House Democrats expanding their sprawling investigations into the Trump administration are battling more than White House stonewalling — they’re also racing against the clock.
The Judiciary Committee this week will vote to adopt new rules designed to power their ongoing probes, as the panel weighs whether to introduce articles of impeachment against President Trump. But as Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is revving up the committee’s operations, some Democrats say party leaders should aim to wrap up the process by year’s end — or risk a political backlash at the polls in 2020.
“Iowa votes in early February, and I don’t think we want … the very serious inquiry about the president’s misconduct to be conflated with the political calendar,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), referring to the Hawkeye State’s presidential caucuses. “We would unfairly get accused of being political.”
Khanna, who supports Nadler’s investigative approach to impeachment, was quick to warn against setting an “arbitrary deadline” for launching a formal impeachment process, saying that could “short-circuit the comprehensive process for holding the president accountable.”
“But,” he added, “I think it would be helpful if we are able to [finalize] the process by the end of the year before the political season really gets in the way.”
The comments come as Nadler and Democratic leaders ramp up their investigations into potential presidential misconduct, including actions related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In addition to examining episodes of possible obstruction laid out by Mueller, Nadler has announced that his committee will look into accusations that Trump violated campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women claiming they had affairs with him more than a decade ago; that he’s profited from government trips in which administration officials used taxpayer dollars to stay at his family-owned properties; and that he’s offered to pardon border officials if they broke the law to discourage an influx of Central American migrants.
“Trump’s crimes and corruption extend beyond what is detailed in the Mueller report. The President is in violation of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution as he works to enrich himself, putting the safety and security of our Nation at risk,” Nadler said in a statement Monday. “He has dangled pardons, been involved in campaign finance violations and stonewalled Congress across the board, noting that he will defy all subpoenas.”
All told, more than 130 House Democrats are on record supporting the impeachment of Trump in some form. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democratic leaders have pumped the brakes on pursuing that approach, arguing the process is futile without greater support from both the public and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Pelosi is also fighting to protect moderate Democrats in 2020 — lawmakers who could face a backlash at the polls if Democrats leap into impeachment without more public backing. And as the House reconvened Monday after a six-week summer recess, Pelosi sought to shift the media’s focus to the Democrats’ policy agenda.
“We are legislating, first and foremost,” she told reporters in the Capitol. “Hopefully you will pay attention, because we are legislating. We have a full agenda that we’ve come back to do, starting with gun violence protection.”
“We’re legislating, we are investigating as we have been, and we are litigating,” she added. “We are taking our information to court — that’s the path we are on and that’s the path we will continue to be on.”
Yet the clamor for impeachment has only grown over the long August recess, as more Democratic lawmakers announced their support for a formal inquiry. And liberal Democrats returning to the Capitol showed no signs of letting up in their push to launch a more aggressive process immediately.
“There’s an overwhelming case to be made that the president is unfit for office and deserves to be impeached,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.
Like Khanna, McGovern said arbitrary deadlines would be inappropriate. “But I think it needs to be done as quickly as possible,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee is also preparing to have its first recorded vote Thursday on whether to adopt a resolution that would expand the committee’s powers to question witnesses as it continues its investigation to determine whether to impeach Trump.
Those procedures, which are expected to advance in the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee, will expand the panel’s authorities by allowing staff to question witnesses after members, while empowering Nadler to punt less important witnesses to subcommittees in order to save time.
Separately, committee leaders have filed numerous court briefs seeking disputed documents and testimony from a recalcitrant administration — and citing the possibility of impeachment as a legal justification for securing the information.
“It’s no secret that we are actually in the middle of an impeachment investigation,” Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) told CNN on Monday. “This is just going to be a procedural vote to allow us to look more deeply into violations of the Emoluments Clause and obstruction.”
Despite the rhetorical wordplay, Democrats have not opened a formal inquiry by holding a full House vote — something the committee has argued is not necessary as it seeks to determine whether to introduce articles of impeachment.
The committee is reluctant to put a deadline on its investigation out of concern it will box lawmakers in if new information arises or if the White House seeks to run out the clock.
While Nadler told MSNBC last month that the panel could make a decision on impeachment by “late fall perhaps” — putting a tentative timeline on their efforts for the first time — one Democratic aide on Monday said that is an informal goal rather than a strict stop date.
“I think it’s everyone’s goal by the end of the year but it’s not a hard-and-fast deadline. But that is our goal,” the aide told reporters.
In particular, the Democrats’ lawsuit seeking to enforce the subpoena for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn is making it hard to determine the timing of when the investigations will come to an end.
Legal experts say it is unlikely they will receive a ruling in the McGahn lawsuit by the end of the year.
“Even if [the McGahn case] is expedited, I would be surprised if we had a final ruling — and that includes the final appeals courts — before the new year,” Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, told The Hill late last month.
Democrats believe that if the ruling in the McGahn case goes their way they will see a domino effect, securing testimony from other current and former administration officials who were previously reluctant to to appear at the demand of the White House.
But apart from McGahn, Democrats hope that adding new layers to their obstruction probe will help them make the case for ousting the president — whether it is by impeachment or at the polls next year.
–Scott Wong contributed to this report.