The rapid increase in public support for impeaching Donald Trump began the moment House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she’d authorized an official impeachment inquiry, and has continued at least in some part because the abrupt shift in the Democratic Party’s posture toward Trump disrupted his efforts to nullify congressional oversight.
For months Trump exploited Democratic reluctance to impeach him by defying essentially every House demand for documents and testimony, knowing he’d face no consequences as long as the party remained divided. When that division evaporated, Trump at least momentarily lost control over Republicans in Congress and senior administration officials, and the information spigot turned back on. That’s what forced Trump to release the summary of his incriminating phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and declassify the whistleblower complaint that initially forced Democrats to take the Ukraine scandal seriously. It’s why the acting director of national intelligence testified in public and private, and how Democrats managed to secure bombshell testimony and evidence from former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker.
It’s no surprise then that Trump wants to restore the status quo ante, where he contemptuously refuses to cooperate with Congress, and Congress sputters ineffectively before getting tied up in slow-moving court proceedings. In addition to the challenge this strategy poses to Democrats’ resolve, it also reflects straightforward reasoning about his own dilemma: If he’s destined to be impeached, he may as well cram as many damning facts about his own conduct into the black box of obstruction, rather than let everything spill out, and get impeached on the substance of his vast abuses of power.
He’s begun to test this theory. On Tuesday, Trump or his subordinates abruptly instructed Gordon Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union, to no-show his scheduled deposition with House investigators, just hours before it was set to begin. Sondland is a hotel executive who donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee to buy his ambassadorship, and was seemingly Trump’s point man in the plot to extort Ukraine for personal benefit. (Note, Ukraine is not an EU member, which suggests Trump enlisted Sondland for the sole purpose of circumventing proper diplomatic channels.) He can testify directly to Trump’s thinking, and reportedly has documentary evidence of the scheme in the form of text messages the State Department has thus far refused to turn over to the House.
The House’s response to this provocation will be fateful, because if Trump is allowed to restore the obstructive cycle that befuddled Democrats for the first nine months of their majority, the full scope of his corruption will remain hidden and impeachment momentum could fizzle. Because Sondland scheduled his now-canceled deposition voluntarily, Democrats took the natural next step of issuing subpoenas for his testimony and documents, which will tee up a new confrontation. But there are worrying signs that they will not use every tool at their disposal to extract information from the administration, even over Trump’s objections.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent Tuesday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who leads the impeachment inquiry, suggested that the House may proceed on dual tracks by impeaching Trump for obstructing Congress, while asking courts to enforce their impeachment-related subpoenas. In the meantime, Pelosi and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal are apparently eager to expedite legislation to allow Trump to implement the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement—updating the terms of NAFTA—to demonstrate Democrats can impeach Trump and “get things done” simultaneously. They would hand Trump an unvarnished victory as he threatens to upend the separation of powers and place himself completely above the law.
Fortunately, none of this Is inevitable. It is possible that federal judges will hurriedly vindicate the House’s impeachment power and order Trump to cooperate. It is also possible that Pelosi will demand concessions from Trump, including cooperation with the impeachment inquiry, before she puts the USMCA on the floor for a vote.
But Democrats are not guaranteed to draw sympathetic judges. Their lawsuit to compel the IRS to produce Trump’s tax returns languishes today in the chambers of a judge Trump appointed to the bench just two years ago. And the House leadership has been frustratingly indulgent of nervous first-term Democrats who stood in the way of impeachment for months and now want the whole process to be over as quickly as possible. Of all Democratic chairmen, Neal has been perhaps the most reluctant to confront Trump, despite enjoying extraordinary authority to compel evidence of his wrongdoing, and his possession of evidence from a whistleblower that Trump’s political appointees have meddled in the mandatory audit all presidents are subject to by law.
Needless to say the lesson of the last two weeks is not that confronting Trump is politically risky. Democrats should widen their demands for information and pursue it on a war-footing. There is nothing binding about Trump’s instruction to Sondland, and Sondland could be made to cooperate. He is a Senate confirmed United States ambassador who is subject to impeachment in his own right. He is obligated to respond to congressional subpoenas and can not invoke privilege to cover up crimes. Congress has a long-neglected inherent power to enforce its subpoenas by detaining witnesses found in contempt. Sondland owns hotels in Democratic redoubts like Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, and Boston, MA, which makes them vulnerable to boycotts, protests, and government sanctions at multiple levels. House Democrats may not be able to target Sondland’s wallet directly, but they can make issue of the fact that he depends on the public to keep his business afloat while he mocks the public’s interest in holding its government accountable. Some of these tactics might apply to Trump’s bag man, Rudy Giuliani, who intends to defy House subpoenas as well, and may ultimately apply to others.
More generally, though, Democrats should just try things they were unwilling to try before the impeachment process began. Irrespective of whether Trump’s efforts to obstruct the impeachment inquiry will have an effect on public opinion, the public deserves to learn the facts Trump is trying to hide, and the one battle-tested way to draw them out is to overwhelm the Republicans with shows of determination and make them blink.