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 TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister MORE.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Nadler demands answers from Barr on 'new channel' for receiving Ukraine info from Giuliani Trump predicts Ocasio-Cortez will launch primary bid against Schumer 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 CicillineTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Hillicon Valley: US hits Huawei with new charges | Judge orders Pentagon to halt 'war cloud' work amid Amazon challenge | IRS removes guidance on Fortnite game currency Democrats criticize FCC for not taking action against DC station broadcasting Russian disinformation 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 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 PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders on the rise as Nevada debate looms Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Malaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations 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 MurphySan Francisco mayor endorses Bloomberg Rep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements 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 DeutchFather of Parkland shooting victim calls on Congress to take action Florida 'red flag' law has removed hundreds of guns: report The Hill's Campaign Report: Rising Klobuchar, Buttigieg face test in diverse states 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 DeanBloomberg builds momentum on Capitol Hill with new endorsements Democrats blast consumer bureau over student loan oversight agreement with DeVos Democratic congresswomen wear white to Trump's address in honor of suffrage movement 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. JohnsonClinton advises checking your voter registration during Trump's State of the Union Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley to boycott State of the Union 10 Democrats to boycott Trump State of the Union address 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 McBathDemocratic rivals sharpen attacks as Bloomberg rises The Hill's Campaign Report: Rising Klobuchar, Buttigieg face test in diverse states Conservative women's group rolls out new GOP endorsements for 2020 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 McConnellErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Trump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request 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.