WASHINGTON — Less than 48 hours after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller gave a halting performance on Capitol Hill, House Judiciary Democrats gave a halting performance of their own, holding a press conference to announce what is ostensibly an escalation in their investigation into Trump, while failing to deliver a coherent message about what exactly they are doing.
Even House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler appeared uncertain.
Asked Friday if their latest lawsuit for Mueller's underlying evidence marked an escalation over where they were yesterday, Nadler responded, “Yes,” then he paused to consider. “I don’t know.”
“It's not an impeachment inquiry. But it is an impeachment investigation.”
The confusion was compounded by several junior members of the committee, who told reporters that with this filing they had essentially launched an “impeachment investigation.” Nadler, on the other hand, struck a more cautious tone, seemingly trying his best to avoid headlines that would put him at odds with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the issue.
Read: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Mueller’s 5-Hour Testimony
So what did we learn from Friday’s performance? Democrats filed a new legal request to gain access to Mueller’s underlying evidence, and invoked the possibility of launching impeachment proceedings without, well, launching impeachment proceedings. They’re hoping the judge presiding over their request appreciates how serious they are.
Blasting through the stonewall?
Democrats told a federal judge on Friday that they need Mueller’s evidence because they’re trying to decide whether to impeach Trump.
Dropping the i-word into their court filing has the intended effect of blasting through Trump’s blanket resistance to requests for documents and witnesses, which has so far proved highly effective at keeping former White House officials from testifying on Capitol Hill about Trump’s ties to Russia or potential obstruction of justice.
Trump’s Department of Justice has argued, so far successfully, that the evidence underlying Mueller’s 448-page final report must be kept secret, in part because it’s subject to grand jury secrecy under a rule technically known as “6(e).”
Not so fast
Facing resistance from Pelosi, who considers formal impeachment proceedings against Trump a strategic mistake doomed to failure in the Senate, Democrats’ new gambit is to try to bring down the legal firepower of impeachment without the political risk.
In doing so, they appear to have invented a new stage of impeachment: the wind-up.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas, acknowledged to VICE News that Democrats’ message at the press conference seemed muddled, but added that she believes Democrats have crossed a threshold by invoking impeachment in the new court filing.
“The issue is that this term impeachment inquiry has been thrown around a lot, and it isn't really a thing”
“It's not an impeachment inquiry,” Escobar told VICE News. “But it is an impeachment investigation.”
“Whether you call that an inquiry, or whatever you want to call that, that’s what we’ve been doing,” Nadler told reporters, later adding that it was “in effect” an impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat and vice-chairwoman of the committee, said the confusion is really attributable to the term “impeachment inquiry”
“The issue is that this term impeachment inquiry has been thrown around a lot, and it isn't really a thing. So I think they're trying to pull back from using that terminology,” she told VICE News. “I think it's really a technicality more than anything else. But I think it's clear, and hopefully the legal filing is clear, that we're doing an investigation into whether we should bring articles of impeachment.”
The press conference came the same day the House passed another threshold: Rep. Ann Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat, became, by some counts, the 100th member of the chamber to come out in favor of launching impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Read: A Record Number of House Democrats Just Voted to Impeach Trump, But the Effort Still Failed.
In a press conference preceding Nadler’s, Pelosi attempted to frame that as a positive, telling reporters that the more her rank-and-file members push her to impeach, the more leverage she has in extracting information from Trump through the courts.
“Let’s get sophisticated about this OK?” she told the press. “Their advocacy for impeachment only gives me leverage.”
Now, Democrats have to hope a federal judge agrees. If not, they're likely to be rehashing this same debate well into election season.
Cover: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., prepares for a tv news interview at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, July 26, 2019. Nadler says his panel also will go to court next week to try to enforce a subpoena against former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a key Mueller witness. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)