This article, originally published in April, has been updated throughout with the latest news.
Some House Democratic leaders are starting to seriously consider beginning impeachment proceedings against President Trump, who is blocking nearly all their investigations. But one very important person, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), isn’t on board.
Democrats plan to meet Wednesday, where they’ll discuss impeachment. It’s an enormously consequential decision with big risks for Democrats, no matter what they decide. Do nothing, and House Democrats risk becoming lawmakers who had a chance but didn’t forcefully act after a special counsel report found the president may have broken the law. But going after impeachment could also cost Democrats the 2020 presidential election, they worry.
Here are the arguments House Democrats are likely considering for and against impeachment:
The case for: Send a message to the next president that obstructing justice is not okay
Even though the Republican-controlled Senate wouldn’t hold a trial to remove Trump from office, much less actually vote to remove him, this group argues that Congress should still go through the motions of impeachment to demonstrate that if you behave the way Trump did as outlined in the Mueller report — lying to the American people, indifferent or even hostile about the rule of law — you will face consequences. Hundreds of former federal prosecutors think he would have been charged with obstruction of justice if he were anyone but the president.
“There is no ‘political inconvenience’ exception to the United States Constitution,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and presidential candidate said.
“This president took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution, and he’s violated that,” Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.), who was not for impeachment until reading the Mueller report, told me. “He’s violated the spirit of the law. We need to hold him accountable.”
Four legal experts with whom The Fix spoke after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released his report in April agree that Congress must do something for history’s sake.
“If the precedent created by the Trump investigation is that a president can fire a special counsel investigating a president, then the rule of law is doomed,” Jens David Ohlin, the vice dean of Cornell Law School, said in a statement.
The case against: It’s unpopular, and could cost Dems the 2020 election
If the case for impeachment is a moral and legal one, the case against impeachment is a political one. Trying to get Trump out of office via the halls of Congress could undermine Democrats’ more realistic efforts to unseat him at the ballot box in 2020. Impeachment may play well with the liberal base. But there’s plenty of evidence that the rest of the country may view impeachment as an overreach.
An April Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a majority of Americans don’t support impeachment, even though most think the president lied. A majority of the 40 pickups for House Democrats in the 2018 midterms came in more moderate districts, places such as Kansas and Oklahoma and New Mexico. Those voters, theorize Democratic leaders, are more worried about health-care costs and jobs than enforcing theoretical constitutional checks and balances for future presidents.
Plus, impeachment proceedings would almost certainly activate Trump’s base in 2020. He could make the case he’s being politically bullied by Democrats: Aside from one Republican member of Congress who is open to impeachment, Democrats would have to go it alone.
The case for: Regular investigations aren’t working
Pelosi has argued that Democrats can still hold Trump accountable by focusing on less politically charged investigations that aren’t labeled “impeachment.” But that only works if the investigations have something to investigate. Trump is blocking 20 congressional investigations into him and his administration, leading Democrats to fight lengthy court cases instead of doing their job. Arguing to courts that Congress needs the unredacted Mueller report because it is considering impeaching the president could strengthen the Democrats’ hand.
"At some point, as every committee gets stonewalled,” National Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) warned recently to my colleagues, “the case for impeachment as a mechanism to get what we need . . . gets stronger and stronger.”
Rep Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a Judiciary Committee member, said on Monday: “If the answer is, ‘No, you can’t talk to anyone, you can’t have anything, we’re simply not going to cooperate,’ then at that point the only avenue that we have left is the constitutional means to enforce the separation of powers, which is a serious discussion of impeachment.”
The case against: It could undermine some of the other congressional investigations into Trump
There are a half-dozen high-profile investigations into Trump going on right now — into his finances, his taxes, his involvement in security clearances, the list goes on. But impeachment proceedings could put many of those on pause by centralizing all Trump-related investigations under the House Judiciary Committee, which is the committee that would undertake impeachment. There might be turf wars among committee chairs, which is never good for the party.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Kerry Kircher, a former counsel for the House of Representatives. Depending on how House Democratic leaders structure an impeachment investigation, some or all of the other investigations into Trump could go on independently.
The case for: Congress has to protect Congress
A nearly two-year independent investigation outlined ways the president may have obstructed justice and suggested Congress should do something about it. But Congress is spinning its wheels. It is struggling to investigate the president because the Justice Department won’t provide the underlying information (mainly the unredacted Mueller report).
Lawmakers cannot exercise their constitutionally mandated oversight authority into the executive branch on a number of issues because Trump is ordering current and former officials not to comply with subpoenas, even as information drips out that shows the Trump-Russia connections are not “case closed.” Congress risks neutering itself if it doesn’t stand up for its authority as a coequal branch of government, legal experts warn.
“Can Congress, without picking up the cudgels and investigating the president . . . continue to function as a serious independent branch of government if it does not do that?” Kircher said. “I think not.”