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 TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Republicans take aim at Nadler for saying GOP senators complicit in 'cover-up' 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 CicillineHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Smaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' Living in limbo may end for Liberians in the US 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) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 PelosiSekulow indicates White House not interested in motion to dismiss impeachment articles Overnight Health Care: Trump restores funding for Texas program that bars Planned Parenthood | Trump to attend March for Life | PhRMA spent record on 2019 lobbying Key House committee chairman to meet with Mnuchin on infrastructure next week 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 MurphyRep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Bloomberg's congressional endorsers grow to three 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 DeutchUS officials, world leaders arrive in Israel for World Holocaust Forum  Bipartisan lawmakers condemn Iran, dispute State Department on number of protesters killed Bipartisan lawmakers introduce amendment affirming US commitment to military aid to Israel 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 DeanThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Judiciary Committee abruptly postpones vote on articles of impeachment Impeachment inquiry enters critical new phase 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. JohnsonHouse Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Democrats approve two articles of impeachment against Trump in Judiciary vote Democrat calls Gaetz the 'pot calling the kettle black' after Hunter Biden drug-use comments 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 McBathThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade How the 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted on impeachment Vulnerable Democrats signal support for impeachment articles this week 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum No. 2 GOP leader eyes Wednesday of next week for possible votes on witnesses 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.