A powerful case can be made that President Trump’s egregious actions in office — particularly his efforts to derail the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — justify a vote by the House of Representatives on whether he has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” and should be impeached. But because of divisions among Democrats about whether impeachment would make it harder to defeat Trump next year (and more difficult to reelect Democratic members in Trump-friendly districts), the majority party in the House is pursuing what might be called “impeachment lite.”
The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a resolution empowering it to intensify what Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has described as an ongoing inquiry into whether Trump should be impeached for obstruction and other abuses of power. The resolution establishes rules for evidence-gathering and witness testimony. But unlike the inquiries involving former Presidents Nixon and Clinton, this time there will be no official authorization by the House as a whole, no vote to formally bless the inquiry.
Thus the “impreachment lite” description. But it’s also impeachment late. It has been almost five months since Congress received a redacted copy of Mueller’s report into his investigation of possible ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign and actions by Trump seemingly intended to obstruct the probe.
Granted, the committee has been stymied in obtaining additional information — such as testimony by former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who among other things has told investigators that Trump had asked him to arrange Mueller’s dismissal. (According to Mueller’s report, Trump told McGahn: “Mueller has to go.”) But if Democrats were united in believing that impeachment was necessary, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi long ago would have asked for a vote by the full body to authorize an investigation. It’s easy to understand why she hasn’t pushed for such a vote. Pelosi has made it clear that she worries that an impeachment inquiry without broad bipartisan support could potentially backfire.
The confusion over exactly what House Democrats are doing about impeachment was dramatized Wednesday when Pelosi’s deputy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, had to clarify his earlier comment that Democrats weren’t conducting an impeachment inquiry. He released a statement saying he had misunderstood a reporter’s question. “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, adding that he supported Nadler’s committee investigation.
This page long has supported an aggressive investigation by Congress of Trump’s conduct in office, including but not limited to his troubling actions during Mueller’s investigation. We also recognize that characterizing its investigation as an impeachment inquiry may make it easier for the committee to obtain important documents to which it has a legitimate claim.
But we also have worried that Trump’s impeachment by the House, followed by his almost inevitable acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate, would exacerbate partisan divisions in the country. A Trump acquittal could easily backfire against Democrats while doing nothing to punish our incompetent and unethical president.
The House Judiciary Committee should continue following leads and digging for the truth. But in doing so, it should also abandon the pretense of conducting an impeachment inquiry on the sly. If it should develop a damning case against the president, it can return to the House to seek authorization to conduct formal impeachment proceedings. But the closer we get to next year’s election, the more the committee’s work will be tainted by politics.
It’s now September. Even if Nadler’s investigation led to a vote by the full House to impeach Trump, a Senate trial in an election year could serve as a campaign commercial for him and make it harder to evict him from the White House in the most clean, effective and democratic way possible: at the ballot box.