House Democrats Step Into the Impeachment Abyss

You can be forgiven for missing it, but this week the House of Representatives officially began an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump. Democratic leaders will try to avoid putting labels on what’s happening to protect wary members from Trump districts, but make no mistake: Democrats just fired up the impeachment machinery and we are moving down a path toward what promises to be the main event in a year defined by confrontation in the name of accountability.

On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee filed a petition in federal court for access to grand jury testimony and evidence that was redacted from the Mueller report by Attorney General Barr relating to Trump’s knowledge of Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, knowledge of any criminal acts that may have been committed by Trump or his associates, and actions taken by White House counsel Don McGhan specifically as they relate to Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice. The basis for their claim is that an impeachment inquiry is underway. 

Lest there be any doubt about the significance of this move, House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Mary Gay Scanlon writes with three of her congressional colleagues that, in fact, the committee did not have to wait for the full House to act to begin the impeachment process:

Despite assertions to the contrary by the president and his allies, the special counsel’s report and testimony are not the end of our investigations. We have now filed a petition in court to obtain the grand-jury documents referenced in the special counsel’s report. In that filing, we have made clear that we will utilize our Article I powers to obtain the additional underlying evidence, as well as enforce subpoenas for key witness testimony, and broaden our investigations to include conflicts of interest and financial misconduct. While many people believe that beginning an impeachment investigation can begin only with a vote of the full House of Representatives, this is not true. Article I authorizes the House Judiciary Committee to begin this process.

This action is striking in that it took place in the shadow of mainstream press coverage that emphasized how Robert Mueller’s testimony this past week was a dud as reality TV rather than address the content of what Mueller said — confirming Russian interference in the 2016 election with Trump’s knowledge and support, and documenting in detail Trump’s repeated acts to obstruct and undermine the investigation into what happened. Without a dramatic confrontation to focus the fleeting national attention span on something exciting, Democrats had squandered their best and probably last chance to rally the public behind impeachment. Such was the conventional wisdom on Thursday. On Friday, the Judiciary Committee filed its petition, then tried to avoid putting a label on what it had done. 

The path ahead for Democrats remains uncertain. The politics of impeachment continues to be mired down by the ongoing obstruction of House investigations that would draw attention to Trump’s offenses and potentially move public opinion to the point where Democrats in competitive districts would feel comfortable opposing the president. The Judiciary Committee petition seeks to end that obstruction. But to make their strongest legal case, the committee had to initiate the very inquiry that Democrats are divided about conducting. So they moved ahead on Friday, but they shrouded their move in fog.

I wrote last April that if the public doesn’t have an appetite for impeachment, Democrats are going to have to create it, because inaction is consent to presidential behavior that threatens the republic. Democrats have been clear about the threats, which makes their inaction to this point all the more jarring and ultimately, I believe, unsustainable. Their quiet initiation of an impeachment inquiry is acknowledgment of this disparity, and the pressure from here is only going to build. Theatrics aside, Mueller’s testimony was damning in its scope and precision, and left Democrats unable to resist the fraught political currents compelling them to address the high crimes of this administration.