Nadler pressed for an impeachment inquiry -- but it's not just Pelosi who is pushing back on his move
For weeks following the arrival of the special counsel’s report, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler was front and center as part of the Democratic leadership downplaying the possibility of impeachment. But with each time Donald Trump blocked the release of documents, refused to provide Congress with an unredacted version of the report, or explicitly ordered current and former staffers to ignore congressional subpoenas, Nadler became more and more certain that opening an impeachment inquiry was necessary. And in the last two weeks, Nadler has become the most prominent voice calling on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to begin that inquiry.
The necessity of an inquiry may have become most obvious during committee debate on holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt. One after another, Republicans claimed that the subpoena Nadler had issued to Barr was unlikely to survive in court … because it lacked the authority of being issued under an impeachment proceeding. Thought it’s not at all clear that this is true, what is clear is that judges during the time of Watergate gave congressional subpoenas expanded deference under the assumption that executive privilege cannot be used to aid a cover-up.
It’s also clear that Nadler has been getting a hard push from Democrats on his committee who are frustrated by their inability to get straight answers—or any answers—from the Trump White House. Those members have been regularly pinning Nadler down for complaints, and in his role as chairman, he’s been ferrying those complaints to Pelosi.
As CNN reports, that argument is exactly the line that Nadler has been following in behind the scenes wrangling with Pelosi. But in addition to arguing that subpoenas would have additional force, and would be more likely to win out in any court battle, the Judiciary chair added two new points in favor of initiating an inquiry.
Nadler appealed to the speaker that opening an inquiry would allow the House to better organize a “sprawling” inquiry that’s now spread across Judiciary, Intelligence, Finance, and Oversight committees. If Pelosi were to essentially designate the Judiciary as a special committee to consider impeachment, that committee could put all the evidence together in one place, and proceed along a single course to pull in the needed witnesses and documents. It would have the benefit of better organizing the investigation, and take away a key Republican talking point by opening all other committees to move at full speed on legislative business.
The second new argument from Nadler was a bit of a non-starter. He argued that opening an impeachment inquiry would better allow House members to discuss Trump’s potential crimes without running afoul of House rules that forbid “disparaging individuals.” But those rules didn’t seem to stand in the way of Republicans hammering President Obama on a daily basis, and they haven’t notably affected the tenor of discussion surrounding Trump. No one seems to be too concerned on this point.
In any case, Nadler wasn’t pushed back just by Pelosi—who responded to his appeal with her “rather see Trump in prison” remark—but by House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. Schiff, who has been a key figure in investigating Trump’s Russia connections, and has managed to do it in a way that has even gained the support of many Republicans on his committee, might be expected to be a proponent of opening an inquiry. After all, Schiff has also been stonewalled by Trump on subpoenas.
But Schiff’s opposition to the Nadler plan may come from another reason. To Schiff and other committee chairs, Nadler’s insistence that the investigation could be nicely neatened up by putting it all under Judiciary could easily come off as “let me take away the power of your committee.” And in Schiff’s case, much of the work Intelligence has been doing has been to the counterintelligence aspects of the Russia investigation, which would not seem to be something easily handed off to a committee without the background in the area.
For now, Schiff seems to be on Pelosi’s side with a strategy of bringing the subpoenas to court, winning, and ramping up the pressure on the Trump White House. But there’s a very definite downside to that strategy. Not only is it slow, there’s the very real possibility that the House could lose in court, no matter how certain their case appears. That’s especially true as the subpoena’s wind their way toward the Kavanaugh-boosted Supreme Court. Judges might also decide that they don’t want to be part of this fight, as in a ruling this week where a federal judge tossed a lawsuit from Democratic House members in an attempt to challenge Trump’s use of National Emergency Act powers on the border.
But the biggest risk of not moving ahead may be the political one. Pelosi has stated that she doesn’t want to begin an impeachment inquiry unless there’s broad public support for impeachment. However, the slow plod through the courts is unlikely to build that support, and the refusal to move on the issue could sap enthusiasm from the Democratic base at a time when turning out the base is everything. Finally, doing the right thing is always the right thing—even if it’s not politically expedient. Tiptoeing forward with a finger held up to the political winds is never a good look.