WASHINGTON — The drumbeat is intensifying in the House of Representatives to impeach President Donald Trump, but it’s not clear yet whether the entire chamber will march to that tune.
A majority of House Democrats has called for a formal impeachment inquiry, a list that grew as lawmakers returned to their districts for Congress’ summer break. And lawmakers are taking steps toward doing that: The Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing in September with Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former White House aides. Federal courts could order the release any time of secret grand-jury evidence from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But even as support builds on the left, the prospect of getting it done seems remote. A majority of the American public doesn’t think the House should seriously consider impeaching Trump, according to a series of three USA TODAY/Suffolk University polls this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has tamped down expectations by saying the American people must be persuaded with the strongest possible case.
The result is that Democratic lawmakers return to Washington this fall in a delicate position. A majority of the Democratic caucus leading the House, which is the chamber in charge of deciding whether to impeach the president, have come out in favor, putting pressure on the chamber’s leaders to move forward. But those calls have reached a crescendo at a time when most Americans disagree, and when the party is already trying to find a way to defeat Trump in the 2020 election.
“Nancy Pelosi is a pretty good student of history and she recognizes what a disaster this would be so close to the 2020 election, particularly if you look at the polls,” said Ford O’Connell, an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management and Republican presidential strategist. “She knows better.”
The political risk for Democrats is that impeaching Trump could draw sympathy to him. After the Republican-controlled House voted to impeach then-President Bill Clinton in 1998, his fellow Democrats gained a handful of seats in the House that year and then a handful of seats in both chambers the following election. Trump himself has called the inquiries a partisan witch hunt and derided impeachment efforts.
The inquiries – into Trump’s efforts to thwart the special counsel probe as possible obstruction of justice, into his namesake business whose profits could violate provisions of the Constitution, into his role in paying off a porn star for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter before the election – are likely to linger through the presidential primaries. But political experts and key lawmakers expect a decision on impeachment in the fall because starting in the election year would appear opportunistic.
“It’s moved off of ‘do we have enough evidence, what’s the standard of proof, is it a high crime and misdemeanor’ and it’s become a complete political question at this point,” said David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice in Miami. “There’s a lot at stake for the Democrats, should they take a shot and miss.”
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are moving forward with a series of lawsuits, subpoenas and planned hearings that could keep Trump’s conduct in the spotlight, regardless of where they ultimately lead.
Raging court battles
The House is pursuing inquiries on a variety of fronts, in hearings and in federal courts.
One federal appeals court is set to decide whether the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees can obtain access to Trump’s documents from his lenders, Deutsche Bank and Capital One. Deutsche Bank revealed Tuesday in a court filing that Trump’s tax returns, which several committees sought and which Trump fought to keep confidential, are among the documents falling under the subpoena.
Another appeals court in Washington is weighing whether the Oversight and Reform Committee can force Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, to turn over financial documents. The Justice Department has argued that allowing lawmakers to subpoena the records would distract the president from his duties, even though the House isn’t seeking copies of the records from him.
Decisions in each appeals case could come any day. Depending on the results, the cases could wind up before the Supreme Court.
In another case, the Judiciary Committee asked U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell to grant Congress access to grand-jury evidence from Mueller’s investigation. Howell set deadlines for the Justice Department and the House to submit their arguments by the end of September.
The committee also asked U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for an expedited decision on whether to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about Trump directing him repeatedly to remove Mueller. McGahn, described as the panel’s “most critical witness,” defied a committee subpoena after the White House argued that he had “absolute immunity” from testifying before Congress and that his conversations with the president should remain confidential.
Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., has said that if the House wins the cases involving McGahn and grand-jury information, it would “break the log jam” of administration resistance.
At the same time, House leaders have said they plan to continue a series of hearings that could re-focus public attention on the controversies that hung over Trump and his administration even if they don’t reveal any new details.
“I think the hearings largely serve a political purpose, keeping this issue at the forefront of the public’s mind heading into the fall and the campaign season,” said Daniel Medwed, who followed the Mueller inquiry as a professor of criminal law and procedure at Northeastern University.
“My instinct as a legal matter is that there seems to be sufficient evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in the Mueller report itself. There is a case to be made,” Medwed added. “But the standards for proving impeachment are in the eyes of the beholder. It’s a political calculus more than a legal one.”
To continuing building its case, the Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing Sept. 17 with Lewandowski and two former White House aides, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and staff secretary Rob Porter.
The Mueller report described Trump asking Lewandowski to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Russia inquiry or potentially fire him. Lewandowski decided not to follow the directive and asked Dearborn to do it instead, but Dearborn also decided not to act.
In another episode, Trump directed Porter to tell McGahn to create a letter “for our records” stating falsely that president never asked McGahn to terminate Mueller, according to the report. Porter told McGahn about the request and McGahn shrugged it off, saying media reports about the directive to fire Mueller were accurate, according to the report.
The committee also wants to hear from McGahn himself, if the court enforces the subpoena. Pelosi and Nadler have each have said the Mueller report describes repeated incidents of apparent obstruction of justice. Trump has called the inquiries “presidential harassment” and Republican lawmakers called them pointless fishing expeditions that aren’t expect to add to the Mueller report.
“The whole Nadler thing is just to drag people forward so they can have a spectacle to pacify the base,” said O’Connell, the Republican strategist. “This is politics.”
A messy political question
What the end product of those hearings and lawsuits might be is a question that will occupy House Democrats as they return to Washington.
Lawmakers returned to their districts over the summer, where many Democrats fielded questions about impeachment from voters. As they did, the number of Democrats who have said the House should at least begin a formal impeachment inquiry swelled to more than half of the party’s caucus.
Among those who stepped forward in August was the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. He tweeted support for an impeachment inquiry Aug. 19, “to uncover the facts for the American people and hold this president accountable.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who serves on the Intelligence and Oversight committees investigating Trump, said in a statement Aug. 26 that “we have now come to a point where we must engage in an investigation to not only expose wrongdoing and prevent it from happening again, but also to determine whether the current president engaged in behavior meriting the beginning of impeachment proceedings.”
But the announcements offer few hints of their endgame. Many of the Democrats who have called for an impeachment inquiry are from relatively safe seats. If the full House fails to act, individual lawmakers could say they tried, according to political experts. And if the House impeaches Trump, but the Republican-controlled Senate declines to remove him from office, Democrats could blame the other chamber.
“It’s actually a very good situation for Democrats politically,” Medwed said.
The declarations came as the American public remained skeptical about impeachment, according to national polls.
Three times this year, the USA TODAY/Suffolk poll asked 1,000 people: “From your own point of view, do you think the House of Representatives should seriously consider impeaching President Trump – yes or no?” The poll released Aug. 28 found 57% opposed to 37% supportive, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Those results followed a poll released June 24 – after the release of Mueller’s report – with nearly 61% opposed and a poll released March 22 with nearly 62% opposed.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asked the day after Mueller testified to Congress why anyone would bring up impeachment in such a climate.
“That should be put to bed, that is over,” McCarthy told reporters July 25. “The only people that want impeachment are the ones who are sitting inside this chamber on the Democratic side. The American public have made their decision. Poll after poll you see it, but why would they put the American public through this” rather than working on the economy, immigration or health care?
Trump himself sounded as if he were daring Democrats to impeach him by tweeting that “what they are doing is so wrong, but they do it anyway.”
Pelosi told House Democrats on a conference call Aug. 23 that Trump’s policies prompted her to sleep with a guard on her teeth, to avoid grinding. But she said the “public isn’t there on impeachment.”
“The equities we have to weigh are our responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution and to be unifying and not dividing,” Pelosi said. “But if and when we act, people will know he gave us no choice. If he cannot respect the Constitution, we’ll have to deal with that. It’s about patriotism not partisanship.”
Six House committees are investigating Trump for evidence of him potentially profiting from public office, abusing his power, obstructing justice or being under the influence of foreign governments. Pelosi has argued that the Watergate investigation of former President Richard Nixon gained public support because of congressional discoveries such as tapes of White House conversations. But some lawmakers are still waiting for answers.
The first question for Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., at a town hall Aug. 28 at Cleary University asked what it would take for her to support impeachment. She noted that the Judiciary Committee served a ton of subpoenas to the administration that haven’t been answered, but that she expects to know within three weeks about whether the administration will comply.
“I believe that impeachment is a very big step,” Slotkin said. “I believe it is something that should not be taken lightly. And I think it’s something where we should bring people along in the process.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., explained to a town-hall meeting Aug. 22 in Braintree how impeachment could backfire on Democrats and help Trump.
“You want to do this for all the right reasons,” Lynch said. “But you’re going to give Donald Trump another four years and I don’t want to be part of that.”
More about political and legal battles between President Trump and Congress:
House investigations of President Trump hit a wall of delay; demands for records, witnesses are mostly on hold
‘Slow-motion constitutional car crash’: Trump, Congress battle over investigations with no end in sight