Tuesday’s vote in the House of Representatives to launch civil suits against Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn moves the battle between congressional Democrats and President Trump into an important new phase.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has embraced a quintessentially American form of dispute resolution: lawsuits. The Democrats’ message to the White House was clear: We’ll see you in court.
From now on, every Democratic chairman in the House can seek court orders against every recalcitrant witness in Trumpworld — a list that extends from current Cabinet members, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, to former campaign officials like onetime campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
The vote was a victory for the steely speaker of the House that serves her purposes in several ways.
First, it gave fractious Democrats, from those who want to impeach Trump immediately to those who aren’t sure they want impeachment at all, a common strategy, at least temporarily.
Their focus in coming months will be to stage attention-grabbing hearings and dramatize their claims that the president has abused his power and obstructed justice, especially by highlighting the evidence collected by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Other hearings will scrutinize Trump’s byzantine financial dealings, his still-hidden tax returns, and his unusual dalliances with Russian officials. The goal is to expose wrongdoing, if any, and keep the misconduct in the public eye.
Second, by taking Trump and his aides to court, the Pelosi strategy pulls the president onto a battleground where he often fares badly.
Most voters think of Congress as a useless swamp of squabbling pols, but still view federal courts as credible, impartial tribunals. If the courts begin handing down judgments against the president, that may move public opinion against him.
Trump could face a series of lose-lose dilemmas. If his aides are forced to turn over documents and testify, it will look like a defeat.
But if the president refuses to comply with court orders, that could serve as new grounds for a potential impeachment.
Pelosi and her aides are gambling that they will win most of their lawsuits, of course. But her aides note they already have won two court cases with rulings that affirmed that Congress has broad power to seek testimony and evidence — even without formal impeachment proceedings.
“Courts must presume Congress is acting in furtherance of its constitutional responsibility to legislate and must defer to congressional judgments about what Congress needs,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta wrote in an opinion last month.
Both the lawsuits and hearings serve Pelosi’s underlying strategy: to delay formal consideration of impeachment unless and until there’s more public support.
For now, the pro-impeachment camp remains a distinct if vocal minority, about 60 House members in all. That’s about a fourth of the 235-member Democratic majority — enough to be troublesome for the speaker but not a full-blown insurgency.
Most of the would-be impeachers represent solidly progressive Democratic districts, members like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
Pelosi and her lieutenants warn that a rush to impeachment could endanger Democrats from more conservative areas, including 31 who represent districts Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.
Even some House members who favor impeachment have surrendered, at least for now, to the speaker’s political logic.
Rep. Brad Sherman of Northridge was one of the first Democrats to call for Trump’s impeachment. He even introduced a resolution to that effect shortly after Trump was inaugurated in 2017. But he now says moving slowly is a better idea.
Others have struggled to find a middle ground between formal impeachment proceedings and investigations that point toward impeachment without using the label.
“The press has framed this as impeachment or no impeachment,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland complained last week. “The real question is: Should we have an inquiry that looks into whether there have been high crimes and misdemeanors?”
Pelosi hasn’t won entirely. She initially hoped to avoid being swept up in endless debate over impeachment, and to focus on passing legislation that would show voters how Democrats would govern.
That turned out to be unrealistic. Senate Republicans are in no mood to pass bills that Democrats could support on healthcare, immigration or education, and vice versa. And Trump’s tariff battles may have spoiled chances for a revised trade pact with Canada and Mexico.
So that leaves the investigations into Trump as the most dramatic actions the House is likely to tackle this year. They’ll avoid the I-word, most of the time — but there’ll still be inquiries into high crimes and misdemeanors: impeachment in slow motion.