“We Have a Criminal in the White House”: Behind the Scenes of the House Democratic Debate Over an Impeachment Inquiry
08/29/2019, 10:51:41
header-image

Where Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making a political calculation, Judiciary members see it as a matter of duty. (Plus: “The action is in the Committee, and so you want it.”)

Nancy Pelosi remains unmoved when it comes to opening an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, but the ground is shifting under the powerful speaker. As the number of lawmakers in favor balloons—more than 75 House Democrats and one Republican now back an inquiry—the fissures between members who view impeachment as a political calculation and those who frame it as a constitutional duty are coming into starker relief. At the center of this divide is the Judiciary Committee, which would be in charge of trying the case against the president. And, tellingly, 15 of its 24 Democratic members are in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry.

“It’s impossible to evaluate the political component without the politics of it, and I will tell you I am absolutely terrified of another four years of Donald Trump. I think it would be catastrophic for the planet, catastrophic for women, catastrophic for minorities, catastrophic for people with disabilities, catastrophic to our democracy, and the list goes on and on,” said Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who sits on the committee. “But we have a criminal in the White House who must be held accountable, and if Congress does not hold him accountable, I see that as an absolute abdication of our oath of office.”

Judiciary Committee members account for nearly 20% of House Democrats publicly in favor of an impeachment inquiry. “It’s not surprising that a lot of members of the Judiciary Committee would be among the first to arrive here,” Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and constitutional law professor, told me. “Those of us on the Judiciary Committee have just been much more intensely exposed to the president’s daily obstruction of justice and contemptuous conduct toward Congress.”

This proportion can be explained, in part, by the lens these lawmakers are applying to the issue. “I don’t think anybody is looking at it politically in the committee,” said Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, who sits on the Judiciary Committee but has long been in favor of impeaching Trump. Still, he conceded, “I guess if you get an impeachment inquiry, the action is in the committee, and so you want it.” No committee member mentions it directly, but everyone is aware that an impeachment inquiry would generate weeks of primetime, televised history. Watergate made careers, minted political superstars.

But is this Watergate, or Whitewater? The conventional wisdom is that without overwhelming public support and Republican buy-in, an impeachment inquiry would backfire on the Democrats, as some argue it did for the GOP when the Newt Gingrich–led House impeached Bill Clinton. But lawmakers I spoke with dismissed the premise that the current moment is analogous to the Clinton presidency. The better comparison, they say, is to Richard Nixon. “We’re talking major league and minor league violations,” Cohen said. “Things people can relate to and people can’t relate to.” Unlike Clinton, Nixon saw his approval rating plummet from 68% at the start of the impeachment process to 24% by its end.

The fear is not just that an impeachment inquiry could lead to four more years of Trump but that it could also cost Democrats the House and rob the party of the opportunity to take back the Senate. As former Congressman Barney Frank recently laid out to the Atlantic, the thinking is that “impeachment will be a problem for Democratic candidates—not everywhere, but in districts that are in the middle.” In other words, the House seats Democrats flipped in 2018 and the Senate seats they are targeting in 2020.

Among Democrats on the committee, there is a budding concern that not launching an inquiry would pose a greater danger. “To me, the larger issue is, regardless of what happens in the Senate, we have to show future presidents for the sake of our democracy that when this president broke the law, we sought help to hold him accountable,” Congressman Eric Swalwell told me. “History will judge what we did…I don’t want to just assume the Senate is not going to hold him accountable. And that may be what ultimately happens, but I don’t want to walk away from this because I’ve prejudged that.”

Freshman Congresswoman Madeleine Dean drew a corollary between the spate of legislation that has cleared the House since Democrats won back the majority last fall—ranging from legislation to lower the costs of prescription drugs to protecting preexisting conditions—and an impeachment inquiry. Just as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has killed any hope of Democrats’ bills becoming laws, the self-described “grim reaper” would surely kill any attempt to hold Trump accountable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth going through the motions.

“I’m not going to stop fighting for these good bills just because I know I have a Senate sitting on their hands. I won’t do it. We must do our job and let the American people judge a Senate that sits on their hands and lets these bills die,” Dean explained. “I compare that analogously to our oversight obligation. If I just judged my duty as ‘Well, it’s never going to go anywhere in the Senate,’ I think I would be abdicating my role. I feel like we have to do this and the end of this staircase will be revealed to us, but we have to take the steps.”

As Democratic support for an impeachment inquiry grows, so does the pressure on Pelosi. For now, even advocates of the move are largely signaling their continued support for the speaker and her stance. “They have to be like a quarterback. They have to have the ability to see the entire field and understand how one action affects everybody on that field, right?…That’s what we elected them for too, to look at the entire field,” Congresswoman Val Demings said of the House Speaker. “As a member of the House Judiciary, my mission is very clear…. I only need to be very narrowly focused, looking at the Mueller report, whether we impeach or not impeach.” Gabby Richards, a spokesperson for Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon, who supports an impeachment inquiry, told me that Democrats are “united on the frustration with the administration, not leadership.”

And yet, cracks are emerging. Bennie Thompson, Jim McGovern, and Maxine Waters, who chair the Homeland Security, Rules, and Financial Services committees, respectively, have all come out publicly in support of an impeachment inquiry. And Jerrold Nadler the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has reportedly privately pushed Pelosi on the issue. “I think Nadler advocates both for the committee, which is his responsibility, and for his district. His district on the West Side of New York is very much for impeachment. And Jerry’s always been that type of congressperson to be for justice, and pursuing things for the right reasons,” Cohen told me. “I think Jerry’s always been there, but he’s got to work with Pelosi.”

Pelosi is the key—and the biggest mystery. “I don’t know what will ever get Nancy. I just don’t know. I don’t know who’s got her ear. Somebody’s got her ear, and whoever’s got her ear is telling her that it’s not a good thing…I respect her,” Cohen continued. “But the only way we’re going to know is he’s either impeached or he’s not impeached, and you see what happens in November of 2020.”

Meanwhile, everyone in Congress hears the clock ticking. “I do think the closer we get to primaries, really the worse that it looks for us to open up an inquiry,” Escobar told me. “I would say it needs to happen this calendar year.”