When the impeachment inquiry began in late September, and in the weeks since, House Democrats signaled through strategic leaks that they wanted to limit the duration and scope of their investigation, and draw the process to a close by the end of the year.
Their goal, which reflects risk aversion, has rested uncomfortably alongside continued assurances from Democratic leaders that the investigation would persist as long as necessary to reach the truth, and a rapidly multiplying set of leads—both related and unrelated to the Ukraine scandal—that Democrats have left unexamined.
We can now see that risk aversion has prevailed over those more principled considerations. By all accounts, Democrats intend to prepare articles of impeachment this week and actually impeach President Trump in the long shadow of the Christmas holiday.
It hasn’t escaped notice that the rushed timeline precludes a thorough investigation of Trump’s serial violations of the emoluments clause, or the abuse of his classification authority to conceal corrupt dealings with other world leaders, or any number of other impeachable offenses. It also precludes testimony from any of the principals—Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, Rick Perry, Rudy Giuliani—who witnessed or participated in the Ukraine scheme.
Democrats don’t answer these glaring omissions by admitting that they fear a more protracted, omnivorous investigation. Instead they now argue that they must accelerate the timeline because Trump seeks to rig the 2020 election, and so impeaching him now rather than later is a matter of urgency.
“There is I think grave risk to the country with waiting until we have every last fact when we already know enough about the president’s misconduct to make a responsible judgment about whether that conduct is compatible with the office of the presidency,” House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff told reporters last week.
This argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny in a world where congressional Republicans have given every indication that they, too, want this impeachment business to be over with as soon as possible, and intend to assure that Trump survives it. But if it’s the argument Democrats intend to make, then there’s a simple way to reconcile the supposedly prudential need to race narrow articles of impeachment to the Senate with the competing imperative to expose Trump’s broader corruption and hold him accountable for all of it: pass Ukraine-related articles of impeachment, but keep the impeachment inquiry alive.
The urgent-action theory would make sense in a world where the House of Representatives had real prosecutorial powers. Prosecutors regularly seek indictments before their investigations are complete to get bad guys off the streets, and if the House could remove a president from power unilaterally, or Senate Republicans had signaled a willingness to convict Trump on narrow articles, it would be irresponsible of House Democrats not to move swiftly. In this world, though, “indicting” Trump will signal the end of a damaging investigation of Trump’s abuses of office, and limit the number of uncomfortable votes Republicans have to take in order to put this all behind them—which is why they and Trump also want Democrats to rush this process to a close.
But if Democrats believe their own argument about the urgency of passing narrow articles of impeachment then there is a simple way to avoid letting Trump’s most egregious abuse of power shield him from accountability for lesser ones: Impeach him on an emergency basis for subverting U.S. democracy, but allow House committees to continue investigating his abuses of power that aren’t directly linked to the integrity of the coming election under the umbrella of the same impeachment inquiry.
By impeaching Trump quick and dirty—for extorting Ukraine, and obstructing Congress’s investigation of the Ukraine scheme—Democrats will weaken their own power to learn new information about Trump through the normal oversight process: Trump will have just been acquitted for the most thoroughgoing obstruction of Congress in history, and so he will obstruct further oversight proceedings with even greater impunity.
Leaving the inquiry open, by contrast, would make obtaining critical information about Trump’s corrupt and criminal conduct much more likely. House Democrats currently seek to obtain Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury materials, and a federal judge has ruled that they are entitled to that evidence and testimony, but only in the context of an impeachment inquiry. They have also subpoenaed Trump’s financial documents from third parties, like Trump’s former accounting firm, and have prevailed over Trump’s challenges to those subpoenas in lower courts, but a Trump-appointed circuit court judge has provided a roadmap for the Supreme Court’s conservative justices to deny the House these records: Her dissent relied on the wholly invented notion that Congress could only subpoena them pursuant to an impeachment inquiry. Similarly, the pendency of an impeachment inquiry will make it likelier that the courts ultimately compel key witnesses to appear for testimony under subpoena.
Closing the inquiry with the passage of narrow articles of impeachment will be the end of the line for most if not all efforts to expose the full breadth of Trump’s abuses of power. Information the public is entitled to ahead of the 2020 election will remain indefinitely hidden. By contrast, the threat of a second Senate trial pertaining to Trump’s obstruction of Congress, his self-enrichment, his seizure of federal dollars for personal gain, his financial crimes, or for still-concealed aspects of his corrupt foreign policy would preserve the House’s lone means of obtaining new information and commanding the public’s attention to Trump’s misconduct. It might also give Republican senators pause about their intention to acquit Trump of the Ukraine shakedown in January. That vote will be relatively easy for them if they’re confident further evidence will never come to light, harder if they’ll live in a constant state of worry about what shoes are left to drop.
Ultimately, the right course of action is to brandish the impeachment power until Republicans relent or suffer maximal political damage for refusing to do so. If Republicans intend to let Trump skate for the slam dunk abuses unearthed in the Ukraine investigation, then they should have to vote to bless more and more of Trump’s egregious behavior until Trump and the congressional GOP become indistinguishable forces of corruption. But insofar as House Democrats are intent on impeaching Trump on an emergency basis before the year is out, they should only do so under the explicit understanding that the inquiry will continue, and investigators will watch his past and future conduct hawkishly. Anything less and Trump will notice that Congress will only bother to seek accountability for his worst and most flagrant offenses, and that Republicans will ride to his rescue even then. The only lesson a corrupt president can take from such an outcome is that, while he is in power, anything goes.