Democrats face key moment on impeachment drive

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are poised to vote Thursday to expand their powers to investigate the White House as they try to build public support for impeaching President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness, ballots and battling opioids: Why the Universal Postal Union benefits the US Sanders supporters cry foul over Working Families endorsement of Warren California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE — a key ingredient if Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPence says it's 'vital' for Congress to pass US-Mexico-Canada trade deal The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California Obama, Bush among those paying tribute to Cokie Roberts: 'A trailblazing figure' MORE (D-Calif.) is to get on board.

The move is significant because it marks the first time a Democratic panel will vote on language saying explicitly that its investigation could lead to Trump’s impeachment, but it comes amid growing confusion over the Democratic strategy that’s left members bickering about how best to move forward.

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House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate New storm rises over Kavanaugh MORE (D-Md.) reflected the puzzlement on Wednesday when he had to walk back his assertion that Democrats are not in the midst of an impeachment inquiry — a position contradicting that of Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerGraham promises Kavanaugh will not be impeached over 'scurrilous' allegations Judiciary Committee chairman Nadler dismisses Kavanaugh impeachment calls Nadler: Trump impeachment needed 'to vindicate the Constitution' MORE (D-N.Y.), who has said such an inquiry has already begun.

The episode has highlighted the degree to which Democrats are struggling to articulate both the purpose and the execution of their investigations into alleged presidential misconduct — a focus of internal discussion this week as Congress returned to Washington following a long summer recess. 

While most Democratic lawmakers now favor impeachment in some form, there are varying opinions about whether they’ve launched the process or not — an inconsistency that’s muddled the Democrats’ oversight message heading into a crucial stretch of the process. Indeed, there’s a growing sense that the party is running out of time to make a decision on impeachment before the heat of the 2020 campaign season consumes the country’s political scene.

Amid the jumble, some Democratic leaders are taking care not to step into the language debate at all. 

“I don’t want to get caught in semantics. We all agree — from Speaker Pelosi through every single member of the House Democratic Caucus — that we have a constitutional responsibility to hold an out-of-control executive branch accountable,” Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesWords matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Democrats face key moment on impeachment drive Top House Democrat walks back remarks contradicting Judiciary on impeachment inquiry MORE (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol Wednesday.

“We are charged with being a check and balance. That includes oversight over the executive branch and the president. That’s what six committees are doing, not simply the Judiciary Committee. And the committees should be allowed to do their work without getting caught up into semantical distinctions.”

Thursday’s Judiciary vote to adopt new procedures aims to help the committee juggle more witnesses by allowing the panel’s staffers to pose questions after members do so, while empowering Nadler to punt minor witnesses to his subcommittees. The proposal would also allow the chairman to broaden the investigation by selecting any future hearing to fold into his inquiry.

“This is establishing rules for all hearings or subcommittee hearings designated as part of this investigation,” Nadler told reporters in the Capitol this week. 

The measures, which are expected to pass in the Democratic-controlled panel, will be adopted just days ahead of an eventful week in which Nadler has subpoenaed several witnesses for a joint hearing, including former Trump campaign manager Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump heads to California The Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? Democrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House MORE and former White House aides Rob Porter and Rick Dearborn. So far, only Lewandowski — who never worked in the Trump administration — is confirmed as a witness, and he has vowed to come out swinging on behalf of the president.

Lewandowski’s appearance is a rare win for the Democrats examining obstruction, public corruption and other abuses of power, as the White House has successfully invoked executive privilege to block a number of current and former administration officials from testifying publicly.

In response, Nadler — backed by Pelosi — has filed a series of lawsuits seeking disputed documents and testimony. Those filings have increasingly leaned on the possibility of impeachment as a legal justification for obtaining the information — an argument Democrats hope will boost their chances of winning grand jury material and testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn. 

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Still, the party’s message on impeachment has been all over the board. 

Nadler has said in no uncertain terms that Democrats have already launched “formal impeachment proceedings,” even if they haven’t staged a vote to do so. 

“We have told the courts, and we’ve said in the hearings, that we are examining the various malfeasances of the president, with the possibility of recommending articles of impeachment in the House. That is what an impeachment inquiry is,” he said.

Hoyer on Wednesday initially rejected that characterization, saying “the delineation ought to be whether or not they’re considering a resolution of impeachment.” He quickly issued a clarifying statement, in which he said he “strongly support[s]” the Judiciary Committee’s approach. 

“It is critical that Congress have access to all of the relevant facts, and we will follow those facts wherever they lead, including impeachment,” Hoyer said.

As Democrats stumble over messaging, Republicans contend that Thursday’s vote only fuels the misleading idea that Democrats are already engaged in a formal impeachment inquiry.

“Tomorrow’s committee business is a meaningless reiteration of existing committee authorities, allowing the chairman to keep this story in the news when moderate Democrats simply want it to go away,” Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsJustice OIG completes probe on FBI surveillance of ex-Trump campaign aide Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers ramp up Silicon Valley antitrust probe | Treasury sanctions North Korean cyber groups | Thiel to host Kobach fundraiser House antitrust panel seeks internal records from Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook MORE (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “The House of Representatives is not engaged in formal impeachment proceedings, as House Democrat leaders continue to note.”

Nadler, however, has said that these procedures will set the course for their investigation as they seek to determine whether to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump.

“The adoption of these additional procedures is the next step in that process and will help ensure our impeachment hearings are informative to Congress and the public, while providing the President with the ability to respond to evidence presented against him,” Nadler said in a statement Monday.