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Opinion

Opinion: House Democrats are going on a Trump fishing expedition

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Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) sent letters to 81 individuals or offices seeking information on the Trump administration’s activities.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Unwilling to wait for the completion of the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — whose complete conclusions may or may not be made public — House Democrats on Monday launched an investigation of essentially everything suspicious President Trump and his associates have done.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent letters and requests for documents to 81 recipients. (Subpoenas could follow if documents aren’t turned over voluntarily.)

Individuals on the list included the president’s two older sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump; his son-in-law and “senior advisor” Jared Kushner; his former personal secretary Rhona Graff; Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization; and former top White House aides Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer and Stephen K. Bannon. (Ivanka Trump isn’t on the list, and the president’s 12-year-old son Barron was also spared.)

Institutions asked to provide documents include the White House, the Justice Department, the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team and the Trump Organization.

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Is this a fishing expedition? Of course, but with a very particular fish in mind. Last week Nadler told the New York Times that Congress had “a ways to go yet” before it can be established unambiguously that Trump committed impeachable offenses.

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But the dragnet Nadler and his colleagues have thrown out looks a lot like an impeachment inquiry. In the press release announcing the sprawling investigation, the Judiciary Committee said that the panel will probe “the alleged obstruction of justice, public corruption, and other abuses of power by President Trump, his associates, and members of his administration.”

That sounds a lot like “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the grounds for impeachment.

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Much of what the Democrats are interested in cries out for investigation. But Mueller is already on the job, and until recently the expectation was that Democrats would let the special counsel move first — and then use the fruits of his labor to start to build an impeachment case. The timing of Nadler’s announcement raises the question of whether the Democrats already have concluded that Mueller won’t deliver the goods. That impression will play into arguments by Trump supporters that Democrats are moving the goal posts.

That’s one problem with the Democrats’ decision to start fishing now. Another is that, in investigating a norm-breaking president, they might end up breaking a few norms themselves.

Separately from Nadler’s initiative, the Democratic chairs of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees are requesting that the White House turn over documents “that refer or relate to any communications between President Trump and President Putin, including in-person meetings and telephone calls.”

Even if you think it’s terrible that Trump is president, even if you think he’s too accommodating to Putin, do you think it’s a good idea for Congress to retrospectively look over the president’s shoulder when he negotiates with foreign leaders? Would Democrats have been happy to have Republicans paw through notes of President Obama’s diplomatic conversations?

Given Trump’s manifold actions and scandals, it’s tempting for the Democrats to go big in investigating him. But that could backfire with the public if and when the proto-impeachment becomes an actual impeachment.

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