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September 18, 2019
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Is It an Impeachment Inquiry or Not? Democrats Can’t Seem to Agree

Is It an Impeachment Inquiry or Not? Democrats Can’t Seem to Agree
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WASHINGTON — From his office on the first floor of the Capitol on Wednesday, the second-ranking House Democrat, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, was unequivocal: An impeachment investigation of President Trump is not underway.

Over in the Rayburn Building, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, has been hard at work at what he says is exactly that.

And while she moved briskly through the corridors of Congress this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to navigate somewhere in between, reiterating a kind of mantra — “legislate, investigate and litigate” — that seems tailor-made to avoid the “i” word.

As their investigations of Mr. Trump enter a new phase after six weeks away from Washington, Democrats from all corners of the House are finding it increasingly difficult to agree on how to label just what it is that they are up to in building a case against the president — particularly when it comes to the politically charged and constitutionally weighty term “impeachment.”

Progressives have rushed to embrace the term and Mr. Nadler has been ever more willing to utter it, while more moderate members who remain fearful of the political consequences have continued to steer clear of the notion that the House has actually made the leap forward into a formal inquiry.

The confusion and contradictory statements are in some ways to be expected, as Democratic leaders toil to navigate the tricky political terrain and complex legal landscape of considering whether — and how — to prosecute a case against a sitting president. Mr. Hoyer quickly backtracked from his remark on Wednesday in an effort to eliminate the dissonance, and Democrats sought to shift the discussion away from disagreements over terminology.

“I don’t want to get caught in semantics. We all agree, from Speaker Pelosi through every single member of the House Democratic Caucus, that we have a constitutional responsibility to hold an out-of-control executive accountable,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the leader of the Democratic caucus who also sits on the Judiciary Committee. “That’s what six committees are doing — not simply the Judiciary Committee — and the committees should be allowed to do their work without getting involved in semantical distinctions.”

But the persistent ambiguity is also increasingly becoming a liability for Democrats, who risk appearing feckless and inept as they take on perhaps the most consequential responsibility that Congress has.

“The politics of impeachment are debatable. Maybe they are good. Maybe they aren’t. No one knows,” Dan Pfeiffer, a top adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter. “But I do know that the current Democratic strategy of telling the base they are impeaching Trump and telling the moderates the opposite is an absolute disaster.”

On Wednesday, the mixed messaging veered into the absurd. Mr. Hoyer tried to silence days of questions from reporters about whether the House was pursuing an impeachment investigation with an unequivocal “no,” followed by a tangled explanation that only raised more questions.

“I don’t want to be simplistic about it, and I don’t want to quibble on words either, but impeachment, what you imply is consideration of an impeachment resolution and a possible vote on an impeachment resolution — that is not what is currently before the committee,” Mr. Hoyer told reporters.

Mr. Hoyer suggested instead that Mr. Nadler and members of his panel were merely trying to convince the federal courts that they were contemplating impeachment so they could expedite their court cases and meet the criteria for sharing sensitive grand jury secrets collected as a part of the Russia investigation.

For weeks, Mr. Nadler and members of his committee have been saying just the opposite — and not just in court filings. He has billed a committee vote scheduled for Thursday as an important step to formalize its impeachment investigation by adopting a set of procedures to govern it going forward. Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team have approved each step.

“What we’re doing is very clear,” Mr. Nadler told reporters Monday evening. “You can call it an impeachment investigation, an impeachment inquiry, or whatever term you want, as shorthand.”

Part of the murkiness comes from the fact that there are no ironclad rules defining or governing the impeachment process, and specifically what constitutes an impeachment investigation. The Constitution lays out only the barest facts about impeachment, and traditionally the House has proceeded based on a mix of its own rules and precedents.

Mr. Hoyer’s staff moved quickly on Wednesday to walk back his remarks, blaming it on a misunderstanding.

“I thought the question was in regards to whether the full House is actively considering articles of impeachment, which we are not at this time,” Mr. Hoyer said. “I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation ‘to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,’ as the resolution states.”

But the episode was enough to set off a new round of speculation over what exactly Democratic leaders were trying to accomplish. And it added to a sense of uncertainty among rank-and-file lawmakers about what the House was planning to do.

“The caucus is anxious to have direction on whether we are going to move toward an impeachment inquiry and if so, what is the timing on that going to be,” said Representative Harley Rouda, Democrat of California, a freshman who supports an impeachment inquiry.

Julian Epstein, who was the chief counsel to Democrats on the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings of Bill Clinton, said the confusion might be at least somewhat intentional, reflecting Ms. Pelosi’s best attempt at balancing the rifts among Democrats about how to proceed.

“What I fear about this is you are hanging a lantern on the divisions in the caucus,” Mr. Epstein said. “That might give you a little bit of short-term gain in terms of how you manage the caucus today, but long term, I am not sure it helps.”

Republicans are gleefully mining the divides, as they accuse Democrats of ignoring pressing policy issues in a single-minded quest to impeach Mr. Trump. At the same time, they have argued that the party is pursuing a fake impeachment that is shredding solemn constitutional precedents solely to satisfy its left wing.

Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Thursday’s votes on procedures for the panel’s inquiry would only continue the farce.

“Tomorrow’s committee business is a meaningless reiteration of existing committee authorities, allowing the chairman to keep this story in the news when moderate Democrats simply want it to go away,” he said.



https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/us/politics/democrats-house-impeachment-inquiry.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

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