Congress

A new flood of Democrats call for impeachment proceedings, but does it matter?

21 Democrats have joined push for formal proceedings since Mueller’s testimony

Several House Democrats have signaled their approval of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump in the wake of testimony by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 11:11 a.m. | The trickle of Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has turned into a flood, with 21 new members joining the push since former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on July 24. 

The total number of House Democrats now supporting an impeachment inquiry is 118, half of their 235-member caucus. 

But Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, the 118th member to publicly express his support for an impeachment inquiry, also doesn't think the House needs to vote to establish one, arguing that the Judiciary Committee's ongoing probe already is one. 

The other Democrats who've recently said they support impeachment proceedings have made different statements, suggesting there needs to be a formal elevation from oversight investigation to impeachment inquiry. 

Regardless of their reasons, impeachment inquiry supporters totaling half of the Democratic Caucus is a more symbolic than substantive milestone. Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists she won’t be pressured to launch impeachment proceedings before Democrats’ six ongoing committee investigations and evidence-gathering provide the “strongest possible case” for impeaching the president.

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Exactly when that case materializes is unclear, as much of Democrats’ investigatory work looking into the president’s alleged obstruction of justice and other potential crimes is tied up in court battles with the Trump administration, which has largely resisted House requests for documents and testimony from current and former White House aides. 

For example, the Judiciary Committee’s application for access to grand jury materials from the special counsel investigation won’t get a ruling until at least October, per court filings Wednesday. The committee has yet to file a promised lawsuit to enforce its subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn’s testimony.

Pelosi has refused to provide a timeline for when Democrats must make a decision on impeachment but has vowed, “It isn’t endless.”

In the interim, the speaker says she has no problem with her members who are calling for an impeachment inquiry. 

“Their advocacy for impeachment only gives me leverage. I have no complaint with what they are doing,” the California Democrat told reporters Friday as the House began its six-week summer recess.

Pelosi has communicated consistently to Democrats that they need to do what is best for their districts. Notably, four of the members who recently joined the calls for an impeachment inquiry are part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents. Nine of the 44 Frontline members now support impeachment proceedings.

Mueller words most influential

Most of the 21 Democrats who have announced their support in the past week have pointed directly to Mueller’s testimony.

“As a former prosecutor, it is clear to me given the conduct by the president detailed in the Mueller report and Director Mueller’s recent testimony before Congress that — were he not a sitting president — Donald Trump would be indicted on charges for obstruction of justice,” Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton said in a statement Monday. 

Although House committees are looking at matters involving Trump that extend beyond the scope of the special counsel’s report, Mueller has been the most cited factor among Democrats who have called for impeachment proceedings.

Those 21 Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry in the week since his testimony make up the highest instance of support since 19 Democrats came out for one in the week after Mueller first spoke publicly about his work in a 10-minute address on May 29.

In both that statement and his testimony before Congress, Mueller has stuck to the contents of his report. But Democrats, aware that most people probably haven’t taken the time to read Mueller’s 448-page report, believe both events helped shed light on the special counsel’s findings.

Pelosi, for example, described Mueller’s testimony as the “crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness of what happened and how it conforms to the law, or not.”

Washington Democrat Kim Schrier, in a Sunday statement announcing her support for an impeachment inquiry, described what she felt after finishing listening to Mueller’s testimony during her plane ride home.

“Hearing it all laid out so concisely reinforced just how many lines of inquiry still need to be pursued,” she said, noting that “it became intolerably frustrating to consider how every effort to seek that information has been slow walked or obstructed, consistent with so much of the behavior made plain in the Mueller report.”

“The American people deserve to know what transpired and to what extent our president is acting against the best interests of our nation,” Schrier added. “Russia is meddling, and this poses immediate danger. I have come to believe that stepping these congressional investigations up to the level of an impeachment inquiry will be required to get timely access to the information we need for our national security and national conscience.” 

CQ Roll Call spoke to multiple sources familiar with the thinking of members who have recently announced support for an impeachment inquiry, and they all pointed to Mueller’s testimony as influencing the timing of the announcements. 

Reasons for launching impeachment proceedings against Trump had been accumulating for a while, but many Democrats wanted to hear from Mueller before making a decision, the sources said. Mueller’s confirmation of the most damning contents of his report in public testimony helped move members to state what many already viewed was the right thing to do.

One of the sources described it as less of a light bulb that went off as much as Mueller giving members the breathing room they needed.

The sources had mixed opinions about whether the Democratic lawmakers were trying to state their support ahead of the long recess in order to avoid constituent questions on the matter.

One said that was not the only consideration but noted that being able to lay down a marker on impeachment is helpful to refocusing the attention on Democrats’ legislative agenda. Another source said, however, that most constituents were already asking about health care and other policy issues more than impeachment.

Inquiry unnecessary?

The flood of new calls for an impeachment inquiry comes despite a Judiciary Committee court filing Friday that argues such a step is not necessary to get grand jury records in the Mueller probe.

The committee wants access to the grand jury materials in the special counsel probe — which are usually kept secret — under an exception for records needed “preliminarily to or in connection with a judicial proceeding,” according to its application.

Judiciary’s ongoing congressional investigation counts “because the committee is considering whether to recommend articles of impeachment,” the court application states.

In other words, after weeks of Democrats fielding questions about whether to launch a formal impeachment inquiry, Judiciary members went ahead and told a federal judge that an impeachment investigation had already begun.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, when pressed Friday about whether the panel’s ongoing probe is the same as an impeachment inquiry, responded: “In effect.”

At the same press conference, Reps. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Eric Swalwell of California said they felt the committee was already in an impeachment investigation.

Those statements and the court filing added to what was already lingering confusion over what Democrats plan to accomplish — via an impeachment inquiry — that they weren’t already able to do through their existing investigations.

In a letter to Nadler on Tuesday, a dozen liberal groups, including Free Speech for the People, criticized Judiciary Democrats for “haphazard and at times contradictory” messages about whether the panel has started an impeachment inquiry.

The groups lamented that the committee is moving too slowly and has too narrow a focus. They argued that the court battles for grand jury information could take months, while “the president’s continued and escalating attacks on freedom of the press, members of Congress, and American values represents an ongoing threat to the security of the country against tyranny.”

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