The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is back, and an impeachment inquiry is here. Here’s what to expect.

After the White House blocked numerous congressional subpoena requests, lawmakers have begun calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Congress has been out of session since July, but there have been major developments on the impeachment front since in that time, like: A majority of House Democrats now support an impeachment inquiry, and the congressman who would lead one says his committee is formally investigating whether to impeach the president.

This week, we will start to see what that all translates to. Congress is back, and first thing, House Democrats on the Judiciary Committee plan to vote on a resolution outlining what an impeachment inquiry means. It is the first official public step for this. It is also a rare move that has been done only the past two times Congress got close to impeaching — or impeached — a president: Richard M. Nixon in the 1970s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

So, what does it look like? Thanks to reporting over the weekend from The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, the New York Times’ Nicholas Fandos and reporters at Politico, we have a better sense of what this will look like for Trump.

First, let’s define what an impeachment inquiry is

It is the first step in the process, but it does not guarantee impeachment or even a vote on impeachment.

Democrats are investigating what, if any, “high crimes and misdemeanors” Trump may have committed. That is all an impeachment inquiry entails.

If the investigation concludes that he has committed such crimes, the House Judiciary Committee will draw up articles of impeachment. Then the committee will vote on it, then the full House votes on it. From there it would go to the Senate, which would hold a trial. Two-thirds of the 100 members would have to vote to convict him to remove him from office, something that has never happened in U.S. history and does not seem likely to happen now, given that the Senate is controlled by Republicans loyal to Trump.

The inquiry would take place in the House Judiciary Committee

They plan to hold about four months of hearings, reports the New York Times’s Fandos, ultimately focusing on whether they can draw up articles of impeachment and what those would be.

They will also be fighting Trump in court, because the president and his administration have blocked nearly every significant piece of evidence and witnesses that Democrats hope to have in this process.

Here’s what we expect them to investigate

Congress can define what “high crimes and misdemeanors” means. So House Democrats are casting a wide net. They are not just looking at whether Trump obstructed justice by his actions as outlined in the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Fandos reports they are also looking at his:

  • Involvement in illegal hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with him. An investigation into this ultimately sent Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, to jail.
  • Whether Trump is profiting from being president by having government and foreign officials stay at his properties
  • Whether he encouraged officials to break the law in getting his wall built by offering pardons, as The Post reported in August

The investigation could also draw more eyeballs to already planned testimonies, including from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

By officially voting on the parameters for an impeachment inquiry, the committee can also hold longer hearings with witnesses. It could help them win court cases to get documents, especially the one thing they really, really want: secret grand jury testimony that made up much of the Mueller report. (They also really want former White House counsel Donald McGahn, a key figure in the Mueller report section on obstruction of justice, to testify. He has so far ignored a subpoena, so the House is suing him.)

Having this impeachment inquiry could also, ironically, make it easier for Trump to refute Democrats. Bade reports that once there is an official inquiry, Trump’s attorneys can respond in writing to any evidence or testimony.

There are complicating factors that could stall this

The biggest one being House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats, including some on the Judiciary Committee, are not on board with pursuing impeachment of Trump.

They worry that it will cost House Democrats who got elected last year in Republican districts — and carried Democrats to the majority — their jobs. A majority of those Democrats do not support an impeachment inquiry, even though a majority of all House Democrats do.

Also, pursuing impeachment is a bold thing to do when the public is not fully behind it.

A recent national poll shows House Democrats have some convincing to do on impeachment. Monmouth University found that a majority of Americans think it is a bad idea for the Judiciary committee to conduct an inquiry that may lead to Trump’s impeachment.

Do you think an impeachment inquiry is a ... -- Among all Americans

There is a notable number of people who do not like him and still think that moving ahead with an impeachment inquiry is a bad idea — 22 percent. That is not nothing.

There is also the time frame: Congress is in session for only a few weeks before the end of the year, and its members also need to pass a spending bill. An impeachment inquiry could continue into 2020, but the closer we get to Election Day, the harder it is for Democrats to make their case that Trump should be impeached.

(Though The Fix’s Aaron Blake has looked back at other times the House pursued impeachment and found it could be wrapped up in as soon as four months or less.)

Ultimately, impeachment may serve as more of a political message than a constitutional one

There are constitutional, even moral arguments for impeaching Trump. It is possible that whatever the committee finds does not ever make it into articles of impeachment and, thus, is never formally voted on by the House. Democrats need to work out among themselves the right path for what happens after this inquiry; right now they seem conflicted.

One option, a Democratic aide told me, is to use this inquiry as a way to strengthen the case to voting Americans that Trump should not be president.

In other words, consider an impeachment inquiry like a beefed-up congressional investigation into all the things Democrats think Trump has done wrong — one that may or may not end up in his impeachment.