Democrats can’t agree on what to call their impeachment inquiry, and maybe that suits them

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

After months of public hand-wringing over whether to begin a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump, Democrats appear to have decided simply not to decide, sidestepping an issue that deeply divides the party.

Democratic leaders have so blurred the picture over how they are handling the matter that their own members don’t even agree on what to call it or how to characterize it. Impeachment inquiry? Not necessarily. Investigation? Maybe.

Democratic leaders insist it doesn’t really make a difference and is all just a matter of semantics. But by keeping things vague and confusing, the party appears to be betting it can maintain the investigative pressure on Trump while avoiding an ugly internal showdown over impeachment and allowing members to describe the process however they want.


House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) surprised many last month when he said for the first time that the panel — without ever taking a vote on the issue — is now conducting formal impeachment proceedings, considering whether to bring articles of impeachment to the House floor. Committee documents, meanwhile, refer to it as an “investigation.”

“Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature,” Nadler said Thursday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) hasn’t gone as far as Nadler, saying Monday that the House is “on a path of investigation” that includes the possibility of impeachment. Ask any of the 233 other House Democrats and you’ll get a range of answers. At a news conference Thursday, Pelosi bristled at questions asking her to clarify the issue.

But Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee went even further in the direction of impeachment proceedings Thursday when they voted along party lines to establish the rules surrounding any committee hearing involving its impeachment investigation. The rules will allow attorneys on the committee up to 30 minutes to question witnesses and will give Trump’s lawyers an opportunity to participate, among other changes.

House Democratic leaders, most notably Pelosi, have been reluctant to pursue impeachment unless there is overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing and bipartisan support.

At the same time, Democrats’ legal strategy in confronting Trump in the courts will be helped by convincing judges that they are making formal moves to impeach the president, not merely fishing for scandals or trying to embarrass Trump. In a lawsuit to try to force former White House Counsel Donald McGahn to testify in response to a subpoena, House lawyers have underscored that his testimony could “determine whether the committee should recommend articles of impeachment against the president.”

But their legal language doesn’t always match what they say elsewhere. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday morning that the House is not in an impeachment inquiry. He later said that he thought he was asked whether the full House is considering articles of impeachment and said he supported the Judiciary Committee’s “investigation.”

Other members of Democratic leadership, when pressed to define what they’re doing, have pushed back on the question. They argue that the difference among impeachment, impeachment inquiry and impeachment investigation is not important. But that ignores the fact that for most of the summer House Democrats struggled and debated over whether to join the growing list of members who have announced their support for an impeachment inquiry.

National polls have found that the public has been confused by the conclusions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian election interference and the president’s potential obstruction of justice. The mixed messages on an impeachment inquiry risk only further confusing the public — and leaving the door open for Republicans to define the Democrats’ agenda.

“I don’t know why we’re pretending or dancing around it,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego). “The Constitution assigns us this duty. Let’s perform this duty and call it what it is.”

Several Democrats, particularly those who want to aggressively pursue impeachment, would have preferred the House was clear about its intentions instead of backing into one of the most dramatic and consequential actions a Congress can take.

“You could look back and say, gosh, wouldn’t it have been nice if as soon as the Mueller report came out, we just got to work? How much further along this would be and how much more coherent this story would be for the American people,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). “It hasn’t unfolded that way, unfortunately, and so we’ll just have to make as much as we can with the hand that we have now.”

Just a few months ago, a lawmaker’s position on an impeachment inquiry was a defining part of his or her political identity. Several Democrats told reporters about how seriously they weighed whether to support an inquiry. A few members, including Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), released videos to explain their position to constituents. Advocates for impeachment cheered when the tally of impeachment supporters reached half of all Democratic members — a symbolic figure. Earlier this year, Pelosi had argued that too much attention was being afforded to the calls for impeachment because they were coming from only about three dozen of the party’s entire caucus.

In some ways, keeping things ambiguous has helped Pelosi tamp down expectations now that more than half her members want a formal inquiry. Rank-and-file Democratic members can in effect call the process whatever they want it. Progressives who have long favored impeachment can say that the House is finally moving forward. Centrists who are more skeptical can continue to talk about the “investigation” into the presidency.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) maintains that the House is continuing its “investigation,” although he said that there is little daylight between an investigation and impeachment proceedings.

“I ask our expert attorneys: What’s the difference between what we’re doing now and full impeachment? And they said, very little,” said Correa, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. “It’s too much for some people. It’s not enough for others.”