Bart Jansen, Christal Hayes and Courtney Subramanian
Published 3:00 AM EDT Sep 25, 2019
WASHINGTON – When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry Tuesday against President Donald Trump, she said his contacts with Ukraine’s president “changed everything” for Democrats.
Lawmakers said her announcement galvanized the Democratic Caucus to expedite and prioritize their investigations for a speedy resolution. But chairmen of the six committees that have been investigating Trump for months and rank-and-file members said no details were discussed about how the mechanics of the probes might change.
“If you want to put a name to it, call it: Phase two,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a member of two committees investigating Trump: Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs. “It’s both significant and anti-climactic in a kind of odd way.” He said Trump’s behavior “is so egregious, so reckless, so debasing to the office, that it seems like well beyond time we agree to this.”
House Democrats have been investigating Trump on a variety of fronts since regaining control of the chamber in January, probing whether he has obstructed justice, profited unconstitutionally from his namesake business or fallen under the influence of foreign countries. But Trump has dismissed the investigations as partisan harassment after special counsel Robert Mueller found no conspiracy between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
In past investigations, the full House voted on articles of impeachment, which the House Judiciary Committee then investigated. The move granted the committee additional authority, such as access to grand-jury evidence. The committee is seeking grand-jury evidence in this case, from Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the Justice Department has opposed the request in federal court.
Trump’s acknowledgement that he urged Ukraine to investigate his presidential rival, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden, spurred Democrats led by Pelosi to expedite their investigations.
“We have to strike while the iron is hot,” Pelosi told her caucus, according to a senior Democratic aide who was in the private meeting. “This is a national security issue – a national security issue – and we cannot let him think that this is a casual thing.”
She announced that the House “is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” and that she was “directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”
Impeachment inquiry on fast track?
Lawmakers are also eager to hear from a whistleblower who reported an “urgent concern” about national security that the administration has blocked from being passed along to Congress.
“Because the inspector general has said that this is an urgent concern, it has accelerated the pace of how we go forward,” Pelosi said. “This is a sad day. But it is focused and accelerated.”
Trump, who was visiting the United Nations in New York, tweeted that the Democratic effort was “Witch Hunt garbage” and said it was “so bad for our Country!”
The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, called Pelosi’s statement a “false and feeble decree” because the House still hasn’t voted to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry, as happened with former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
“This is the first partisan ‘impeachment’ in the history of the republic, and the real victims are the American people,” Collins said. “The chaos began in the Judiciary Committee, and now it’s seeping into the rest of the House.”
Will it strengthen Pelosi’s hand?
Legal experts disagreed about the impact of Pelosi’s declaration.
Claire Finkelstein, the faculty director at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at University of Pennsylvania, said Pelosi’s declaration would strengthen the House’s position in federal court battles to enforce subpoenas and get witness testimony. The declaration “just about ensured” that lawmakers will eventually get the whistleblower complaint because the administration’s blocking of the access could appear to be obstruction of justice, she said.
“The decision in the House today was to open an impeachment inquiry, and that allows the House to have stronger leverage around issuing subpoenas for documents, getting witnesses in to speak to various committees or to the House as whole,” Finkelstein said.
But Michael Gerhardt, a professor and expert on constitutional law and impeachment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he didn’t believe Pelosi’s comments on Tuesday grant Democrats any additional legal authority and won’t have much of an effect on the host of legal disputes making their way through the courts.
Gerhardt, who authored “Impeachment: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “The Federal Impeachment Process,” said “it’s not clear that it strengthens any of the court cases because they are already relying on the legitimate powers granted to Congress of oversight and investigation.” The major shift is more political than legal, he said.
“It’s not insignificant that she took this position,” he said. “She is a real veteran and I think that her coming out in support helps bolster the investigation and give it some more credibility.”
Will the whistleblower testify?
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., declined to comment on what Pelosi’s announcement meant or whether his panel’s work would change.
He said he was “looking forward” to the committee’s hearing Thursday with the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to ask why he prevented the inspector general for the intelligence community from passing along a whistleblower complaint to Congress. “We’re trying to make arrangements for the whistleblower to come and testify before our committee this week as well,” Schiff said.
A member of the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said said the national-security concerns raised by the Ukraine situation are easier for the American public to grasp than the he-said-she-said of the Mueller report.
“The news here, obviously, is that Speaker Pelosi has a new position on impeachment,” Welch said. “But the step by step of how we do it was not discussed.”
Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., whose panel has sought Trump’s tax returns, said the president’s explanation of his dealings with Ukraine situation changed the dynamics. Pelosi’s formal request for an inquiry “adds an impetus to the investigations of the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally handles impeachment inquiries, and other panels.”
Ukraine scandal unites Democrats
“You had all of a sudden this kind of galloping series of events where it became ‘no I didn’t,’ ‘what if I did,’ ‘so what,’” Neal said. “I think the consensus of the caucus has reached a new stage based on what happened with Ukraine.”
Rank-and-file lawmakers said the consensus in the Democratic Caucus meant that the investigations would be handled expeditiously.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a progressive member of the Judiciary Committee, said the main difference she gleaned is that impeachment will now be the top priority. She said members aren’t aware of how the process will change.
“I think we still have to work all of those details out,” said Jayapal, D-Wash. “So this is not something that’s going to drag out for months. It is going to be expeditious. It’s going to be quick.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he didn’t hear any opposition during the caucus meeting.
“I think that because she has been so, kind of, reluctant to go down this path, she had tremendous credibility,” he said. “When we’ve had previous discussions on this topic, there was always dissent. It was vocal. And this time there wasn’t that dissent.”
AOC: There’s emphasis on speed
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, said the big change is “the emphasis” that speed up the process.
“I think the party’s unified and that there’s power behind that,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The weight behind that adds an urgency and an expeditiousness to the investigation that I don’t believe we’ll have seen previously.”
More about congressional investigations of President Donald Trump:
Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump over Ukraine scandal
House Democrats will launch an impeachment inquiry. Here’s what we know so far
Biden calls for Trump to face impeachment if he doesn’t comply with Congressional inquiries
Trump says he’ll release transcript of call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky