For the House’s growing impeachment caucus, June is shaping up to be the most critical month to make their case to a reluctant Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A month packed with subpoena fights, hearings on obstruction of justice and legal battles over Trump’s financial records is certain to provide fresh ammunition to grow the pro-impeachment ranks.
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“The temperature’s rising, the plot is thickening. It’s hard for me to imagine Congress certainly leaving for the August recess without some closure on this,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who supports impeachment. “The Hamlet act is, I think, wearing thin, and it’s becoming untenable and intellectually strange.”
But Democrats eager to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump fear they’re running out of time to persuade Pelosi to change course before presidential politics consumes Washington.
The House returns from a weeklong recess on Monday a few days after special counsel Robert Mueller ratcheted up pressure on lawmakers by emphasizing that Congress is the venue for holding a law-breaking president accountable. Mueller’s words — the first he uttered since the start of his two-year investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia and potential presidential obstruction — prompted a wave of House Democrats to endorse an impeachment inquiry.
Mueller underscored that the Justice Department’s guidelines prohibit him from charging a sitting president with a crime — a notion Democrats interpreted as a direct referral to Congress. But Pelosi has remained unmoved, calling for deliberative steps to investigate Trump and urging against rushing into impeachment proceedings.
“It sounds like you think that the President will be impeached, or at least proceedings will begin in the House at some point, but just not right now?” CNN “State of the Union” host Jake Tapper asked Clyburn.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I feel,” Clyburn replied.
Clyburn’s statement also indicted that the number of Democrats in favor of impeachment proceedings could be well above the approximately 50 members who have stated their view publicly.
Mueller’s comments provide the backdrop for a month filled with moments that are likely to push even more Democrats to call for impeachment proceedings and dial up pressure on Pelosi, whose stance against rushing into an impeachment inquiry could become unsustainable, some Democrats say.
“Obviously, people are very frustrated that we haven’t moved faster. Frankly, I’m frustrated because we have been held up by the unprecedented action by the White House to deny all witnesses,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said during an appearance Friday on WNYC. “We can only go so far until we can win in court. That’s why we have to get the contempt citations on the floor of the House as soon as possible, which I’ve been pushing for.”
Nadler also threw cold water on some Democrats’ urgency to begin impeachment proceedings before the 2020 campaign is in full swing, saying it’s important to send a message to future presidents about their conduct.
“[Trump’s] reelection would be an absolute catastrophe,” Nadler said. “But beyond preventing that catastrophe and getting a decent president into office, we have to vindicate the Constitution. Even in those circumstances, it might be well worth carrying on impeachment.”
In the meantime, Nadler is pushing Pelosi to immediately call a vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to provide Congress with Mueller’s underlying evidence. Nadler on Friday vented his frustration that Trump’s White House has so far managed to delay efforts to access that information as well as testimony from Mueller’s most explosive witness, former White House counsel Don McGahn.
On Tuesday, two former Trump aides — longtime confidante Hope Hicks and former White House lawyer Annie Donaldson — are due to turn over documents subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee as part of that panel’s effort to delve into Mueller’s obstruction of justice findings. Both are also due to testify later in June.
But Democrats are anticipating that the White House will intervene to block their cooperation, pointing to the president’s instruction to McGahn last month to defy the committee’s subpoena. Some Democrats see the White House’s inevitable directives to Hicks and Donaldson as another chance to lure more of their colleagues into the pro-impeachment camp.
Blocking testimony from McGahn, Hicks and Donaldson denies Democrats opportunities to put the 448-page Mueller report — which they say Americans haven’t read — on camera in an easy-to-digest format. Holding public hearings is essential for moving public opinion in favor of impeachment, Democrats say.
“Part of the function of Congress, just the same as the Watergate hearings 40 years ago, [is] to have a dialogue with the American people so people can make informed decisions and know what’s going on,” Nadler said.
In all, the ranks of pro-impeachment Democrats swelled to more than 50 through the end of May — but that’s less than a quarter of the more than 230 House Democrats. The number of Democrats who publicly backed impeachment after Mueller’s statement included committee chairs — Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern among them — and another member of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees impeachment matters.
Until now, Democrats’ strategy to investigate Trump has been scattershot. Six committees have been investigating aspects of Trump’s personal conduct and financial dealings, but Trump’s all-out resistance has mired their efforts in a battle over process-related minutiae rather than the details of Mueller’s findings.
Democrats intend to change that focus in June, promising a torrent of hearings on the dozen instances of possible obstruction of justice that Mueller examined, as well as testimony from former federal prosecutors — including Republicans — who say Trump would have been indicted were he not the president.
A senior House Democratic aide said June will be a particularly important test for the Judiciary Committee — the forum for these hearings, as well as any potential impeachment battle — to make the most of Mueller’s words and the substance of his report, which paints a damning picture of a chaotic White House and president seeking to thwart Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“It’s a crucial month for that particular committee because Mueller did give us a gift and an opportunity to refocus the narrative back to the substance of the report,” the aide said.
“It’s about whether Democrats — the Judiciary Committee, specifically — can exploit this moment and Mueller’s statements to ignite a national conversation about the extent of President Trump’s abuse of power and ways to hold him accountable,” the aide continued. “The true test of that is going to be in June. If you can’t do that with what he gave us, there’s no way you’re ready for impeachment.”
June also features the next wave of court filings in Democrats’ efforts to compel banks and an accounting firm to turn over Trump’s financial information as part of their probes of potential conflicts of interest and money laundering. Key victories in the early rounds of those court battles — and the expedited consideration of Trump’s appeals to those rulings — have emboldened Pelosi and her allies to pursue a more deliberative course.
“To the extent that we’re able to conduct these inquiries and get information and documents and testimony without resorting to some kind of impeachment inquiry, I think that that will probably stave off taking that next step,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the Oversight and Intelligence committees and a Pelosi ally, said in an interview.
“If there are folks who believe in their hearts that impeachment is necessary, then obviously a case has to be made that is sustainable in the Senate as well,” Krishnamoorthi added. “And in order to do that, you have to do something that moves the American people at the same time. And that’s why the investigations are so important.”
But Democrats who favor impeachment proceedings see the court rulings as proof that the Trump administration is trying to run out the clock on their probes. They say the window for impeachment will soon close as the 2020 presidential campaign ramps up.
“Once you’re into the campaign, everything is inherently partisan, and I think it really does make this moot,” said Tom Steyer, the billionaire liberal activist who has been targeting House Democrats for more than a year to urge them to back impeachment.
“Most of us believe that there will come a point where if you get too close to the election, all the politics are going to lean toward just taking it to the voters,” added Huffman.