Democratic leaders seek to have it both ways on impeachment

House Democratic leaders are seeking a delicate balance when it comes to impeachment and President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter MORE (D-N.Y.) outlined the latest strategy in July when he said his panel would push forward aggressively with investigations of Trump. Nadler even called the process impeachment.

At the same time, Nadler made it clear the committee was not, at least now, considering a formal resolution to launch an impeachment inquiry.

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It’s a messaging balance designed to appease liberals clamoring to oust Trump immediately, while protecting vulnerable centrists battling to keep their seats in next year’s elections.

Whether it will satisfy either side is an open question.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineFive takeaways from Big Tech's blowout earnings What factors will shape Big Tech regulation? Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence MORE (D-R.I.), who leads the party’s messaging arm and has backed starting an inquiry, suggested some on both sides might be displeased.

The path “we are taking does not require a vote, so I guess for some people who are anxious to vote, to officially move forward, they will be disappointed,” he said. “For people who are not interested in voting, I guess they will be pleased.”

Democrats have steadily emerged to back an impeachment inquiry since former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE testified before Congress last month on Russia’s 2016 election interference and episodes of possible obstruction of justice by Trump.

About half the caucus now supports an inquiry, increasing the pressure on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (D-Calif.) and other leaders.

At the same time, the number of House members formally backing an inquiry is far less than the 218 votes needed to impeach Trump.

Centrists have repeatedly offered concerns that the party is spending too much time talking about impeachment as opposed to health care and other issues seen as central to the party’s victories in last year’s midterm elections. They’ve warned this could hurt the party in the elections.

“I believe impeachment will assuredly consume us all and basically grind our nation to a halt,” Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLawmakers weigh in on role of private equity firms in economic recovery The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Coronavirus relief negotiations underway with lawmakers back in Washington The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided GOP to unveil COVID-19 bill MORE (D-Fla.), a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said during a town hall last week in her central Florida district, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “And I think impeachment has a really high threshold.”

A handful of Democrats have promoted the idea that the party has effectively launched an impeachment inquiry, even though it has not. That seems designed to mollify liberals arguing that the House should do something.

“In every meaningful way, our investigation is an impeachment inquiry,” Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse votes to sanction Schweikert over ethics violations House Ethics panel recommends ,000 fine for Rep. Schweikert's campaign finance violations Florida county official apologizes for social media post invoking Hitler  MORE (D-Fla.), a senior member of the Judiciary panel, wrote Thursday in an op-ed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. 

Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanDemocrats blister Barr during tense hearing Democratic lawmakers launch 'Mean Girls'-inspired initiative to promote face masks Behind every gun law is a mom marching for her children MORE (D-Pa.), another Judiciary member, described the investigation as a post-Mueller “phase two.” She also downplayed the difference between launching an inquiry and the investigation her panel is conducting.

“I think it is some ways whether you call it an impeachment investigation or an impeachment inquiry is a little bit semantic, and not terribly relevant,” Dean told The Hill in an interview.

Cicilline cast the strategy as being about practicalities, saying it would help Democrats secure documents and witness testimony from the courts. 

“I think it had more to do with the importance of accurately reflecting what we are actually doing to the court than it was about not making people vote,” Cicilline told The Hill.

Some liberal House members themselves aren’t fans of impeachment.

Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonFive takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis Johnson presses Barr on reducing Roger Stone's recommended sentence MORE (D-Ga.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Trump has already committed impeachable offenses. But he stressed the importance of protecting moderates, who won Democrats their majority in 2018.

“He obstructed justice and tried to influence witnesses — both impeachable offenses. [But] I've not been shown that the American people in the key congressional battleground districts are ready to impeach,” said Johnson, another member of the Judiciary Committee. 

Johnson noted that his fellow Georgian, freshman Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathRepublicans uncomfortably playing defense The Hill's Campaign Report: Even the Post Office is political now | Primary action tonight | Super PACS at war NRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia MORE (D), was elected last year by a margin of less than 1 percentage point, and voters in her district don't favor impeachment. 

“I want to keep Lucy here,” he said. 

Pelosi has sought to keep impeachment on the backburner and that effort was helped last week when the Democratic presidential debates largely avoided the issue.

It’s always possible the issue could create more noise on the campaign trail, however.

At last week’s debate, Julián Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Obama, made the strategic case for impeachment, saying House Democrats risked making a political mistake by not impeaching Trump even if the GOP-held Senate failed to convict him with 67 votes.

“If they don't impeach him ... he's going to say, ‘You see, you see, the Democrats didn't go after me on impeachment, and do you know why? Because I didn't do anything wrong,’” Castro said from the debate stage in Michigan. “Conversely, if Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal MORE is the one that lets him off the hook, we're going to be able to say, ‘Well sure, we impeached him in the House, but his friend Mitch McConnell — ‘Moscow Mitch’ — let him off the hook.’”

Castro’s argument taps into another messaging strategy Democrats are hoping to utilize in 2020: painting McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate majority leader, as a roadblock to all the Democrats’ legislative priorities, including efforts to bolster election security, which has won him the “Moscow Mitch” moniker. 

Mueller’s testimony yielded no new information, but he strongly emphasized Russia’s active measures to interfere. And while his testimony on obstruction in many ways fell flat for Democrats, particularly after weeks of inflating expectations, Democrats say the former special counsel gave them enough fuel to advance their investigations. 

Nadler announced plans last month to continue their investigations by going to court over redacted portions of the Mueller report and seeking to enforce the subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn. While Nadler stated the committee will move forward with actions against McGahn by Monday or Tuesday, such actions have yet to materialize.

Still, legal experts say the committee’s arguments in court are weaker in an informal impeachment investigation versus a formal inquiry. 

“These are not legal terms. These are all political terms,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor. 

“They don’t need anyone’s approval, including the full House’s approval, if they want to investigate any person. On the other hand, if they do want to start taking more formal steps towards impeachment, then there is a good argument that it doesn’t really carry much [weight] until the entire House approves it,” Honig added.

Democrats have expressed hope that the courts will view their investigation as an attempt to conduct oversight and cause a judge to expedite proceedings. Members on the committee have also voiced a willingness to fly back to Washington during the six-week August recess if such movement occurs.

“Watch carefully the courts’ decisions. I think that the fact that we have said we are in an impeachment investigation signals to the courts the urgency of this and that is why I’m hopeful I will be back in during the break,” Dean told the Hill.

“We are the Congress pitted against an obstructionist administration,” she added.