House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., arrives to read a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., arrives to read a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

House Democrats Announce Formal Impeachment Probe — Sort Of

It’s far from clear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s go-slow strategy has changed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday that Democrats were moving forward with “an official impeachment inquiry” into President Donald Trump—but the substance of that move remained as murky as ever. 

Democrats have stewed for months over whether to act to remove the president from office. Pelosi has backed a series of oversight investigations spread across multiple committees, but behind closed doors, she has urged patience on impeachment—even as House Judiciary Chairman Jerrod Nadler, D-N.Y., whose committee has jurisdiction over the matter, has pushed loudly to begin formal proceedings. The public and private wrangling has left Democrats in a tortured halfway house as they have sought to explain their conflicting strategy to the public. 

But after news reports that Trump blocked military aid to Ukraine before asking its president to investigate the son of a potential 2020 rival, Pelosi called a closed-door caucus meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Lawmakers emerging from the meeting said she wants the process to move forward “expeditiously,” but that no specific timeline was discussed. 

Pelosi herself spoke to a small group of reporters after the meeting. "The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections," she said. "Therefore, today I'm announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry."

But, as one Democratic lawmaker after the caucus meeting, “It’s hard to say” whether Pelosi’s announcement will actually change anything that the House is doing about impeaching Trump. “Only time will tell.”

Lawmakers said the House will vote, likely Wednesday, on a non-binding resolution condemning a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that sparked the invigorated calls for impeachment this week. 

While the party’s left flank has become increasingly vocal about the need to move forward with impeachment, Pelosi has so far managed to hold back her caucus out of concern for the moderate members who were largely responsible for Democrats taking back the House in 2018. She has in the past has called impeachment “very divisive,” insisting that Democrats should not proceed without an ironclad case — and, it would seem, wider public support. Polls show overall support for impeachment to be low, with independents siding with Republicans against the move. (The GOP famously lost seats in the House after impeaching then-President Bill Clinton in 1998.)

But this week, that reticence ended. Revelations that Trump urged the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of 2020 rival Joe Biden — while withholding almost $400 million in security aid — pushed enough Democrats off the fence that by the afternoon, pollsters and analysts had begun to describe the momentum towards impeachment as inevitable. A group of seven first-term Democrats with deep national security experience had penned a Washington Post op-ed on Monday approving the move “if these allegations are true.” On Tuesday, party icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., endorsed impeachment proceedings on the House floor.

“I think that there’s a broad understanding that what’s happened so far — if the reporting is accurate — is far worse than anything we saw with the Mueller report, and I think there’s a broad consensus to take next steps,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. 

Krishnamoorthi and other Democrats insisted that there was no disagreement between lawmakers in the meeting, but questions remain about the process Pelosi will follow. House leadership has considered naming a hand-picked special committee to handle an impeachment inquiry, which would give Pelosi more control over the process and take the matter out of Nadler’s hands. Lawmakers said that Pelosi did not get into that level of detail on Tuesday. 

“It’s clear [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff [D-Calif.] is at the center of it,” said the Democratic lawmaker who spoke to Defense One on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Schiff was the only other lawmaker who spoke during the caucus meeting, the lawmaker said, and Pelosi remarked that “she was with the Intel Committee for 25 years and that she was ranking member once upon a time and that no one has come up to House leadership without coming up through the Intelligence Committee.” 

The lawmaker said that suggests that Pelosi will “probably” name a special committee. “What may have happened is: Jerry pushed her hard for a long time and Jerry is getting his wish for an impeachment process—but he doesn’t get to chair it.”

If the House does introduce and vote on articles of impeachment, and assuming every Republican in the House votes against it, Democrats can afford to lose just under 20 votes and still refer the matter to the upper chamber for conviction. But the matter is almost certain to die in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In the Senate

Still, Tuesday also brought word that the Senate is interested in learning more about it. Republicans joined Democrats in approving a resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint to be turned over the intelligence committees immediately, Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis reported. The Senate Intelligence Committee has also opened a probe into the matter. The committee has requested an interview on Friday with a whistleblower whose complaint ultimately led to the revelation of Trump’s entreaties to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The panel on Thursday will hear from the intelligence community’s inspector general, who received the initial complaint and referred the matter to acting national intelligence director Joseph Maguire. Maguire has refused to turn the complaint over to Congress, which critics say puts him in violation of the federal law that governs intelligence-community whistleblower complaints. 

Maguire will also testify before the House Intelligence Community in public on Thursday. 

Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon that he would release an unredacted copy of the transcript of the mid-July call with the Ukrainian president on Wednesday. He did not mention the whistleblower’s complaint.

Trump responded almost immediately to Pelosi’s announcement on Twitter, calling it “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT.” 

“They never even saw the transcript of the call. A total Witch Hunt!” he tweeted.

But Pelosi’s announcement may draw equal fire from the left, which has expressed frustration for months that Democrats have treated impeachment as a rhetorical device, stopping short of introducing language and holding a vote. 

“I think it’s fair to say I walked away with the feeling that we are going down that road, but nothing was discussed in specifics,” Krisnamoorthi said.