Prequel to impeachment? Inquiry into Trump could be something else.

Why We Wrote This

There has been lots of talk about impeachment since Democrats retook the House. But that comes with considerable political risks. The investigation launched Monday by the House Judiciary Committee may have a different goal in mind.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (r.), has a quick word with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, (D) of New York (c.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, at the Capitol on Jan. 4. Representative Nadler says that he believes President Donald Trump obstructed justice and that House Democrats are requesting documents from scores of people from Trump’s administration, family and business as part of the Russia probe.

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The “I” word is a fraught subject. The majority of Republicans still support President Trump and the job he’s doing. Unless the sweeping House inquiries launched Monday convince Trump voters to change their minds, the GOP-dominated Senate won’t vote to oust him from office – and an impeachment effort might further rend the fabric of US politics.

Thus what the Democratic-led House is really beginning may be more a process of discovery. Democrats hope to create a narrative of Mr. Trump’s rise and time in power in a way that special counsel Robert Mueller’s more legalistic investigation does not do. This could serve as a political argument in 2020 as much as impeachment spadework.

“I don’t think [impeachment] is inevitable,” says Patrick Griffin, former legislative liaison to President Bill Clinton.

For impeachment, the House would have to make a case that would further erode the president’s political standing, says Mr. Griffin. It would be very, very risky to proceed in any other circumstance.

If Democrats can’t get that support, they undermine their chances in 2020, just as Republicans felt a backlash against impeachment proceedings in the 1998 midterms.

“It ended up blowing up in their face,” Griffin says.

Elections have consequences. That’s the first, and most obvious, implication of the sweeping inquiry into President Trump and his campaign and administration launched Monday by the House Judiciary Committee. Having won the House in November’s mid-term elections, Democratic lawmakers are now using their new powers in an organized attack that could serve as a prequel to Mr. Trump’s impeachment.

The questions are, how far will they get, and how far should they go? Sending out a regiment of written demands is not the same thing as producing useful documents, witnesses, or information. Trump and his allies are sure to resist an inquiry they see as illegitimate overreach. Some, if not much, of the requested material might be subject to administration claims of executive privilege. Witnesses outside government could slow-walk their response.

And the “I” word is a fraught subject. The vast majority of Republicans still support Trump and the job he’s doing. Unless House inquiries convince Trump voters to change their minds, the GOP-dominated Senate won’t vote to oust him from office – and the entire impeachment effort might further rend the fabric of US politics.

Thus what the House is really beginning may be more a process of discovery than an impeachment prequel. Democrats hope to link together different events to create a narrative of Trump’s rise and time in power in a way that special counsel Robert Mueller’s more legalistic investigation does not do. This could serve as a political argument in 2020 as much as impeachment spadework.

“I don’t think [impeachment] is inevitable,” says Patrick Griffin, former legislative liaison to President Bill Clinton.

For impeachment, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and other Democrats would have to make a case that would erode the president’s political standing, says Mr. Griffin. It would be very, very risky to proceed in any other circumstance.

If Democrats can’t get that support, they undermine their chances of defeating Trump in 2020, just as Republicans felt a backlash against their impeachment proceedings in the 1998 midterms.

“It ended up blowing up in their face,” Griffin says.

In general, House Democrats are trying to sell their new investigative efforts as their duty. It’s just oversight of the executive branch, they say – something that wasn’t done in the past two years, when Republicans controlled the chamber.

On Monday, Chairman Nadler asked some 80 individuals and entities for a wide range of documents. Events covered ranged from the payment of hush money to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels, to the firing of former FBI head James Comey and Trump’s interaction with Mr. Mueller and various witnesses and targets of the Mueller investigation.

Much of the wording of the letters was similar legal boilerplate, and many of the documents may already be in the possession of Mr. Mueller or other congressional committees. This could speed up responses to what is surely just the first tranche of Nadler’s requests.

It’s possible that Nadler’s release was sparked by last week’s testimony from former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. While the broad outline of Cohen’s scathing testimony about his former boss was already public, his personal testimony drew wide public interest. Liberal members of the Democratic caucus who are adamant about pushing impeachment were fired up by the event; in that context, the document requests might be an effort by House leadership to keep restive elements under control.

At least three other Democratic-controlled House committees are probing separate aspects of the Trump era. Some of those investigations overlap or bump against parts of the new Judiciary Committee work. On Tuesday, the White House rebuffed a request from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for documents pertaining to the Trump security clearance process. The refusal all but guarantees a subpoena and subsequent court battle.

At 9 A.M. on Tuesday, Trump responded in his signature manner to the various investigations now aimed in his direction. “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” he tweeted.

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