When is impeachment not impeachment?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

To clarify: The House Judiciary Committee has begun an inquiry to determine whether to recommend the impeachment of President Trump. The effort has been underway since March 4, when the committee announced it would look into “the alleged obstruction of justice, public corruption, and other abuses of power” on the part of the president. Last Thursday, committee members passed a resolution setting the parameters for the investigation “to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment.” On Tuesday, the panel began what its chairman, Representative Jerry Nadler, has said will be an “aggressive series of hearings” to this end.

This does not mean that the committee will necessarily recommend impeachment. But Mr. Nadler’s team is working to establish whether that step makes sense. Unfortunately, there is tremendous confusion about what the Judiciary Committee is up to — largely because of conflicting signals from House Democrats, who have been struggling with their public statements on impeachment. Mr. Nadler has said repeatedly that his committee is engaged in an impeachment investigation — or, if you prefer, an impeachment inquiry. He insists the “nomenclature” does not matter. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and her leadership team clearly disagree. They assiduously avoid the “I’’ word, painting the committee’s work as garden-variety oversight. 

As a result, even Democratic lawmakers don’t seem to know whether they are engaged in an impeachment inquiry. Representative Pramila Jayapal has said “yes.” Representative Jim Himes has said “no.” Last week, Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, said “no” — then backtracked, claimed he’d misheard the question and offered a non-answer instead.

This is more than semantic hairsplitting. It is a reflection of the Democrats’ divisions over the wisdom of impeaching Mr. Trump. Advocates of impeachment are eager to play up, and skeptics to play down, the possibility of the Judiciary Committee’s work leading in that direction. Need to Impeach, the advocacy group founded by the Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, called Thursday’s resolution vote a “pivotal moment.” The speaker’s camp characterized it as non-news. At her Thursday news conference, Ms. Pelosi bristled when reporters pressed her on whether an impeachment investigation was underway. The conference was “gathering facts” as it had been doing for months and would make a decision “when we’re ready,” she said. “That’s all I have to say about this subject.”

Complicating matters, in attempting to wrest documents and testimony from a White House committed to stonewalling, Democrats have argued in court filings that they are already engaged in an impeachment inquiry. (Some legal experts contend that impeachment proceedings — versus ordinary investigations — could strengthen Democrats’ hand in such scuffles.) So even as the leadership and other skeptics insist there’s nothing unusual going on, Democrats’ court filings cite an existing impeachment inquiry.

Republicans have waded into the mix, arguing that impeachment investigations of past presidents required an authorization vote by the full House. Democrats counter that the rules have been changed such that the committee already possesses the investigatory powers that authorization once conferred, making a vote unnecessary. You can see why people might be confused. But the muddled messages are creating their own problems and threatening to undermine the push for presidential accountability. The contradictory statements make Democrats look divided and conflicted, complicating efforts to build public confidence in their oversight powers. Representative Tom McClintock, a Republican, has mocked the Democrats’ strategy as, “You can have your impeachment and deny it, too.”

More concretely, the Department of Justice is using Democrats’ ambiguity to argue that the administration need not hand over information sought by congressional investigators. “Most prominently, the speaker of the House has been emphatic that the investigation is not a true impeachment proceeding,” the department contended in a court brief filed Friday.

The Democratic leadership should try to find a way forward that, at the very least, doesn’t leave members contradicting one another and further embolden Mr. Trump. Consider having members defer on the question to Mr. Nadler’s committee, which can reply, truthfully, that the panel is uncovering the facts and will decide how to proceed based on those facts. As the Judiciary Committee’s hearings begin, fresh attention will fall on its investigation. This exercise is about more than politics; it is about safeguarding the health of our democracy. Democrats need to clarify to the public — and to themselves — where they are headed.

— The New York Times