The House Judiciary Committee has taken a small but fateful step that transforms the question of impeachment from a political dilemma into a moral one.
The particular terms are technical, but at bottom committee Democrats just adopted rules to distinguish their regular work from their impeachment-related hearings and investigations.
The committee’s chairman Jerry Nadler has been inching in this direction, in at least partial defiance of House Democratic leaders, for weeks. He has described his demands for documents and witness testimony in court filings as outgrowths of an impeachment inquiry. He has told reporters the same thing. What distinguishes today’s development from those assertions is that committee Democrats have now voted to affirm them. We have thus transitioned from a debate over whether Democrats should begin an impeachment inquiry at all to a debate over how to dispose of it—by running the process to completion or not.
In one sense, there isn’t much of a distinction here—several of Trump’s impeachable crimes are unconcealed, and if Democrats had affirmatively decided not to take any steps toward impeachment, many people would have interpreted it as indifference to those crimes, or perhaps as an indication of Trump’s innocence. But by taking this initial step, they have locked the party into making a decision about the substance of Trump’s conduct, rather than the strategic wisdom of bringing the impeachment power to bear at all.
This is an onus that Democratic leaders plainly hoped to avoid. Anyone who has observed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the years knows how she operates when she’s committed to a course of action, and she is decidedly not committed to this one. But having traveled past the crossroads, it would be disastrous to not now unify the party in support of Nadler’s investigation so that it doesn’t end in the worst possible way: with Democrats, having entertained the need to impeach the most corrupt president in history, deciding his conduct doesn’t merit it.
Democrats were always going to have to confront this issue because Trump has been a crook all along. If they really wanted to avoid it, they could have folded up the party and declined to contest the House in 2018. But simply by running that campaign to win, they obligated themselves to address how to hold a patently criminal president accountable with the powers the Constitution vests in Congress.
It may have been possible in the near-aftermath of the 2018 midterms for Democrats to take impeachment off the table in a way that didn’t reek of complete abdication.
The only defensible case against impeaching a president like Trump is a prudential one. It begins with a recognition both that Donald Trump is a terrible threat to the country, and also that Republicans in Congress, complicit in all of his bad deeds, have put democracy itself at risk to protect him. Absent an epiphany among those Republicans, the only way to save the country from Trump is to beat him in an election, but in a country as polarized as ours, that doesn’t leave Democrats a huge margin for error. Against a backdrop of Trump’s historic unpopularity, the risks of miscalculation are too high to plunge the country into impeachment. Even an off chance that a protracted airing of Trump’s obscene corruption somehow makes him more popular is too big.
There is no special wisdom here, no magic insight into how an aggressive impeachment process would shake out politically—it is just an argument for risk aversion. But to the extent that they have made a coherent argument at all, this is not the argument Democratic leaders have made. They have instead shown neither the courage of their convictions nor the courage of their lack of convictions, and have stumbled into an inviable realm where nobody in the House can say for certain whether an impeachment process is underway or not.
“[W]e’re not in an impeachment investigation,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), told Politico. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said, the House is investigating “whether or not there should be an impeachment investigation.” On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer denied that an impeachment inquiry was underway in the House, before reversing himself to say, “I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation ‘to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,’ as the resolution states.” That would sound like a ringing endorsement if House Democrats weren’t also reportedly thinking about “draft[ing] articles of impeachment, vot[ing] them out of the [Judiciary Committee] but never bring[ing] them to the floor of the House.”
Democratic leaders may have believed that by neither foreswearing nor embracing impeachment they could create a bifurcated politics that would yield all of the political upsides of an impeachment process and none of the downsides. Instead they are draining the process of its potential upsides while subjecting their vulnerable, impeachment-phobic members to intense scrutiny over where they stand on impeachment day by day. They have nurtured this lack of consensus, and it is a political failure.
So long as Republicans are intent upon helping Trump complete his coverup, the main purpose of an impeachment process is to draw attention to Trump’s misconduct in public hearings, and force everyone in Congress to vote on whether they think that misconduct is acceptable. The fact that the House is contemplating the impeachment of a president should shake the Earth. By contrast, if it isn’t clear that the hearings are impeachment hearings, nobody will pay attention. We know this, because Democrats have addressed Trump’s impeachable offenses outside of an impeachment process all year, and gotten nowhere.
It took months from the day Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report for House Democrats to secure his public testimony. In between, the Judiciary Committee convened a hearing about the seriousness of presidential obstruction of justice, featuring former federal prosecutors, and Richard Nixon’s chastened co-conspirator John Dean. Without driving purpose, the hearing lacked real political significance, and the 24 hour news networks all cut away to cover a helicopter accident in New York.
If the purpose of the hearing had been to establish the importance of impeaching Trump for obstructing justice, the witness list would have been a secondary concern. If House Democrats were to vote unanimously to sanction Nadler’s inquiry, the gravity of his hearings wouldn’t be lost on anyone, whether Trump blocked fact witnesses from testifying or not.
Muddling through as Democrats have so far wastes that clarifying potential. It’s also unsustainable. Whether they muddle through the process or charge through it confidently, Democrats will ultimately have to compile their findings and decide what to do with them—indict, or not. There is no path between yes and no on impeachment, and the sooner Democrats accept that, the better.