Doyle McManus: Congress already is laying the groundwork for impeachment
WASHINGTON — Last week, no fewer than six committees of the House of Representatives were investigating potential grounds for impeaching President Donald Trump.
They don’t use the word “impeachment.” Their instructions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are to describe their work in narrower, less inflammatory terms.
But the question is never far away: Does Trump’s record of norm-busting, rule-bending and apparent law-breaking, from conflicts of interest to murky connections with foreign governments, justify removing him from office?
“We have to see what the facts are,” Pelosi said recently. “We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason. So we’ll just have to see how it comes.”
Call this phase “pre-impeachment.” Pelosi and her committee chairs, all Democrats, are doing what they need to do to make impeaching Trump possible.
The speaker and her allies describe a two-step process before any impeachment can succeed.
Step one is gathering conclusive evidence of misconduct — high crimes and misdemeanors, the Constitution says — serious enough to warrant articles of impeachment. That may be the easy part.
Step two would be persuading the public that impeachment is warranted and building bipartisan support in Congress, especially in the Republican-controlled Senate. That’s tougher.
If only one party is involved, Democrats risk the kind of disaster Republicans faced when they impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998, saw him acquitted in the Senate, and watched their own popularity plummet.
The House Democrats have held their majority for little more than a month, so step one is only beginning — in Congress, at least. But they lost no time in getting underway.
It will be hard to keep the probes separate. A Pelosi aide convenes a weekly meeting just to keep track of the overlapping lines of inquiry.
The House Intelligence Committee, under Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., will investigate whether Trump or his family have been compromised by Russia, Saudi Arabia or other foreign actors.
Financial Affairs, under Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., will help Schiff look into potential money laundering by the president’s family-run company.
Judiciary, under Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is probing possible violations of campaign laws. Oversight, under Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., is investigating foreign payments to Trump’s businesses.
Foreign Affairs, under Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., is probing White House attempts to relax sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Ways and Means, under Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., may seek Trump’s tax returns, which the president has refused to release.
The investigative flurry got the president’s attention.
“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” he roared on Twitter last week. “The Dems and their committees are going ‘nuts.’ The Republicans never did this to President Obama.” (Actually, they tried.)
Trump chiefly targeted Schiff, whom he castigated for “looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so. Never happened before!”
Trump has long argued that his financial dealings and his family-run business empire should be off-limits. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, appears to have avoided that red line; Schiff says Congress isn’t bound by it.
“We need to know that the president is acting in our national interest and not in some family financial interest … (and) not because Russia or someone else has leverage over him,” Schiff told me.
He described his probe as “a counterintelligence investigation” to determine whether foreign regimes have undue influence over the president.
“There are a lot of disturbing allegations out there,” he said. But, like Pelosi, he argued that it’s too early to propose a resolution of impeachment.
“I think we should review the whole record before making that decision,” he said. “There’s a lot of work we need to do to flesh out the facts.”
Like Pelosi, he insisted that any move to impeach the president must have bipartisan support or it will fail.
Some Democrats are more impatient. California billionaire Tom Steyer has vowed to spend money in next year’s Democratic primaries to punish members of Congress, including committee chairs, who don’t move as quickly as he’d like.
But that’s short-sighted. An impeachment resolution now would surely backfire. It would create a zero-sum fight between the two tribes of American politics. It would make winning Republican support almost impossible — and could help re-elect Trump.
And, as Pelosi knows, it would divert attention from every other priority, from health care to climate change — the raw material for the campaign Democrats hope to wage in 2020.
For anyone rooting for impeachment, the House is already doing what it needs to do: investigating. It is putting Trump in more danger than before — something he seems to understand, judging from his frantic tweets.
Any impeachment is traumatic, but a failed impeachment can be worse. Steyer and others who want history to move faster should be careful what they wish for.
Doyle McManus, Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has reported on national and international issues from Washington for more than 30 years. His twice-weekly column appears in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers nationwide.