WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler finally made it official: The House is engaged in “formal impeachment proceedings” against President Trump.
A decision on whether to recommend articles of impeachment will be made by his committee “hopefully” by the end of this year, Nadler told CNN Thursday night, in the first public declaration that the process is underway.
“This is formal impeachment proceedings,” Nadler said. “And we will at the conclusion of this — hopefully by the end of the year — vote to vote articles of impeachment to the House floor. Or we won’t. That’s a decision that we’ll have to make. But that’s exactly the process we’re in right now.”
The statement marks a rhetorical escalation in the still hotly-contested issue among House Democrats: how aggressively to proceed on impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still opposes going there, fearing it's a political dead end, bound for certain failure in the Republican-controlled Senate.
A clear stance from Nadler could provide fresh political momentum that tips even more House Democrats into favoring impeachment.
But as that debate roils on, a related battlefront is heating up: Democrats’ strategy for prying damaging information from Trump’s White House, in what they hope will result in a series of explosive televised hearings this fall featuring top-shelf members of Trump’s inner circle.
And that may be their real prize — even if they never get around to impeachment.
Lawyers vs. politicians
At a legal level, the word “impeachment” is a powerful tool for digging up more dirt on Trump.
Democrats have raged about Trump’s resistance to Congressional subpoenas, knowing that even if they can overcome his stonewalling, the courtroom battles might stretch well beyond the 2020 election.
So they’re bringing out the biggest legal gun in Congress's holster — the power to impeach — and hoping that the mere sight of it will impress any judge, even if it’s never fired.
In late July, House Dems told a court they needed to see special counsel Robert Mueller’s underlying evidence from his investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia and obstruction of justice, because they need to decide on impeaching Trump.
This week, they used impeachment power to justify their demand to have former White House Counsel Don McGahn — Mueller’s star witness — come testify before the House.
“The Judiciary Committee is now determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president based on the obstructive conduct described by the special counsel,” the filing Wednesday said.
If these attempts work, more witnesses will follow, possibly this fall.
“Hopefully we’ll get court orders for McGahn and [former Trump spokeswoman] Hope Hicks, and various other people” to testify before Congress, Nadler said Thursday. “And if we get McGahn, we’ll get all the others, because the legal arguments are all the same.”
So what’s next?
Tying House Democrats’ many separate investigations together under the banner of impeachment could help focus both members of their caucus and voters around their efforts.
Nadler’s timeframe for actual impeachment, if it holds, would set off a spectacular political showdown over whether to try to boot Trump out of office in late 2019, just weeks before voting starts in February in the Democratic primary contest.
Support for impeachment has been rising among House Democrats, though slowly. As of now, a majority of House Democrats, 118 members, say they support launching an impeachment inquiry.
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, a member of Nadler’s panel, tweeted that the committee’s position shouldn’t be in doubt. “We have begun impeachment proceedings on the Judiciary Committee,” he wrote.
It's still not clear whether Nadler’s new drive toward impeachment will eventually create enough pressure to force Pelosi to alter her stance against moving forward — and whether ramping up his political rhetoric will create new political momentum.
On Thursday, Nadler downplayed any rift with Pelosi, while also insisting she’s not holding him back.
“She is cooperating with the committee’s investigation,” Nadler insisted. “We’re not waiting on anything from the House Speaker.”
Cover: U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of the House Judiciary Committee, speaks during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)