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Trump's impeachment inquiry sets house along path with no clear map

Pelosi, the House speaker, must still settle internal divisions over the scope of the inquiry

Bloomberg | Laura Litvan & Billy House 

Washington: President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019, as he departs for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and onto Wheeling, W.Va., for a fundraiser. AP/PTI(

set House Democrats on a course toward an impeachment of President without a clear road map for where it will go and how long it will take.

Democrats accelerated their inquiry Friday, issuing a subpoena and setting plans for witness interviews. But Pelosi, the House speaker, must still settle internal divisions over the scope of the inquiry. Then will come a decision about whether to vote to impeach Trump, a process could reach a climax amid the 2020 election campaign.

Pelosi said the newly intensified impeachment process -- focused primarily on whether Trump tried to coerce Ukraine’s leader to investigate Joe Biden, one of the president’s chief political rivals -- “should move with purpose and expeditiously.”

“It doesn’t have to drag on,” she said.

Yet if history is a guide, the process could take several months, at the very least. A generation after the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, Pelosi is grappling with a different set of circumstances -- and mindful of the risk that pursuing Trump poses to Democrats’ hopes of defeating him in the 2020 election and keeping control of the House.

Clinton and Andrew Johnson were the only presidents to be impeached by the House, and each was acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee advanced articles of impeachment.

The Johnson proceedings spanned three months of 1868, from beginning to acquittal, and Clinton’s lasted four months. The Nixon inquiry stretched from October 1973 to July 1974.

The cases of Trump and Clinton have one interesting parallel: Both came after lengthy probes by a specially appointed counsels charged with looking into a politically sensitive episode. But the trigger for the impeachment inquiry in both cases sprang from a different matter.

Clinton was investigated by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr who was examining an Arkansas real estate deal known as Whitewater. The focus ultimately pivoted to the question of whether the president had lied under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky when deposed in a separate sexual harassment lawsuit.

Trump had just survived Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of his 2016 campaign’s possible involvement in Russian election interference before the Ukraine allegations sent fresh shock waves through the political establishment.

But there’s also a key difference in the cases. Starr was given a broad mandate and at the conclusion of a four-year investigation his report laid out 11 possible grounds for impeachment. That gave the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee a ready framework to move quickly without conducting their own inquiry.

After the House approved two articles of impeachment, the Senate trial that followed involved videotaped depositions of just three witnesses.

Potential Delays

This time, the investigation is carried out by the House. While Pelosi seems determined to advance through the process well before next year’s elections, it could be protracted, said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University.

The scope, the number of committees and the number of witnesses involved are critical, Zelizer said. Also, Trump’s White House has instructed some witnesses in other House investigations not to appear, citing executive privilege, and there’s a question of whether that will happen and whether court battles lie ahead.

“It will unfold according to its own logic,” said Zelizer, adding that “these things have their own timetables.”

With Congress now on a two-week recess, Democrats will be challenged to keep the public’s focus on the case they’re trying to build while Trump will be able to dominate the airwaves with counterattacks.

The House Intelligence Committee plans to continue its work through at least part of the break. Pelosi is using the panel to lead the current phase of the investigation, focusing on Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader and a whistle-blower’s complaint that also detailed alleged efforts by the White House to “lock down” records of the exchange.

Subpoena Issued Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings issued their first subpoena in connection with the Ukraine case on Friday, seeking documents from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

The whistle-blower’s complaint provided a guide to several potential witnesses -- including Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani -- but getting their testimony could get bogged down by battles with the White House over subpoenas.

“We will move as expeditiously as possible but we have to see what witnesses are going to make themselves available and what witnesses are going to require compulsion,” Schiff said.

There are five other committees want a piece of the action investigating Trump’s actions in office and his finances.

The breadth of the inquiry was the most notable area of discord among House Democrats after Pelosi said the chamber would proceed with an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday.

Some progressives, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, want to take a broader look at Trump’s actions. But Democratic moderates from swing districts this week urged the speaker to focus solely on Ukraine.

‘Looking Forward’

Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan was among those who argued the Ukraine issue -- whether Trump withheld American aid package to Ukraine at the same time he pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to start a corruption probe of Biden and his son -- is one that voters can readily grasp.

”We need to focus on the most egregious concerns, the ones that are prospective, looking to 2020,” Slotkin told reporters. “This isn’t about looking backwards, it’s about looking forward and protecting our political process.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, a progressive Democrat from Maryland, said a broader pattern of behavior by Trump should be reflected.

”I don’t think we disappear everything else we know about the administration, but it will be our task to sift through everything and to reduce these to recognizable high crimes and misdemeanors.” Raskin said.

Representative Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and a leader in the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus, rejected that approach.

“Where I’ve been and I remain is we should keep this focused and we should let the facts guide us,” Gottheimer said. “We should recognize how solemn a moment this is in our history and treat it as such and make sure that we follow facts and make our ultimate decisions based on those facts. I would argue this should be very narrowly focused.”

Ocasio-Cortez said she would prefer a multifaceted inquiry that includes whether Trump has used the presidency to benefit his businesses. But ultimately, she said, she and others who want that may have to consider what is doable in a chamber narrowly governed by Democrats.

“I personally would like to see additional articles on there about emoluments because I don’t want to send a message that this is OK, but at the same time we’ve got to do whatever we can get done,” she said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

First Published: Sat, September 28 2019. 15:22 IST