Galvanized by the scandal of President Trump’s shocking request that a foreign leader investigate one of his potential opponents, House Democrats have embarked on what Speaker Nancy Pelosi called an “official impeachment inquiry.” It is hugely significant that Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who had been reluctant to focus on impeachment because of the potential political damage to her party, now sees an investigation as necessary.
But how the House conducts this probe is as important as the fact that it is moving forward.
In the coming weeks and months, House Democrats must address several questions freighted with political implications: How quickly should the inquiry proceed? Should it focus exclusively on Trump’s attempts to have Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden (and the White House’s alleged efforts to cover up that conduct), or should the House scrutinize other serious allegations against him too? How can the Democratic majority convince the public — and potentially persuadable Republican colleagues — that the impeachment inquiry is driven not by partisanship nor pent-up anger at Trump’s divisive words and deeds?
Our view is that the investigation should be expeditious in light of the approaching election but not so fast-tracked as to raise concerns about a rush to judgment. It’s important that Trump and his lawyers have a fair opportunity to respond and provide context. The results should not be a foregone conclusion; lawmakers must be willing to exonerate the president or stop short of impeachment if that’s where the evidence leads them.
It would be wise for Pelosi to obtain the authorization of a majority of the House for the investigation, as the House did for the impeachment investigations of Presidents Nixon and Clinton. She should also reconsider an idea she apparently rejected: empaneling a select committee to lead the investigation, preferably aided by well-respected career prosecutors.
As for the scope of the inquiry, we agree that the House should focus primarily on the unfolding story of Trump’s attempt to have a foreign country investigate one of his political opponents. White House notes on the now-infamous July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also revealed Trump’s request for help on a broader effort to discredit Biden in which Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, looms large. House investigators need to scrutinize that campaign in all of its manifestations. And while Trump’s accusations against Biden have already been debunked, Democrats would do themselves and the country a favor by clearing the air.
Then there is the assertion by a whistleblower in the intelligence community that White House officials took unusual steps in the days after the call to “lock down” records of the conversation, removing the official transcript from the computer system in which such documents are usually stored and placing it instead in a system usually reserved for sensitive national security information. That alleged cover-up must also be scrutinized.
And what about other allegations? The most serious, in our view, is the possibility that Trump might have obstructed justice in a series of attempts to frustrate special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. In his findings, Mueller said that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Acting on their own, Atty. Gen. William Barr and then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosensten concluded that “the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” But Congress has every right to reach its own conclusion on that question.
Moreover, the allegations about obstruction of justice arguably involve the same sort of disrespect for legal norms that we see in Trump’s call with Zelensky. We believe that even a streamlined impeachment investigation should include the issue of possible obstruction of justice.
Finally, while expediting the impeachment process must be a priority, it can’t be the sole concern of the House. Focusing only on impeachment over the next few months would be a dereliction of House members’ duty to their constituents. It would send the message to the public that the party cares more about politics than the people’s business.
Regardless of how carefully the Democrats proceed, they must be prepared for accusations from Trump that this is yet another “witch hunt.” He is likely to continue to enjoy the support of the vast majority of Republicans in Congress. (The pathetic response by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was to portray the impeachment inquiry as the latest attempt by Democrats to overturn the results of the 2016 election.)
It may be hopeless to expect more than a few Republicans to take the allegations against Trump seriously, but House Democrats should still strive to conduct a scrupulously fair investigation, one that focuses on questions of lawlessness.