Judiciary Panel Already Split Over Impeachment Talk

On the House panel that would consider impeachment, Democrats are starting to mull the idea. Republicans are dismissive.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and ranking member John Conyers
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
May 19, 2017, 3:46 p.m.

Four months in­to Pres­id­ent Don­ald Trump’s reign, Demo­crats on Cap­it­ol Hill are call­ing for his head.

The caveat: if the re­ports are true.

The Demo­crats’ im­peach­ment talk rose after The New York Times re­por­ted this week that Pres­id­ent Trump asked then-FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey to drop the agency’s in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Mi­chael Flynn, ac­cord­ing to a memo Comey wrote.

Be­fore he fired Comey, Trump con­sidered, in his words, “this Rus­sia thing”—the in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to po­ten­tial col­lu­sion between the Trump pres­id­en­tial cam­paign and Rus­sia.

Some Demo­crats on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee say the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions could be con­strued as ob­struc­tion of justice, an art­icle the pan­el ap­proved to re­com­mend im­peach­ment dur­ing the pres­id­en­cies of Richard Nix­on and Bill Clin­ton. But the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled pan­el has done little to in­vest­ig­ate claims of wrong­do­ing by the pres­id­ent.

“I think if the in­vest­ig­a­tion plays out that all of that is true, I think that is very close to ob­struc­tion of justice,” Demo­crat­ic Rep. Cedric Rich­mond told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “We all know ob­struc­tion of justice is an im­peach­able of­fense, so I just think you just have to let the in­vest­ig­a­tion play out, but I think it’s reas­on for grave con­cern.”

“There’s reas­on to be­lieve that the pres­id­ent may have ab­used his au­thor­ity and en­gaged in ob­struc­tion of justice if in fact he fired James Comey for the pur­pose of thwart­ing the on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion in the pos­sible col­lu­sion of the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia,” ad­ded Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries in an in­ter­view. “There’s also reas­on to be­lieve that ob­struc­tion of justice may have oc­curred if Don­ald Trump did ask James Comey to drop the in­vest­ig­a­tion that was on­go­ing in­to pos­sible crimes com­mit­ted by Mi­chael Flynn.

“Either of those in­stances would be prob­lem­at­ic,” Jef­fries said. “Ob­struc­tion of justice and ab­use of pres­id­en­tial power are im­peach­able of­fenses, but we’re a long way from de­term­in­ing wheth­er those of­fenses ac­tu­ally oc­curred.”

Many oth­er Demo­crats on the pan­el have raised the pos­sib­il­ity that the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions could be grounds for im­peach­ment, in­clud­ing Reps. Jer­rold Nadler, Ted Deutch, Pram­ila Jayap­al, Steve Co­hen, Dav­id Ci­cil­line, Ted Lieu, Sheila Jack­son Lee, and Jam­ie Raskin, ac­cord­ing to a CNN roundup.

The re­ports did spur some Re­pub­lic­ans in­to over­sight ac­tion; the House Over­sight, Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence, and Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary com­mit­tees all in­vited Comey to testi­fy on the Hill.

But the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee did not, frus­trat­ing Demo­crats to no end. “At this time, it looks like the House is aid­ing and abet­ting a cov­er-up by fail­ing and re­fus­ing to go for­ward with pub­lic hear­ings,” Rep. Hank John­son told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

In 1974, the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee on a bi­par­tis­an basis ac­cused Nix­on of ob­struc­tion of justice. In 1998, that same com­mit­tee ac­cused Clin­ton of sim­il­ar charges on a party-line vote. In 2017, the pan­el is led by Re­pub­lic­ans who don’t want to hold hear­ings in­to the fir­ing of the FBI dir­ect­or.

A Re­pub­lic­an House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee aide said that newly-ap­poin­ted spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller “will be able to in­de­pend­ently and thor­oughly un­earth all the facts.

“We need to let former FBI Dir­ect­or Mueller do his work, and the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will ex­er­cise ap­pro­pri­ate over­sight as ne­ces­sary,” ad­ded the aide.

Re­pub­lic­ans on the pan­el say that talk of im­peach­ment is either pre­ma­ture or ri­dicu­lous. Rep. Trent Franks said he agrees with the pres­id­ent that the in­vest­ig­a­tion is a “witch hunt” and that a spe­cial coun­sel is not ne­ces­sary, even though he said he does re­spect Mueller, who led the FBI from 2001 to 2013.

“The me­dia has twis­ted, in­ven­ted, dis­tor­ted, har­angued, done everything they could pos­sibly do to del­e­git­im­ize this pres­id­ent, and in this in­stance, they used a con­ver­sa­tion that, really, no one really knows what it was,” Franks said. “Even if what they said was said, it’s still a long way from something that’s an ac­tion­able item.”

It is pos­sible that even if Mueller’s in­vest­ig­a­tion finds that Trump com­mit­ted an im­peach­able of­fense and most House Re­pub­lic­ans would not want to ini­ti­ate the pro­cess, Demo­crats could go around them and in­tro­duce a res­ol­u­tion call­ing for im­peach­ment. The House Free­dom Caucus tried that tac­tic in try­ing to im­peach IRS Com­mis­sion­er John Koskin­en last year, but the res­ol­u­tion failed.

With the cur­rent makeup of the House, Demo­crats would need more than 20 Re­pub­lic­ans to vote with them to pass such a res­ol­u­tion, but if the scan­dals reach a cres­cendo, it could be pos­sible that more than the hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans con­sid­er­ing im­peach­ment would break rank.

Mean­while, some Demo­crats are push­ing for their col­leagues to quiet down on the im­peach­ment talk, fear­ful that it could un­der­mine the in­vest­ig­a­tions and feed a pub­lic per­cep­tion that they’re wholly par­tis­an. But the hard Left is pres­sur­ing Demo­crat­ic mem­bers to be more act­ive in ex­pli­citly call­ing the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions im­peach­able of­fenses, even though the in­de­pend­ent and con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tions are in their early stages.

“It’s odd to say, ‘Slow down, let’s wait and see what the in­vest­ig­a­tions turn up,’ when it’s already clear the pres­id­ent ob­struc­ted justice and com­mit­ted nu­mer­ous im­peach­able of­fenses,” said Adam Green of the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “Fail­ing to ac­know­ledge right now that it’s im­peach­able when a pres­id­ent tells the FBI to stop an in­vest­ig­a­tion and de­mands loy­alty from the FBI dir­ect­or just nor­mal­izes those ac­tions.”

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