This week, House Democrats moved a few steps closer to considering the merits of someday impeaching Donald Trump. According to The Washington Post, a handful of Judiciary Committee Democrats in "closely held, informal discussions" have begun "privately mapping out a list of possible charges" against the president, and "sketching out the contours of potential articles of impeachment." As far as bumper-sticker slogans for the 2020 election season go, this one could use some workshopping.
The Post's account includes a laundry list of potential high crimes and misdemeanors that appear on this mysterious document, many of which clearly stem from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation: obstruction of justice, for example, and the administration's ongoing reluctance to comply with congressional subpoenas. Others relate to more general aspects of presidential misconduct: abusing the powers of his office to funnel taxpayer money to his businesses, for example, or facilitating hush-money payments to alleged paramours in violation of federal campaign-finance law.
The Post's sources made clear, though, that this initiative remains in the brainstorm stage and "cautioned" that actual articles of impeachment "may never be drafted at all."
This elaborate series of hedges reflects the still undeniably messy politics of impeachment. In a recent Monmouth University poll, 57 percent of registered voters expressed a desire for a new president in 2020, and Trump's job approval and disapproval numbers stood at 40 percent and 53 percent, respectively. However, 51 percent of respondents oppose opening an impeachment inquiry, and an even smaller group—35 percent—believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Put differently, at this moment, people do not like Trump, but also remain leery of using this particular constitutionally enshrined process to replace him.
As Adam Jentleson wrote in GQ in June, polling is subject to change, and Congress conducting an extended public exhibition of the president's crimes is the sort of thing that could cause numbers to shift dramatically. Public support for Richard Nixon's impeachment famously spiked from 19 percent when the process began to 57 percent by the time it ended with his resignation. But many of the party's more centrist members remain averse to impeachment-adjacent activities, fearful of the potential electoral consequences. A majority of House Democrats—135 of 235 lawmakers—now support an impeachment inquiry, including some swing-district freshman members like California's Katie Porter and Illinois's Sean Casten. Still, the pro-impeachment camp remains well short of the 218 votes required to earn a majority of the chamber.
This tension has prompted Democratic Party leadership to take convoluted and sometimes contradictory stances on the subject. In court filings, Nadler has characterized his investigations as an impeachment inquiry and confirmed as much in an interview last month when he told CNN that "formal impeachment proceedings" are already under way. House speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has expressed a reluctance to move from "investigation" to "impeachment." To cover for her purple-district colleagues, she has argued that Trump is "almost self-impeaching," suggested that Trump wants Democrats to impeach him, and opined that impeaching him is "just not worth it"—even as she also states publicly that Trump "is engaged in a cover-up" and says privately that she wants to see him "in prison."
This confusion perhaps peaked on Wednesday, when Maryland congressman and Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer—Pelosi's second-in-command—told reporters that although he didn't want to "quibble on words," he disagreed with Nadler's characterization of his investigation as an impeachment inquiry, directly contradicting the chairman's words in public appearances and court documents. Hoyer was forced to walk back this statement just hours later. "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," he said. He added that he fully supports Nadler's probe, which he described as one "to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House."
This morning, the Judiciary Committee also voted along party lines to pass a resolution dealing with the logistics of any future, still hypothetical impeachment proceedings. The resolution is largely procedural in nature; it permits committee staffers to question witnesses, for example, after members have done so. But Nadler sought to use the occasion to, in his words, "clear up any remaining doubt" about what, exactly, the plan is going forward. "This Committee is engaged in an investigation that will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment," he said. "Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature."
This valiant effort did not have its intended effect. At a press conference shortly after the vote, a clearly exasperated Pelosi said that she would not answer "any more questions about possible inquiries, investigations, and the rest. I've said what I'm going to say." When a reporter asked Pelosi if she is "uncomfortable with the term 'impeachment inquiry,' " and if reporters should use "another term" instead, the event came to an abrupt end. "We are on our path," the speaker replied before leaving the podium. "Where it takes us is where—we will follow the facts. That's what it is." After noting Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal to take up gun-safety legislation in the upper chamber, she continued: "Why is it that you're hung up on a word over here when lives are at stake over there?"
If the Judiciary Committee is, as Nadler says, already in the midst of "formal impeachment proceedings," perhaps this debate is now largely semantics. But for as long as the party's fumbling, scattershot public approach persists, impeachment of this president for his high crimes and misdemeanors becomes a little less likely. In his CNN interview last month, Nadler said that his committee would decide whether to vote on articles of impeachment "hopefully by the end of the year." (Even then, he was unable to resist including a qualifier.) At that point, with fewer than twelve months until the next election, whatever urgency to impeach that once existed may well have passed, and Democrats in the House will have run out the clock on the powers of their office.
Trump believes the Mueller report exonerates him. If Congress refuses to hold the president accountable, he’ll be right.
Originally Appeared on GQ