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Democrats quietly debate expanding impeachment articles beyond Ukraine

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team have sought a narrow impeachment focus. (Sean Gallup/AFP/Getty Images)

House Democrats are debating whether to expand articles of impeachment to include charges beyond abuse of power in the Ukraine controversy, setting up a potential internal clash as the party races to impeach President Trump by Christmastime.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee and other more liberal-minded lawmakers and congressional aides have been privately discussing the possibility of drafting articles that include obstruction of justice or other “high crimes” they believe are clearly outlined in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report — or allegations that Trump has used his office to benefit his bottom line.

The idea, however, is running into resistance from some moderate Democrats wary of impeachment blowback in their GOP-leaning districts, as well as Democratic leaders who sought to keep impeachment narrowly focused on allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

The debate is expected to play out in leadership and caucus meetings this week, as the House Intelligence Committee prepares to hand the impeachment inquiry to the House Judiciary Committee. The Intelligence Committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on its final report on Ukraine, allowing Judiciary to then work on writing articles of impeachment based on that document.

But the Judiciary Committee also has asked other investigative panels to send any findings of Trump-related misdeeds that they believe are impeachable. And many of the committee members are hoping articles will refer to and cite their own months-long investigation into the Mueller report, which described 10 possible instances of obstruction by the president.

“One crime of these sorts is enough, but when you have a pattern, it is even stronger,” said Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a House Judiciary Committee member and co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She said there is a strong case to be made for citing Mueller’s report in impeachment articles but cautioned that no decision has been made. “If you show that this is not only real in what’s happening with Ukraine, but it’s the exact same pattern that Mueller documented . . . to me, that just strengthens the case.”

The discussions heated up Monday as Trump lashed out at impeachment investigators as he left Washington for a NATO meeting in London, then aboard Air Force One promptly took to his favorite social media platform — Twitter — to declare “case over.” Trump inaccurately portrayed fresh comments by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky as proof that impeachment was unnecessary. Although Zelensky denied being engaged in a “quid pro quo,” he also questioned the fairness of Trump’s decision to freeze nearly $400 million in congressionally appropriated military aid when his country was at war with Russia.

“[Y]ou have to understand. We’re at war,” Zelensky said. “If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.”

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Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, sniping between Democrats and Republicans over the impeachment process escalated after the holiday break. Republicans issued a “prebuttal” of the Intelligence Committee report that is expected to lay out how Trump abused his power, refusing to acknowledge that Trump did anything wrong with Ukraine.

In a 123-page document, GOP investigators assert that Democrats failed to make the case that Trump committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by withholding military aid and a highly sought-after White House meeting to compel Ukraine to launch investigations into his political rivals. Nor, the Republicans say, do Democrats have a basis for impeachment in Trump’s decision to spurn House document requests and witness subpoenas pertaining to Trump’s Ukraine dealings.

Instead, the GOP document contends, the impeachment effort is “an orchestrated campaign to upend our political system” — one “based on the accusations and assumptions of unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes.”

“The evidence presented does not prove any of these Democrat allegations, and none of the Democrats’ witnesses testified to having evidence of bribery, extortion, or any high crime or misdemeanor,” the GOP said.

Separately, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, criticized Democrats for moving toward impeachment proceedings “without any evidence for us to review.” Collins was referring to the Intelligence Committee report, which members of the panel were able to review beginning Monday night, though the committee has held public hearings and released transcripts.

House Democrats for the past two months have operated under the assumption that their articles of impeachment would probably include some sort of charge on abuse of power related to Ukraine, as well as obstruction of Congress, highlighting Trump’s frequent moves to stonewall their investigations. But there has been less certainty about whether to expand articles to include additional Trump controversies, such as his actions related to Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference in the 2016 election.

Lawmakers who support a more robust list of articles beyond Ukraine argue that the Democratic Party would be remiss if it didn’t mention any of Mueller’s findings and that a sole focus on Ukraine would not fully capture the extent of corruption in the White House.

“It’s hard to ignore the extraordinary documentation and the weight that Mueller put behind the instances of obstruction detailed in his report,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who would support broader articles.

Other supporters of expanding articles of impeachment beyond Ukraine argue that Republicans have shown they are unwilling to back any move to oust Trump, no matter how narrow the charges. That was one of the justifications Democratic leaders gave when they endorsed a Ukraine-focused impeachment in late September: that a narrow focus would resonate with the public and possibly wavering moderate Republicans uncomfortable with Trump’s actions.

But since then, moderate Republicans have fallen in line with the party — some, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), have even become Trump’s biggest defenders. Therefore, these Democrats argue, the party might as well broaden articles, laying out a “pattern” for the American public of a president out of control.

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Beyond the obstruction depicted in the Mueller report, some Democrats also want to include charges against Trump for using his office for self-enrichment. The president’s un­orthodox decision not to divest himself from his business means he has benefited financially each time a foreign government — or even a U.S. government official like Vice President Pence — stays at one of his worldwide resorts. However, other Democrats have pushed back on adding emoluments violations to articles, arguing that the evidence is not there to support such an indictment.

Ultimately the decision will come down to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team, who have been wary of impeachment blowback on moderate Democrats. Those same lawmakers encouraged Pelosi and leaders to keep impeachment narrowly focused on Ukraine, a strategy they believed would help them weather any political backlash in next November’s elections.

Some moderates, however, see an advantage to multiple articles, according to three Democratic officials familiar with conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. A few moderates have actually encouraged leadership to let them vote against some articles of impeachment on the House floor while backing others, a move that would allow centrists taking heat back home to show a degree of independence from their party’s left flank and their leadership.

The move, while politically risky, wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. When President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, Republicans passed only two articles of impeachment, rejecting two other charges the Judiciary Committee had approved.

However, multiple senior Democratic aides were skeptical that Pelosi would allow any impeachment charge to fail in a House vote as it could give Republicans a chance to highlight divisions in their ranks. Some of these officials predicted that Pelosi would have to do some “member management” this week, setting expectations for the more-liberal lawmakers about what is feasible in articles of impeachment.

“If I’m a betting man, I’d say it’s going to be the narrow approach,” said one senior Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “The political reality is difficult, and I just think it’s embarrassing if we bring five articles of impeachment to the floor and only three pass.”

The individual added: “I don’t think Pelosi wants to do that. I think she wants to keep us as unified as possible.”

Judiciary Committee spokesman Daniel Schwarz said the panel has been working closely with Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) throughout the process. “At this point no decision has been made to proceed with articles,” Schwarz said.

Some House Democrats worry that adding other charges could stretch out impeachment when many are desperate to finish before the holidays. The Intelligence Committee has spent the past two months articulating its case to the public in blockbuster hearings in which more than a dozen current and former Trump officials testified and chided the president for his conduct on Ukraine. Democrats haven’t had a single hearing on the Mueller report since mid-September.

Few think there is time now.