Just as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is said to have been inclined to do ever since she formally announced impeachment proceedings in September, the House Democratic leadership announced two proposed articles of impeachment on Tuesday, both arising from President Trump’s misconduct in asking Ukraine’s president to help him with the “favor” of dropping a hammer on 2020 rival Joe Biden. In doing so, they passed up the opportunity to include broader areas of presidential misconduct, most notably the instances of obstruction of justice outlined in the Mueller Report before the Ukraine scandal broke. But the two articles – one alleging abuse of power in soliciting foreign involvement in a U.S. election at the sacrifice of national security interests, and one alleging obstruction of Congress in fighting subpoenas for documents and witnesses issued in conjunction with the impeachment inquiry – offer a simple case that lacks the complexity of the Mueller Report, and can presumably command the support of all but a handful of House Democrats.
The press conference announcing this choice of articles was mostly devoted to conveying the appropriate degree of solemnity, with five committee chairs that have been involved in investigating the president joining Pelosi in front of a portrait of George Washington and no less than four American flags, and the Judiciary Committee’s Jerrold Nadler breaking the key news. The lawmakers took no questions, but Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff anticipated an important one – Why not wait for the 2020 election? – by citing the eight months it took to get one court ruling compelling a key witness, former White House counsel Don McGahn, to testify before Congress (and even that decision is still being appealed). Schiff also reminded viewers that letting a president get away with election-tampering is a good way to ensure that he’ll try it again.
The narrow basis of these articles of impeachment will not, of course, reduce the fury they will engender from the administration and its congressional defenders. It’s already clear that one of the original rationales for keeping it simple – that it might help pull a significant number of Republicans across the line – has failed. But another – that moderate House Democrats vulnerable next year might be tempted to abandon Pelosi on some articles of impeachment if multiple articles covering multiple offenses were pursued – is probably still a factor.
Now obviously those Democrats and progressive media folk who favored impeachment long before the Ukraine scandal came to light are not going to be happy with articles confined to that scandal and the obstruction of Congress it occasioned. Some will argue that by implication the House leadership’s approach excuses the president’s many other high crimes and misdemeanors. Others will argue that Democrats’ case for replacing Trump next year would be enhanced by a more extended impeachment inquiry touching on a broader range of issues. It’s certainly not hard to suspect that Pelosi is really just cutting losses by focusing on one incident of Trump’s misgovernment and racing to impeach him by year’s end, so that House Democrats can move on to their previously scheduled election-year agenda. And the impression that she’s ready to “move on” is certainly reinforced by the fact that she is holding another presser today to announce support for the administration’s renegotiated US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
In any event, the die is cast and it appears the Judiciary Committee will briefly debate and then report them to the full House on a strict party-line vote by the end of this week. That will give Democrats a week to formally impeach Trump before breaking for Christmas (without, they hope, a government shutdown breaking out and commandeering attention), and handing off impeachment to the Senate for a trial beginning in January. And then the president and his allies will have their own decisions to make about the scope of the trial and whether they choose to turn it into a counter-trial of Joe and Hunter Biden and other Democrats who have had the temerity to challenge his authority.