House Democrats returned to Washington this week and promptly found themselves right where they left off six weeks ago: locked in a bitter inter-party fight over impeachment.
Led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, some party leaders won't even acknowledge that a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump exists. But this morning, the House Judiciary Committee passed a resolution designed to better define its inquiry and expand its powers to investigate the president.
“This committee is engaged in an investigation that will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Trump. That is what we are doing,” House Judiciary Chair Jerold Nadler said at the hearing. “Some call this process an impeachment inquiry, some call it an impeachment investigation. There’s no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.”
This morning’s party-line vote lays out some guidelines for their investigation. It allows staff lawyers to question each witness for an hour after members of the committee are done questioning them. It allows the president’s lawyers to send written responses to public testimony. And it allows the committee to hold closed-door information gathering sessions to deal with sensitive material.
Committee members say this step strengthens their efforts to compel current and former members of the administration to testify and produce documents for their investigation.
“I think we’re sending a message to the courts that we are indeed on the course an issuance of impeachment resolutions,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “I think the courts understand that impeachment is a peculiar and unique process that lies within the power of the House of Representatives. When it’s affirmed that Congress is in the exercise of that impeachment power, then it strengthens our legal case.”
Other committee members argue the move simply helps to clarify and focus the committee’s work.
“I view it as a simple and intuitive step for the committee to set forth the procedural rules for conducting the impeachment investigation,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told VICE News just off the House floor.
Raskin and his colleagues are also hoping to expand the investigation beyond just the Mueller Report and into areas of potential corruption, like the president’s family profiting off of foreign governments and U.S. taxpayers at Trump’s properties around the world.
“The president may not sell out the office to foreign princes, kings and governments.”
“The whole question now is whether we can get the country focused on the president’s corruption of the presidency,” Raskin, a constitutional lawyer, said. “The Emoluments Clauses tell us that the president’s attention must run in a complete and undivided way to the American people. The president may not sell out the office to foreign princes, kings and governments. The president may not use the government of the United States as a way of self-enrichment. He cannot be putting the taxpayer’s money into his own pocket.”
But Democrats remain a long way from clarity, or unity, in their messaging about impeachment. On Wednesday, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was asked if there was an active impeachment investigation underway. “No,” he responded. But he later walked that back, because Nadler has argued in court that House Democrats are actively engaged in an impeachment investigation.
“I thought the question was in regards to whether the full House is actively considering articles of impeachment, which we are not at this time," Hoyer said in a statement. "I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation ‘to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,’ as the resolution states.”
Hoyer and Pelosi clearly believe that invoking “the I-word” is still too risky politically, especially for moderate Democrats who captured historically Republican districts in the 2018 midterms.
"It’s going to be a distraction over the next few months, and it’s not a winning message in 2020.”
Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) did more than 75 events across his sprawling upstate New York district over the August recess. Impeachment rarely came up, he told VICE News.
“I think it’s a mistake for us to pursue impeachment,” he said. “Voters in my district are clamoring for us to get something done on infrastructure, on prescription drug costs – you name it. And I think it’s going to be a distraction over the next few months, and it’s not a winning message in 2020.”
And it’s not just that voters aren’t moved by impeachment, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) told VICE News. It’s that they may be turned off by it.
“I think the impeachment could, in one way, backfire. It will certainly fail, because it’s not going to make it to the president,” Van Drew said. “If the point is to just embarrass the president, I don’t know if at the end of the day that backfires on Democrats, you know. I really don’t.”
But for freshmen Democrats who serve on the Judiciary Committee – who have spent countless hours pouring over documents or being frustrated by the administration’s stonewalling – the effort isn’t about the 2020 election.
“When the president says, ‘I’m going to fight every subpoena’ and when they refuse to turn over documents that Congress needs to legislate, to conduct oversight, to act as a check and balance on the administration, that’s a constitutional crisis,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) told VICE News in her office. “We’re just going to have to deal with it.”
Cover: Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) listens to comments during a House Judiciary Committee markup, on September 12, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)