Democrats' impeachment message leads to plenty of head-scratching

Democrats' impeachment message leads to plenty of head-scratching
© Greg Nash

House Democrats ramping up their oversight of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE have made a muddle of their impeachment message.

While party leaders have spent much of the summer outlining their investigative strategy in painstaking repetition, there remains widespread disagreement — even confusion — about whether the effort should be considered the start of the impeachment process.

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Speaking with reporters and appearing on cable news shows, top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have variably referred to an impeachment inquiry, an impeachment investigation and an impeachment process, while Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom' What this 'impeachment' is really about — and it's not the Constitution MORE (D-N.Y.) churned plenty of headlines last month when he characterized his panel's investigation as "formal impeachment proceedings."

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiLouisiana governor wins re-election Dynamic scoring: Forward-thinking budgeting practices to grow our economy Pelosi: Trump tweets on Yovanovitch show his 'insecurity as an imposter' MORE (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants have taken care to avoid any overt references to impeachment, a concept that remains underwater when it comes to public support across the country.

"We have had an investigation ... for a very long time," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol on Monday when asked about impeachment.

The irregular branding has confused some lawmakers, perplexed the media and jumbled the party's oversight message as Congress heads into the thick of the 2020 presidential cycle — a dynamic even some Democratic leaders have begun to acknowledge.

"I think there's definitely some confusion because people are using different language," Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Top antitrust Dem presses DOJ, FTC on Google's Fitbit acquisition Hillicon Valley: California AG reveals Facebook investigation | McConnell criticizes Twitter's political ad ban | Lawmakers raise concerns over Google takeover of Fitbit | Dem pushes FCC to secure 5G networks MORE (R.I.), the head of the Democrats' messaging arm, said Tuesday.

"Some people will continue to call it an inquiry. Some people call it a proceeding. Some people call it an impeachment investigation," he added. "But I think hopefully it will be clear that the Judiciary Committee is hard at work to determine whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment."

Judiciary leaders contend they've been consistent in their approach, noting that they've repeatedly cited the possibility of impeachment in recent court filings seeking disputed documents and witness testimony from the uncooperative administration.

"I think that we've been clear in court, given our right to do oversight," said Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties | FCC formally approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill | AT&T in M settlement with FTC Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill MORE (D-Calif.). "One of the remedies that the legislative branch has is impeachment; it's also oversight."

And Nadler also defended his messaging, suggesting the language surrounding the investigations is less important than their effectiveness in holding the administration to account for alleged misconduct.

"We have been involved since June or July in an investigation looking toward the possibility of voting on articles of impeachment," Nadler told reporters in the Capitol on Monday evening. "You can call it an impeachment inquiry. You can call it an investigation. It's the same thing."

The impeachment debate and the semantic games surrounding it have highlighted the ideological divisions within the diverse Democratic caucus, which leans heavily to the left but owes its majority to the centrist lawmakers who flipped Republican-held seats in last year's midterms.

It also underscores the balancing act party leaders are attempting as they seek to invigorate a liberal base clamoring for impeachment while protecting the moderates facing tough reelections next year.

If there's one advantage to the muddled message, it's that party leaders can assure both liberals and moderates that they're on their side.

"I believe that the leadership is trying really hard to make sure that we ... [don't] limit or undermine our own opportunity in the elections," said Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHouse passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell White House, McConnell come out against House bill on Ex-Im Bank Divides over China, fossil fuels threaten House deal to reboot Ex-Im Bank MORE (D-Calif.), a vocal impeachment supporter.

"We're just going to continue to do our work. I don't know where that takes us," she added.

Behind Nadler, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are hoping this week to expand the panel's investigative powers by adopting a series of procedural changes governing the Trump probe. The changes, scheduled for a committee vote Thursday, would allow Nadler to designate any hearing a part of the broader investigation. They would also empower committee staff to interview witnesses for longer stretches than lawmakers are allowed under current rules.
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Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanDemocrat unveils bill requiring banks to identify suspicious activity related to guns Democratic lawmakers call on Judiciary Committee to advance 'revenge porn' law Democrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt MORE (D-Pa.), a freshman member of the committee, said the changes would provide both clarity and efficiency to the investigation.

"It couldn't be more important than to hold this president accountable for his extraordinary corruption and wrongdoing," she said. "By setting up these procedures and being so clear, it signals to the courts ... what we're doing. And it will expedite things."

Yet even the proposed procedural reforms created some confusion surrounding the Democrats' intentions. Some impeachment activists were quick to praise the changes as a shift toward formalizing the impeachment process.

“The decision by Chairman Nadler and the House Judiciary Committee to move forward with the initial steps of a formal impeachment inquiry marks a pivotal moment in the historic fight to hold Donald Trump accountable," said Nathaly Arriola, executive director of Need to Impeach, the anti-Trump group founded by billionaire environmentalist Tom SteyerThomas (Tom) Fahr SteyerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field MORE.

But Nadler rejected the notion that the changes mark a step toward impeachment.

"It doesn't change things. What it does is it provides specific procedures to continue with that investigation," he said. "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."

Cicilline said he's hoping the procedural moves do more than expand the scope of the Judiciary probe but also clear up some of the confusion surrounding the Democrats' impeachment plans.

"One of the objectives of Thursday is to make it very clear that the Judiciary Committee is actively engaged in a proceeding to determine whether or not to recommend articles of impeachment of the president to the full House," he said.

Meanwhile, liberal impeachment supporters are pressing leaders on and off the Judiciary Committee to adopt a more aggressive approach to holding Trump accountable for allegations of wrongdoing.

"The corruption of this president knows no bounds, and in order to protect our democracy, we have to impeach him," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezLouisiana governor wins re-election White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations Ocasio-Cortez voices support for Taylor Swift in artist's battle to perform her songs MORE (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.

Ocasio-Cortez said it's Republicans, not Democrats, who have the most to fear in terms of political fallout if the process gets started.  

"Once the House impeaches, the House has impeached the president," she said. "Then I want to see every Republican go on the record and knowingly vote against impeachment of this president, knowing his corruption, having it on the record so that they can have that stain on their careers for the rest of their lives."

"Because this is outrageous," she added.

Cristina Marcos contributed.