Pelosi: We might do impeachment without the impeachment to enforce subpoenas


Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to do an impeachment but might stage a pretend one. She floats the idea of “inherent contempt” without saying she wants to use it. So what is Pelosi saying?

CNN’s Manu Raju doesn’t seem certain either after his exchange with the top House Democrat on efforts to force the Trump administration to cooperate with twenty-plus House probes. First, Pelosi told Raju, you “subpoena friendly,” and then you “subpoena otherwise.” After that, well … what? Pelosi says, “I don’t have a position”:

“Nothing is off the table,” Pelosi says, although she has tried to take impeachment off the table, at least behind closed doors. Today, however, Pelosi floated it as a possibility in her weekly press conference. It might be the only way for the courts to enforce their subpoenas, a probability that has belatedly occurred to Pelosi and a trap waiting to be sprung:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been loath to endorse the ideas of impeaching President Trump or using Congress’ inherent contempt power to detain Attorney General Bill Barr, but on Thursday she suggested that Democrats use the concepts of these powers in alternative ways to get what they want.

Pelosi said that even if they don’t actually impeach Trump, House committees could use impeachment as an excuse to subpoena documents that they otherwise might not be able to get. The Trump administration has argued that congressional demands for documents have not had a required legislative purpose, and Pelosi believes this would work around that requirement.

“One of the purposes that the Constitution spells out for investigaiton is impeachment,” Pelsoi said during her weekly news conference. “And so you can say, and the courts would respect if you said, we need this information to carry out our oversight responsibilities, and among them is impeachment. It doesn’t mean you’re going on an impeachment path, but it means if you had that information, you might.”

Staging an impeachment process without producing an actual impeachment would solve House Democrats’ potential legal problems with subpoenas. It might amplify their political problems to the mythical Spinal Tap eleven, however. They already took a big hit when Democrats’ claims of proven Russia collusion got debunked by Robert Mueller. Imagine what would happen if Democrats spent the rest of this session talking impeachment only to come up empty again.

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That would certainly upset the calculations at FiveThirtyEight on electoral impact from an impeachment effort:

Polls show that impeachment proceedings, at least at their start, would probably be opposed by a plurality of the public. The long term is more complicated, however. If House Democrats impeached Trump sometime in 2019 but he remained in office, would the process meaningfully decrease the party’s chances of retaining the House and winning the Senate or presidency in November 2020? That’s not so obvious.  …

The electoral impact of impeachment is really difficult to predict. It’s not clear that an impeachment push would hurt Democrats electorally (or help them).

So that leaves Democrats with an underlying question: How strongly do they believe in the case for impeaching Trump, electoral considerations aside? As long as Republicans remain behind Trump, impeachment would be a symbolic action to some extent. But it’s still a powerful and important symbolic act.

Only if that symbolic step occurred, though. An omission of futility would be the worst possible outcome.

At least, though, it would put the House investigations on a more honest footing, and might prevent some very corrosive precedents from being set, as I argued in my column for The Week. Impeachment is the only legitimate process that might justify most of these subpoenas, and even that’s not likely to cover all of them.

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