What his investigation means for Trump, or when it will be complete, is anyone’s guess. The ambiguity has allowed Democrats who don’t agree with an inquiry to muddy what’s happening, effectively making it look like the House isn’t on a potential path toward impeachment.
But the message they are sending is very confusing. And it signals trouble down the road, when Democrats could have even bigger decisions to debate, like: Do they actually vote to impeach Trump?
Here's what happened this week:
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which handles impeachment, voted Thursday to give themselves broader investigative procedures to pursue an impeachment inquiry.
That same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) essentially told reporters there’s nothing to see here; that nothing changed from Wednesday before the vote to Thursday after it. The committee has already been using the “i” word this summer, when Judiciary leaders described their investigations in court filings against the Trump administration as an “impeachment inquiry.”
“Legislate, investigate, litigate — that’s the path we have been on and that’s the path we continue to be on,” she told reporters.
Except, when you look at what the Judiciary Committee did Thursday, by definition, that’s a change from the status quo. They had to vote to authorize the committee to have extra investigative authority — a rarely used procedure that is similar to what Congress did for presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. This isn’t your typical congressional investigation.
Democrats on both sides of the debate say that journalists are making too much of their different descriptions, that we’re getting caught up on semantics of whether this is an investigation or inquiry or whatever.
But what that argument misses is that much, much more difficult debates are to come for Democrats. If they can’t agree on what’s happening right now, how are they going to handle it when, or if, the Judiciary Committee comes up with articles of impeachment for Trump? Then Democrats will have to decide whether to impeach Trump in the months leading up to a 2020 presidential election, even though right now it’s broadly unpopular.
And if they do decide to go forward, Democrats have to decide what to impeach him for. The Washington Post's Rachael Bade reports some Democrats are privately making a list of what they might impeach Trump for. It carries some weighty topics, like: “obstruction of justice, abuse of power and defiance of subpoenas, as well as violation of campaign finance law and allegations of self-enrichment."
Even if all Democrats suddenly got on the same page, their messy messaging now about what's happening could come back to bite them, writes The Fix's JM Rieger. This is “the most serious investigation the House can consider,” and they can't agree on whether it's happening.
This impeachment-inquiry-or-not debate within the Democratic Party is rooted in the divide between the practical and the aspirational. On the aspirational side, it’s Congress’s duty to send a message to the next president that obstructing justice is not okay. Could that cost some Democrats their seats? Maybe, but it’s the right thing to do, they argue.
“There is no ‘political inconvenience’ exception to the United States Constitution,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said.
“There’s going to come a day when we all have to answer for what we did in this moment,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) in explaining why he supports impeachment despite the fact he represents a district Trump nearly won in 2016.
“One hundred years from now, no one’s going to remember what speech Pelosi is going to give about Trump’s behavior,” said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School and one of the more eloquent expounders of the history-book argument I’ve talked to. “But historians are certainly going to remember that Trump is going to be impeached by the House.”
On the practical side, these Democrats don’t see a point to impeachment if they’re going to put their jobs at risk for it, or if it helps Trump get reelected. What good is a symbolic act — and with a Republican-held Senate, this would likely only be symbolic — when real lives and real policies are at stake in an actual election fast approaching?
“I said, ‘Look, over the next six months, I would much rather see the Democrats be the party of lowering prescription drug costs, not the party of impeachment,’" Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) told The Post’s Bade about his conversations with leaders of the impeachment inquiry.
Democrats have been weighing these dueling tensions for months now, maybe even almost a year, since they won the House of Representatives last November and knew this debate was a possibility.
Now that impeachment is becoming more tangible, they are nowhere close to an answer. And that’s a problem for Democrats, whatever they decide going forward.
JM Rieger contributed to this analysis.