Congress

Not much changes with 'official' impeachment inquiry, for now

Pelosi appears to double down on approach that has fallen short of raising public support

Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks with her Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hamill past the Sir Winston Churchill bust as she exits the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement Tuesday that the House is in an “official impeachment inquiry” gave no hints of how or whether it would accelerate any Democratic effort to remove President Donald Trump from office.

Pelosi said she directed the six House committees conducting oversight of the Trump administration to move forward “under that umbrella” of an impeachment inquiry — but gave no details about how the day-to-day approach would differ.

In that way, Pelosi appeared to stay on a measured Democratic approach that for months has fallen short of raising public support for impeachment — particularly with the Trump administration’s unyielding rejection of congressional subpoena power — and put off potentially stronger moves toward impeachment.

Pelosi’s announcement made it unclear if anything had changed at all.

Six weeks ago, the House Judiciary Committee told a federal court that its investigation into abuse of power and misconduct includes making a judgment about whether to pursue articles of impeachment. Two weeks ago, Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said the committee was in an impeachment investigation and that “I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.”

“Substantively there’s not a big difference,” said Ross Garber, who teaches political investigations and impeachments at Tulane Law School. “The question now still is what, as a practical matter, is the House or the speaker going to do?”

Pelosi did not announce steps that impeachment experts said would increase the trajectory of the inquiry. She didn’t announce a timeline or a series of hearings, or whether there would be a floor vote on a resolution on an impeachment investigation.

Pelosi did not announce the creation of a select committee to conduct the possible impeachment inquiry — something that has support among some members — but she also did not rule it out.

And there was no word from Pelosi about whether the “official” impeachment inquiry would mean more resources for the Judiciary Committee and the other committees looking into Trump’s actions.

The Judiciary Committee, in particular, “is hideously understaffed to try to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Frank O. Bowman III, a law professor at the University of Missouri and author of “High Crimes & Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.”

There were 48 congressional staff lawyers listed on President Richard Nixon's impeachment report, Bowman said, and the Trump administration has given the Democratic majority “just so much to look at it overwhelms you.”

Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, has called for a dramatic increase in House counsel staff and the use of Congress’ inherent contempt power to force Trump administration officials to testify.

“Trump has around 30 attorneys working to defy Congress & the American people,” Lieu tweeted Monday. “Our House Counsel staff is tiny in comparison.”

The creation of a select committee — an option the Washington Post and New York Times reported Tuesday as something Pelosi has been discussing privately — would have considerable advantages, Bowman and Garber said.

“The result of that I think has been, whether [by] design or not, a dispersion of talent among the congressmen and their staffs, a dispersion of focus and a dispersion of authority,” Bowman said. “They have some difficulty getting out of each other’s way. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t, and accomplishing anything requires coordination, which is always difficult in cases like this.”

In Watergate, the Senate formed a select committee charged with looking into the scandal, Bowman said. The impeachment investigations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Nixon went through the Judiciary Committee, but “there’s nothing sacrosanct about that,” and the House can proceed with impeachment in any way it wants.

Garber said a select committee could clarify overlapping committee jurisdictions and issues that could be considered grounds for impeachment. “Right now the process seems very diffuse, disorganized and understaffed,” he added.

On the other hand, Susan Low Bloch, a law professor at Georgetown University who testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998 as part of the Clinton impeachment process, said that a select committee might be redoing everyone’s efforts.

“Sort of given where we are now, that they have been underway, really in effect doing an impeachment inquiry, so I would think you would set up a select committee and put Nadler, you would probably put half the Judiciary on it,” Bloch said.

Bloch said a floor vote on an impeachment inquiry would improve the House’s chances in court, where it is pressing to get Trump’s tax records, financial records from his accounting firm and grand jury materials from former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe.

“The waffling they’ve been doing is not very effective,” Bloch said.

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