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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 TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds 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 NadlerPelosi names 9 impeachment managers Republicans gauge support for Trump impeachment Clyburn blasts DeVos and Chao for 'running away' from 25th Amendment fight 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 PelosiGOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer placed on administrative leave: reports Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN 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 CicillineWashington state rep joins list of Republicans voting to impeach Trump Growing number of GOP lawmakers say they support impeachment Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers 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 LofgrenLawmakers briefed on 'horrifying,' 'chilling' security threats ahead of inauguration Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress Capitol Police chief announces resignation after pro-Trump riots 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 WatersCapitol Police report warned that Congress could be targeted three days before riot Democrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Lawmakers warned police of possible attack ahead of siege 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 DeanPelosi names 9 impeachment managers House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump Eyes turn to Ocasio-Cortez as she seeks to boost Biden 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 SteyerTom SteyerOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Late donor surges push election spending projections to new heights 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-CortezBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden faces tall order in uniting polarized nation Facebook has no current plan to end the Trump suspension 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.