When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged from her Democratic Caucus late Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 24, and announced to the assembled media that “the House is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” it was clear that the latest allegation of President Donald J. Trump’s solicitation of newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter for corruption charges was a critical tipping point.
Pelosi had previously resisted calls for a formal impeachment inquiry until all the facts were in and there was bipartisan support in the Congress and country for impeachment. None of those conditions had yet been met, but the impeachment train was barreling down the tracks, gaining momentum and passengers. Prior to the Ukrainian revelation, only about 145 of the 235 Democratic caucus members (62 percent) favored formal impeachment proceedings. By last Tuesday, 195 Democrats (83 percent) were on board, including many from districts Trump had carried in 2016.
What was unusual about the quick turnaround in the majority leadership’s stance was the way in which it was unveiled. Earlier in the day, the media had been advised that the Speaker would make an announcement to the House when she emerged from the caucus meeting. Presumably that meant an announcement on the House floor.
However, instead, she stood alone in a Capitol hallway outside her speaker’s office, back-dropped by an array of American flags, and delivered a patriotic soliloquy from a teleprompter invoking the Constitution and revolutionary era heroes like Benjamin Franklin (twice) and Tom Paine. Pelosi said the president’s actions were “a betrayal of his oath of office, a betrayal of the integrity of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” The president “must be held accountable,” she added. “No one is above the law.” With that, she turned and retreated to her office without entertaining any questions.
Pelosi made it clear that by her announcement alone, she was triggering the formal proceedings. This is the first time in my memory that a Speaker has unilaterally launched a formal impeachment inquiry. As House precedents point out, “Under the modern practice, an impeachment is normally instituted by the House by the adoption a resolution calling for a committee investigation of charges against the officer in question.” Ordinarily, such a resolution would be dropped in the hopper and referred to the Rules Committee, then reported to the House floor for a vote. Both the 1973 and 1998, the Nixon and Clinton impeachment inquiries were authorized by House adoption of such resolutions.
As it turned out, the Rules Committee at the very hour of the Speaker’s announcement was already considering a simple resolution calling for a copy of the transcript of the president’s phone conversation with Zelensky and the whistleblower’s full complaint that the president had made a promise to a foreign entity that jeopardized our national security. The Rules Committee could easily have considered a related resolution authorizing an impeachment inquiry.
The press revealed that the leadership briefly considered establishing a special select committee to conduct the inquiry, but that was quickly dashed by caucus liberals defending Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) right to preside over the impeachment proceedings. Instead, Pelosi directed the six House committees currently investigating President Trump and his administration “to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.” Watching this Hydra-headed serpent entangling itself under a single umbrella should prove to be an entertaining if not terribly enlightening spectacle –especially if, as word has it, the heat is on to complete everything by the end of his year.
Ironically, notwithstanding the drama of Speaker Pelosi’s unilateral declaration of inter-dependence, it’s not clear it has changed anything all that much. As I pointed out in my blog in this space on August 5, Pelosi had just allowed Chairman Nadler to characterize before the D.C. District court a subpoena for the Mueller investigation’s relevant grand jury materials as necessary for the House to “exercise its full Article I powers, including as constitutional power of the utmost gravity –approval of articles of impeachment.” Nadler went even further, telling the press the concession by Pelosi was “tantamount” to calling the committee’s activities an “impeachment inquiry.” It was all a romp in the antics of semantics.
Obviously completing all the pending investigations in short order, absent all the subpoenaed materials the administration has refused to turn over, will be a daunting task. That’s why some are already arguing to confine any final impeachment votes to the Ukrainian-Biden matter –a clear breach of political ethics and abuse of presidential powers. That is something much easier for the American people to understand than the Mueller report’s Decalogue of possible obstructions of justice.
Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.