Dems warn of 'constitutional crisis' but wary of impeachment

Dems warn of 'constitutional crisis' but wary of impeachment
© Greg Nash and Stefani Reynolds

A growing number of leading Democrats are sounding alarm bells, declaring that the U.S. is facing a "constitutional crisis" worse than the Watergate scandal that forced former President Nixon out of office. 

Despite the ominous terms Democrats are using to describe the current impasse, they’re not moving any faster toward the same remedy the House turned to with Nixon over Watergate: impeachment.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Photographer leaves Judiciary hearing after being accused of taking photos of member notes Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) agreed with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerJudiciary members battle over whether GOP treated fairly in impeachment hearings Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers MORE (D-N.Y.) this week in calling the clash with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE and his associates stonewalling their investigations a "constitutional crisis." And House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that "this is bigger than Watergate."

"In many ways, this is more serious than Watergate," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffMcConnell, White House lawyer huddle on impeachment strategy House GOP lawmaker wants Senate to hold 'authentic' impeachment trial Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) echoed at a Friday event hosted by Axios.

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And House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Lawmakers strike spending deal to avert shutdown Vulnerable Democrats feel heat ahead of impeachment vote MORE (D-Md.) described the Trump administration’s blanket refusal to cooperate with their probes as "perhaps the greatest cover-up of any president in American history."

Pelosi said the "constitutional crisis" isn’t grounds at this point to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump before committees gather evidence and make a public case.

She noted that in Nixon’s case, it took months of hearings and investigations "before they got to a place where they had enough" to even convince Republicans the president had to go. 

"This is very methodical. It's very Constitution-based. It's very law-based. It's very factually based. It's not about pressure. It's about patriotism," Pelosi said.

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers MORE (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member and former constitutional law professor, also invoked Nixon, declaring that "the Trump administration is engaged in far more sweeping and systematic defiance of Congress than even the Nixon administration did."

But Raskin insisted Democrats are still in the fact-finding phase. And he argued that Democrats are already effectively investigating whether Trump committed impeachable offenses.

"Impeachment can mean to expose the lies of someone. And we're in the process of impeaching President Trump and his administration every day in terms of exposing the deceptions. But in the constitutional sense, people need to understand this is a process," Raskin said.

"What we need to be talking about is a process of fact-finding that will allow us to make informed judgments about whether or not the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors and whether we need to remove the president in order to protect the Constitution and the rule of law," he added.

Liberals clamoring for impeachment are depicting the current state of affairs in similarly dire terms as an argument for moving forward now.

Hours after Pelosi asserted that the U.S. is facing a "constitutional crisis," Reps. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenDemocrats reach cusp of impeachment Feehery: Losing faith in the people and the Constitution Warren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race MORE (D-Texas) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibIlhan Omar responds to 'Conservative Squad': 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers Biden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll MORE (D-Mich.) joined with liberal activists at a rally outside the Capitol to highlight a petition with more than 10 million signatures calling on Congress to start impeachment proceedings.

Green didn’t directly reference Pelosi but declared that such a crisis warrants impeachment.

“I say those who try to refute the fact that we are in a constitutional crisis, many of them do so because they know that if you acknowledge that you're in a constitutional crisis, you have to do something,” Green said. “You can't say we have a constitutional crisis and then do nothing.”

Tlaib has introduced a resolution calling on the Judiciary Committee to investigate whether the House should impeach Trump, which currently has seven co-sponsors.

“Getting 10 million signatures makes me feel like I'm the right side of history,” Tlaib said when asked about Democratic leaders’ continued resistance to impeachment. “As long as the American public and the public are pushing forward to demand accountability of this president, that will obviously lead to us possibly acting.”

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For now, Democrats are channeling their outrage toward administration officials blocking their investigations. The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines this week to hold Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrHolder rips into William Barr: 'He is unfit to lead the Justice Department' Five takeaways on Horowitz's testimony on Capitol Hill Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? MORE in contempt of Congress for not complying with requests for documents related to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment Trump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts MORE’s report.

Pelosi, who backed the contempt resolution, criticized the Trump administration for actions that she has said are meant to "goad" Democrats into launching impeachment proceedings against the president.

"Trump is goading us to impeach him," Pelosi said at an "Inside Congress" event sponsored by Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs this week. "That's what he's doing. Every single day, he's just like, taunting, taunting, taunting, because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. [He] just wants to solidify his base."

Democratic leaders pushing a methodical approach need only point to recent polling indicating that they haven’t sold the public on impeachment. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 48 percent of respondents believe Congress shouldn't hold impeachment hearings, while only 17 percent think there’s enough evidence for Congress to go forward. Another 32 percent think Congress should keep investigating to see if there is enough evidence to hold impeachment hearings in the future. 

Republicans, who see an advantage to highlighting liberal divisions over impeachment, mocked Democrats for using apocalyptic language but opting not to pursue impeachment.

“When I hear that the wrecking ball is being taken to the Constitution, that it is being trampled upon, that a continued breakdown of constitutional order, these kind of arguments made over and over again, I can't help but say if you think this administration, this president is so dangerous, why aren't you acting on the many resolutions for impeachment you have already introduced?” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said. 

The conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board also accused Pelosi of staging a “phony impeachment war.”

“If you believe what you’re saying, Madame Speaker, then get on with impeachment, which is the proper constitutional remedy for the offenses you allege. Otherwise, do the country a favor and drop the pretense,” the editorial stated.

But Democratic leaders say the fact that they’re not moving to formally impeach Trump doesn’t mean they aren’t taking action.

“I know that some of our supporters are a bit frustrated because they see things in black and white, but there are a lot of gray issues involved in this, and that's where we've got to be cognizant,” Clyburn told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Thursday.

Schiff mused that Democrats are in a lose-lose situation: Deciding not to impeach could suggest a president can get away with misconduct, while moving forward with impeachment only to be rebuffed by the GOP-controlled Senate would suggest the conduct doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

“That's the dilemma. But if the president takes the lack of an impeachment proceeding as a license for further obstruction, that's going to strengthen the argument of those that have been urging impeachment,” Schiff said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.