-sac that she doesn’t want to spend any time in,” said Brendan Buck, who served as a top aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Buck added he was impressed with Pelosi’s discipline. “All it takes is really one overzealous member to go the floor and [impeachment] can be triggered. It’s important to make sure ... the entire caucus understands what’s at risk and what the strategy is.”
Democrats may not be able to sustain the delicate balancing act for long. On Thursday, a group of progressive advocacy organizations delivered over 10 million petition signatures to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) urging the House to start impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential contender, also urged Democrats to impeach Trump from the floor of the Senate this week.
Other establishment-aligned Democrats argue that the party ought to at least begin by opening impeachment proceedings ― a process involving hearings that could take months ― without committing to an actual vote in the House.
“Oversight is the most important thing to do with an Administration that behaves criminally. If it takes an impeachment inquiry to actually conduct oversight, so be it. The House can always decide on an impeachment vote down the road after they’ve heard evidence,” Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden tweeted on Wednesday.
All it takes is really one overzealous member to go the floor and [impeachment] can be triggered. It’s important to make sure ... the entire caucus understands what’s at risk and what the strategy is. Brendan Buck, former aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)
For now, though, Democrats have settled on confronting the Trump administration through a mix of subpoenas, contempt votes and eventually, lawsuits. It’s a strategy House Republicans similarly employed during their oversight battles against former President Barack Obama’s administration.
At the time, Republicans faced internal pressure to open impeachment proceedings against Obama over his executive actions on health care and immigration, including from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and former Reps. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who then served as House majority whip, even got in on the action by refusing to take impeachment off the table in a Fox News interview.
But then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tamped down talk of impeachment, calling it a “scam.” He also accused Democrats of fanning the flames to “rally their own people to give money and show up in this year’s elections,” making an argument that Pelosi similarly made this year in response to Democratic calls for Trump’s impeachment.
Instead, Republicans focused on taking actions designed to vent outrage from their tea party base without going so far as to target Obama himself. In 2014, under Boehner, they sued the Obama administration over the delay of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate going into effect. Boehner also formed a select committee to investigate the 2012 attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a venue where the GOP-aligned grassroots groups and the party’s rank and file could channel their energy.
In 2016, under then-Speaker Ryan, they launched an attempt to oust the commissioner of the IRS over the agency’s criticized scrutiny of conservative groups. Republican leaders managed to derail that effort, as well as another in 2018 aimed at ousting outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
What’s different this year, however, is how quickly Democrats’ confrontation with the Trump administration over subpoenaed material has accelerated. Usually, both sides negotiate behind the scenes for months on material or testimony sought by Congress and reach some sort of accord. The Trump administration has moved to deny all such requests, including the full Mueller report, however, resulting in the House Judiciary Committee recommending Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.
Democrats are searching for alternative ways to make the Trump administration comply, including taking legal action in the courts. But such moves could take years to reach a settlement ― long after the 2020 election. On Wednesday, for example, the House and the Justice Department finally reached a deal over records related to a gun-running investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious seven years after the legal fight began.
Michael Steel, a former top adviser to Boehner, said he has grown more confident Democrats will not seek impeachment of Trump simply because of the time crunch.
“I think if they get too close to 2020 elections, it just gets caught up in that political debate and they probably don’t want to do it too close there,” Steel said.