How Broad Should the House Democrats’ Impeachment Investigation Be?

Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler have some tough decisions to make. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Now that Nancy Pelosi has set House Democrats firmly and (probably) irreversibly on the road to impeaching Donald Trump, she and they must make the fateful decision about which examples of misconduct to prosecute. As Lawfare observes today, Trump’s behavior “presents what the military calls a target-rich environment.” Should they go wide and include various high crimes and misdemeanors? Or go narrow and stick to the latest and hottest controversy, i.e., the president’s petitioning a foreign government to help his administration smear a political enemy?

Already, people are weighing in:

And from longtime impeachment enthusiast Brian Beutler, this dissent from the idea of single-issue impeachment:

He later elaborates:

It’s a little hard to determine exactly where Pelosi is. Multiple outlets are reporting that she wants the House to narrowly focus on Trump’s Ukraine gambit. Here’s how Politico has heard it:

The strategy, described by Democratic lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks, would center on streamlining the consideration of articles of impeachment to focus exclusively on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden — a push they say included an implicit threat to withhold military aid to the eastern European country …

“This has clarity and understanding in the eyes of the American people,” Pelosi told her leadership team, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting.

But then the very next sentence of Pelosi’s quote undermines the idea of staying narrow:

“If we do articles, then we can include other things.”

“Articles” means “articles of impeachment,” presumably the endgame for House Democrats at this point. So perhaps Pelosi wants to begin with hearings focused on Ukraine, see how it goes, and then consider broadening the scope of impeachment articles before taking the final leap. Nobody really knows at this point.

Some observers emphasize the need for crisp, clear, and above all compelling grounds for impeachment rather than some preset number of items. The above-mentioned Lawfare piece has some dos and don’ts:

[I]t is critically important to be disciplined at this juncture — to base articles of impeachment only on that activity which is not merely a plausible basis for removal but is unambiguously justified as a basis for removal. That means that anything that is a matter of policy — no matter how much one might disagree with the policy or how abhorrent one might find it — should not be included. For example, Congress should strongly resist the temptation to include disputes over border security — including both spending on the wall and the grotesque policy of family separation — in any articles it might draw up.

The author also thinks that pursuing Trumpian malfeasance before he became president would create an unhelpful side dispute as to whether actions as a private citizen can be impeachable.

That doesn’t mean the “crisp and clear” approach requires a narrow scope: Lawfare recommends four major areas of inquiry beyond the Ukraine scandal: (1) obstruction of justice (as shown by Mueller and others); (2) use of law-enforcement resources to attack or punish political opponents; (3) obstruction of lawful congressional investigations and oversight; and, my personal favorite, Trump’s habit of lying:

The 1974 article of impeachment concerning Nixon’s obstruction of justice also noted his lies to the public about the Watergate investigation: Nixon, the Judiciary Committee charged, made “false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted” on the Watergate matter and that White House and Nixon campaign officials had no involvement in the burglary. Kenneth Starr also suggested an article of impeachment against Clinton for “mis[leading] the American people,” though Congress declined to adopt this article. Trump has rather outdone prior presidents in the lies department. The Washington Post “Fact Checker” database of presidential dissembling as of Aug. 5 had documented 12,019 “false or misleading statements” by Trump since he took office. The Mueller report documents multiple instances in which the president and administration officials speaking on his behalf knowingly lied to the public. His tenure has genuinely posed the question of whether the president has any obligation at all to tell the truth about anything — ever. His presidency is, among other things, advancing the proposition that the idea of “faithful” execution of the law implies no duty of candor at all.

So even if the House impeachment inquiry in its next, more purposeful phase begins with a narrow focus on the latest Trumpian outrage, you have to figure it will eventually broaden to include some of the lowlights of this president’s low behavior — unless the Ukraine scandal has the kind of yet-to-be-revealed details that will get a majority of the public behind impeachment. Since the odds of the Senate’s actually convicting the president are virtually nil, impeachment might still damage the president’s credibility enough to make his ejection from office by the public very likely.

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How Broad Should the Impeachment Investigation Be?