Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi held a closed-door session with Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday and insisted that Democrats stick with their policy agenda instead of initiating the impeachment of Donald Trump. According to The Washington Post, “not a single lawmaker challenged her.”
Trump has ordered his staff and those who used to be part of his staff to ignore congressional subpoenas; instructed the IRS to refuse to turn over his tax forms; sued to block the release of his accounting records; sued to block the release of his banking records; and in general moved to block over 20 congressional investigations while throwing a blanket claim of executive privilege over the Mueller report and announcing that that isn’t going to change. He has refused to provide a single witness on any matter or to turn over a single piece of paper on any topic to the House since Democrats took control of it in January.
That absolute obstruction and the denial of congressional oversight authority have caused many Democrats to conclude that impeaching Donald Trump is the only way to uphold Congress’ Article I authority and, not incidentally, to investigate the actual crimes that Trump has clearly committed.
Five days ago, Speaker Pelosi said, “The president is self-impeaching. He’s putting out the case against himself. Obstruction, obstruction, obstruction. Ignoring subpoenas and the rest.” On Tuesday, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said that Trump was “very impulsive. He’s very willful, and he’s very ignorant. I mean, unlike Richard Nixon, who knew exactly what he was doing when he was violating the law and violating norms and so forth, he just goes ahead.” According to Nadler, Trump is making it “increasingly difficult” not to begin impeachment.
Squaring that with the “policy agenda only” statements from Wednesday’s closed-door session seems difficult. In fact, it’s impossible.
According to the Post report, the only person in the room who even brought up impeachment was Pelosi. And when she did, it was to mock the idea. “Why aren’t we impeaching the president?” Pelosi said, mimicking “frustrated” Democrats. “Why aren’t we impeaching him? They get a little down. The point is that we need to show [voters] that we are doing all of these other things that they care about so much.”
The meeting appears to have come after White House counsel Pat Cipollone send a letter to Nadler not only informing him that the White House was not going to cooperate in providing information to the House Judiciary Committee, but issuing a statement that “Congress is not a law enforcement body and does not have a legitimate purpose” to investigate any president about anything. But this direct challenge to Congress’ ability to conduct oversight, or to use impeachment, doesn’t seem to have moved the dial. If anything, the meeting seemed to signal that impeachment was not even under consideration, no matter what had been said in public.
And it’s not as if the public message has been anything other than 90% “no impeachment.” Despite his professed anger in the Judiciary hearings, and his response to Cipollone’s letter, Nadler on Wednesday said, “I don’t want to make it sound as if we’re heading for impeachment. Probably we’re not.” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, who has been one of the most consistent and adamant legislators in investigating Trump—and the focus of multiple hate tweets from Trump—said last Sunday, “We are already a bitterly divided country, and an impeachment process will divide us further.”
All of these statements in front of cameras—and more importantly, the statements being made where cameras aren’t watching—are sending a strong signal of no strength. Despite Trump’s obstruction. Despite his obstruction of the obstruction. It appears that impeachment is, if not off the table, then certainly a long, long way from being initiated.
That’s not just a disappointment to the many Democratic voters Pelosi was imitating when she said “they get a little down”; it’s also something that judges will definitely take into account when looking at the seriousness of Democratic subpoenas. As legal experts testifying before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday made clear, a House that’s engaged in impeachment—and even one that’s seriously considering impeachment—has authority that goes beyond the normal bounds of oversight. A House that’s fixed on dealing with a “policy agenda” does not.