House Democrats are heading into the final days of drafting articles of impeachment against President Trump by reopening an internal debate that has roiled their caucus for more than six months.
Some Democrats, particularly the more liberal members of the House Judiciary Committee now writing potential articles, want to wrap in charges against the president linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Ever since his report was released in the spring, these Democrats believe that Robert S. Mueller III, who served as special counsel, painted a portrait of criminal behavior by Trump that at the least demonstrated an attempt to obstruct justice.
“The real question is whether we want to focus on a singular, discrete episode or focus on patterns of misconduct. And I do think we need to focus on patterns of misconduct, I think that the Constitution directs us to examine that,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
To ignore the Mueller findings, Raskin and other liberals believe, is to let Trump escape condemnation for a pattern of behavior. “The misconduct that we saw with respect to the Ukraine shakedown was not some kind of aberration,” he said.
Democrats will have an easier time writing charges against Trump for trying to pressure Ukraine’s leaders into investigations that would have helped the president politically, an inquiry that all but two Democrats supported last month.
The evidence, produced in hearings before the House Intelligence Committee, has only gotten stronger since that vote, so Democrats are optimistic they have more than enough votes already to impeach Trump based on the Ukraine matter.
But any articles reaching beyond Ukraine would renew an old clash between liberals and dozens of Democrats from swing districts where their constituents struggled to understand the complex Mueller findings. This corner of the caucus might well vote against anything not related to Ukraine, risking a potentially embarrassing episode of losing a floor vote on some recommended articles.
“I think it should be concise and I am hopeful that it will be limited to two articles,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who won a longtime GOP district last year that was almost a Trump-Clinton tie in 2016. Those articles, Wild said, would be restricted to Trump’s Ukraine actions.
Officially, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that she is leaving it up to Judiciary Democrats to make the decisions, but everyone in the caucus knows that she will play an outsized role in settling the dispute.
Pelosi’s call will go a long way to answering a hypothetical question that historians will ponder decades from now: Would Trump have been impeached based on the Mueller report or did he bungle his way into impeachment over the Ukraine issue?
One of her best friends believes that Pelosi would have withstood liberal pressure to start the impeachment process over Russia matters. “Nancy doesn’t give in, number one. That’s not the way Nancy operates, she doesn’t give in,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).
Eshoo said Pelosi thought the Russia investigation lacked clarity, in part because Trump’s inner circle has mostly refused to testify before Congress and has strung out the dispute in court fights that will last well into next year.
Still, by early September, well in excess of half the caucus supported opening an impeachment inquiry, but Eshoo suggested many Democrats were just positioning themselves politically back home by supporting an inquiry without ever promising to vote to impeach.
“They never said they were going to vote for impeachment. They said we need to look into impeachment,” Eshoo said.
Pelosi has offered strong hints that she is leaning toward the more limited articles framed around Trump’s actions withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine and a meeting with its new president. On Thursday, she thanked a reporter for noting her past reluctance to base impeachment on the Mueller report, highlighting how it took almost two years to produce.
Instead, Pelosi pinpointed her “aha” moment to the notification from the inspector general for the intelligence community that the whistleblower report relating to Ukraine was a credible allegation.
“The facts of the Ukraine situation,” she said, “it just changed everything.”
At that point, in late September, impeachment holdouts like Wild came aboard.
That’s why another close Pelosi ally has adopted her own acronym for how the articles should be narrowly drafted. “KIS: Keep it simple,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said Friday.
Speier, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Democrats should stick with the “fail safe” articles related to Ukraine, rather than risking failed votes on the House floor.
In 1998, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were overly aggressive and approved four articles for the House to consider, only two of which were approved and sent to the Senate for a trial that ended in then-President Bill Clinton’s acquittal.
Even though history has mostly forgotten those failed article votes, some Democrats do not want to see divided votes on the House floor. “There’s a sense that we will move forward on articles of impeachment on which there’s broad consensus and have the support of the caucus,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former State Department official, was one of the rare swing-district freshmen to announce support for starting an impeachment inquiry over the Russia probe. But he now wants to focus entirely on Ukraine.
“If we went about impeaching President Trump for every possible impeachable act that he’s committed, we’d probably be here until beyond his first term. So my advice has been keep it focused, keep it simple,” Malinowski said Friday.
A member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Malinowski sat in on some of the depositions with career diplomats who accused Trump and some associates of an extortion attempt to get investigations that would benefit his 2020 campaign.
He suggested that the wording of the impeachment articles might find a way to nod toward the 2016 campaign and other issues, but should focus squarely on Ukraine.
“What he did in putting his personal political interest ahead of the interest of the American people, I think symbolizes all of his abuses of power to this point,” Malinowski said.