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House Democratic leaders’ jujitsu on whether they support impeachment

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on May 29 spoke about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's statement on the Russia probe. (Video: The Washington Post)
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With each passing day, House Democratic leaders sound as if they are leaning toward starting impeachment proceedings against President Trump. But do they really mean it?

While saying that they think Trump deserves to be the subject of an impeachment inquiry, allies of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also say they don’t think now’s the time for impeachment, and they’ve set unrealistic markers for when that time might come.

It leads us to believe that Democratic leaders have no intention of beginning an impeachment proceeding against Trump. It’s possible they are just giving lip service to the 56 and counting mostly liberal Democrats who say it’s time, while holding it off as long as they possibly can — ideally, in Pelosi’s calculations, until after the 2020 election and Democrats are safely in control again of the House of Representatives and the White House.

Look at House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). He is the No. 3 House Democrat and a member of Pelosi’s inner circle, and on Sunday he said that impeachment proceedings are inevitable — but also that now’s not the time to begin them. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Clyburn whether he thought impeachment proceedings would happen at some point but not now, Clyburn replied: “Yes, exactly what I feel.”

But earlier in the interview, he argued this: “Haste makes waste. Let’s take our time and do this efficiently, not just effectively.”

And later he said this: “I have never said he should not be impeached.”

A perhaps more-important Democrat in all this is House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). He’s one to watch carefully, because his committee would open impeachment proceedings against Trump. He, too, seems to be giving two different answers at the same time on impeachment. The Washington Post has reported that Nadler privately urged Pelosi to let him begin an inquiry, which is an investigation on what, if any, articles of impeachment they would draft to vote on.

Publicly, Nadler has maintained Pelosi’s line that more traditional investigations need to happen before impeachment. He told WNYC radio Friday that there “certainly is” justification for beginning impeachment proceedings into Trump, his strongest language yet on the subject. But then he also said now’s not the time. He argued, as Pelosi has, that the American public needs to be on board with the idea first: “The American people right now do not support it, because they do not know the story. They don’t know the facts. We have to get the facts out. We have to hold a series of hearings; we have to hold the investigations.”

It’s easy to see why Democrats want public support. Congress is loath to ever get ahead of public opinion, let alone on such a divisive issue as impeachment, one that they know Trump will weaponize against them. Pelosi et al. are worried that just taking the first step on impeachment could cost Democrats their House majority and maybe even the White House.

Why Nancy Pelosi doesn't seem fazed by growing Democratic calls for impeachment

But the bar Nadler set to begin impeachment proceedings — getting the public to support it — is a bar that may never be reached. Most Americans oppose the idea. A new CNN poll shows that 54 percent of Americans don’t think Trump should be impeached and removed from office, compared with 41 percent who do. A Post-ABC News poll in April found similarly that 56 percent of Americans oppose even starting impeachment proceedings, even as most think Trump lied.

Pelosi has set an even higher bar for impeachment: getting Republican buy-in. So far there’s only one congressional Republican willing to consider impeachment, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), and he’s been ostracized by his party for it.

House Democratic leaders are also arguing that more traditional investigations can do the job to build public support. But what they don’t say is that many of those are held up in court. House Democrats have had a couple of initial victories, but it could take weeks or even months for Democrats to find out whether they can get the full, unredacted Mueller report, or Trump’s financial records and taxes, or how they can put even more pressure on former White House counsel Donald McGahn to testify about Trump’s attempts to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and lie about it.

Which raises another question: Are House Democratic leaders trying to run out the clock on impeachment while saying they support it? By next year, the presidential campaign will be fully underway, and the public will probably be even less likely to support impeaching a president who may lose his job via the ballot box.

Maybe House Democratic leaders are coming around to impeachment proceedings, cautiously. But, given Pelosi’s unwavering focus on protecting her vulnerable lawmakers, it seems more likely that they are trying to have it both ways: address growing pressure to begin impeachment proceedings without beginning them.