Donald Trump's allies like to dismiss investigations into the president as "fishing expeditions."
If the metaphor holds, then the House Judiciary Committee just went fishing with dynamite.
On Monday, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, demanded records from 81 people and entities, including Trump’s adult sons and top members of his administration, campaign and real estate company, as part of an expansive new probe into the president.
Nadler’s sweeping requests move far beyond the question of Russia’s influence in the 2016 election and into the center of Trump’s White House, with a particular focus on obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of power. The new line of inquiry signals a bold new front in the multiplying investigations that could pave the way for impeachment.
House Democrats shied away from using that word Monday, with Nadler describing the effort as an attempt to begin “building the public record” of what he called Trump’s “abuses of power.” But the central questions his committee is pursuing appear custom-made to serve as the cornerstone for any future Trump impeachment, legal and congressional experts told VICE News.
“This could very well be the kind of foundation you’d have to lay in order to begin serious impeachment proceedings,” said Richard Arenberg, who spent 34 years as a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, including on the Select Senate Iran-Contra Committee in the late 1980s.
“But, whether or not they’re going there, this is still a prudent step for the committee, because we’re talking about the public’s right to know what happened,” Arenberg said.
REQUEST FOR RECORDS
While the new probe spurred Democratic whisperings of impeachment, Trump himself breezily dismissed the news, while casually presiding over a White House lunch of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and Big Macs with visiting members of a football team from North Dakota.
“I cooperate all the time, with everybody,” Trump said. “It’s a political hoax. There’s no collusion… Folks, go and eat up.”
But Nadler’s latest probe crystalizes the new reality of Democratic-led investigations into Trumpworld, complete with subpoena power.
And Democrats aren’t playing around.
Nadler’s letters went out to even those who have managed to stay in the periphery of the investigation saga so far, including people like Trump’s son Eric, and Matthew Calamari, chief operating officer of the Trump Organization.
Democrats also demanded documents from Russian billionaire oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, former White House counsel Don McGahn, former Trump campaign chairman and convicted felon Paul Manafort, and many more. Letters were sent to Trump’s White House, campaign, company, presidential transition, charitable foundation, personal lawyer, former spokespeople, former business partners, former Cabinet members, and on and on.
The sweeping request marks a dramatic departure from the way Republicans dealt with Trump’s White House when they controlled the House of Representatives during the first two years of his presidency, a period in which Democrats accused Republicans of neglecting their oversight role.
Nadler said Congress can no longer wait for others — including special counsel Robert Mueller — to “do the investigative work for us,” but he noted that the special counsel and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are aware of his efforts.
Nadler’s new investigation may indeed reveal public answers to questions that have swirled around Mueller’s secretive probe into Trump’s ties to Russia, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former member of the Ken Starr investigation into former president Bill Clinton.
Mueller, he pointed out, is looking for crimes — whereas Nadler is asking about all manner of wrongdoing.
“This is Congress doing what it should have been doing for the last two years,” Rosenzweig said, “which is asking publicly questions that will never be answered by Mr. Mueller’s probe but which may or may not eventually relate to any future impeachment.”
Nadler’s move may also buy a degree of patience from the most hard-core anti-Trumpers in the Democratic base who want to see action on impeachment immediately, said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor.
“The overall goal is to shed light on all of these Trump scandals,” Akerman said. “The sub-goals are to check to see if there’s enough for impeachment, and also make sure that whatever’s out there enters into the public domain and doesn’t get shoved under the rug.”
Democrats have been cautious about talking impeachment, having watched how Republicans were widely perceived to have overreached in their efforts to impeach Clinton in the 1990s, without building a case that convinced Democrats to join them.
“Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen,” Nadler said Sunday. “Impeachment is a long way down the road. We don’t yet have the facts, but we’re going to initiate the proper investigations.”
Legal analysts and former prosecutors called Nadler’s cautious outlook well-grounded.
“I take Nadler at his word, which is that we need to get the facts and bring the public along before we take the impeachment step,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former member of the prosecution team during the Watergate scandal, after which former president Nixon resigned in the face of looming impeachment.
But the move could eventually be seen, in hindsight, as the first act in a series of measures that could boot Trump from office.
“In retrospect, this might look like a baby step toward impeachment,” said Andrew Coan, a law professor at the University of Arizona and the author of "Prosecuting the President." “For now, it looks like the House of Representatives is actually exercising its oversight responsibilities.”
Cover: President Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, March 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)