Opinion writer

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is set to demand documents from more than 60 people related to President Trump and his businesses. As Nadler puts it, this is necessary because Trump has been “directly implicated” in “various crimes,” including some allegedly committed while president.

Yet Nadler is aggressively downplaying the notion that Democrats are moving toward impeachment. He told ABC News that “we don’t have the facts yet,” and so “impeachment is a long way down the road.”

But make no mistake: In taking this step, Nadler, is, in fact, taking a big step toward launching formal impeachment hearings.

Whether Democrats will ultimately go forward with an impeachment inquiry remains unknown. As detailed below, Democrats are imposing a misguided constraint on themselves in this regard. But you can view this step as functionally the first stage in the impeachment process. And it could take on a life of its own that makes it harder for Democrats to resist initiating that inquiry.

As Nadler put it, on Monday, the Judiciary Committee will issue demands for documents to “over 60 different people and individuals” from the White House, the Justice Department and Trump’s businesses. The goal is to begin "to present the case to the American people about obstruction of justice, corruption, and the abuse of power.”

What Democrats will seek

The savvy smart money in Washington predicts that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings will be a dud — that there won’t be charges for criminal conspiracy with Russia, and that the Justice Department will release limited information about his findings.

But once again, an enormous amount of very serious misconduct and wrongdoing by Trump and his top aides (and in their case, criminality as well) has already been documented. Whatever Mueller concludes, House Democrats still have an obligation to go forward with their own inquiries — especially if we learn little about Mueller’s findings.

Mueller is examining Russian electoral interference and any related crimes he uncovers. By contrast, congressional Democrats will be focused — as per their institutional role — on learning as much as possible about Trump’s misconduct and abuses of power, and on informing the public about them.

Thus, even if Mueller does not conclude that Trump committed criminal obstruction of justice — or does not indict due to regulations protecting sitting presidents — Democrats will develop the fullest possible picture of Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation.

Indeed, asked on ABC whether he thought Trump has obstructed justice, Nadler replied: “Yes, I do.” He cited Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and Trump’s pressure on Comey to back off his national security adviser. That Nadler is seeking documentation from the Justice Department shows an interest in filling out this story.

Nadler also said Trump’s decision to grant security clearance to son-in-law Jared Kushner over intelligence agency objections constitutes an “abuse of power.” Nadler added that Trump’s reimbursement of hush money payments — which we learned of from former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s testimony — could constitute “sabotage” of a “fair election” and thus “an impeachable offense.”

And Jane Mayer reports for the New Yorker that Trump ordered top economic adviser Gary Cohn to pressure the Justice Department to file a lawsuit to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, in apparent retaliation against CNN. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member, already predicts this will be looked into as well.

The point is that whatever the truth about “collusion,” we have already seen an extraordinary litany of Trumpian misconduct and abuses. Whether or not criminality occurred, the public has the right to the fullest possible picture of all those abuses.

There’s precedent for this leading to impeachment hearings

The Watergate precedent is instructive. There were many months of congressional hearings into Richard Nixon’s myriad abuses well before a formal impeachment inquiry was launched.

“Congress brought key players to the public to talk about not only the break-in but all the other abuses of power in the Nixon White House,” historian Julian Zelizer, the co-author of the book “Fault Lines,” told me. In so doing, Zelizer noted, Congress “set that up” as the foundation for the official vote to launch formal impeachment hearings in 1974.

“I think that’s what Nadler is doing right now,” Zelizer said. “I don’t know if he will ultimately trigger the impeachment investigation. But this is what comes first. Congress has to create the political conditions to move forward. Nadler is looking into multiple parts of the story and trying to bring them together.”

Listen carefully to Nadler, and you’ll see he confirmed this — to a point. He said that before moving forward with impeachment, Americans must believe it’s merited — i.e., he’s building a public case. But he also said an unspecified percentage of “opposition party voters” must be persuaded that this isn’t merely an effort to nullify the election.

Trump’s unique advantage

Yet this self-imposed constraint, while reasonable, does not reckon with a unique advantage Trump has that Nixon did not — an enormous propaganda apparatus, including Fox News, that will bombard Trump voters with disinformation painting any and all inquiry into Trump as illegitimate. Democrats must decide whether this disinformation apparatus should be granted veto power in the event that they conclude that impeachment hearings are merited on the substance.

In an important essay for the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum detailed that the process of impeachment inquiry, as distinct from the final impeachment vote, is about preserving our democracy. It creates a “rule-bound procedure for investigating a president” that includes “considering evidence” and “formulating charges,” an institutional framework for the grave task of weighing what the sum total of a president’s abuses has inflicted on “the political health of the country.”

Whether the current push from Democrats will lead to such a formal inquiry remains to be seen. But in a sense, this process is already underway. And it may take on a momentum that will make such an outcome harder to resist.

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Update: The Democrats’ demand for documents has now been made public:

House Democrats sent more than 80 letters Monday demanding documents from family members, business associates, political confidants and others with ties to President Trump, launching a sprawling probe into whether he and his administration have engaged in obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power.

The farthest-reaching request since Democrats took control of the House underscored lawmakers’ determination to hold Trump and those around him accountable for an array of controversies that have dogged the president during his first two years in office — and perhaps lay the grounds for impeachment.

Those receiving letters from the House Judiciary Committee include the president’s two eldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; his former personal secretary Rhona Graff; Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization; and former top White House aides Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer and Stephen K. Bannon.

Other demands for documents are directed to institutions including the White House, Justice Department, Trump campaign, Trump transition team and Trump Organization.

In other words, it’s even more sweeping a demand for information than we were led to expect. The full list of people targeted by the request is here.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: House Democratic chairmen need to keep pounding away on these points

Paul Waldman: In hearing, Republicans offer zero in response to Michael Cohen’s actual claims

Jennifer Rubin: The ongoing danger of impeachment fixation

Max Boot: Here are five felonies Trump committed — if Cohen is telling the truth

Eugene Robinson: Michael Cohen’s revelations advance Trump’s inevitable reckoning

David Ignatius: Michael Cohen’s testimony reminds us that Trump’s investigations are far from over