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Pelosi finally called for an impeachment inquiry. Here’s what’s happening behind the scenes.

Four insights into why now — and what’s next

- September 26, 2019

A majority of House representatives favor launching a formal inquiry into whether President Trump should be impeached. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced such an inquiry this week, accusing Trump of betraying his oath of office, national security and the integrity of U.S. elections.

In response, the White House released detailed notes from a phone call that Trump made this summer in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political rivals. More recently, it also released the whistleblower complaint that was about the call and that led to the launching of the inquiry.

Democratic leaders have not yet nailed down details about how the inquiry will proceed. Many Republicans have rallied to the president’s side. However, as more details of the pivotal whistleblower complaint emerge, other Republicans have been urging a closer review of the facts.

Here are four preliminary takeaways as this develops.

The Ukraine call record shows Trump speaking like a mob boss

Impeachment is always political

Democrats can’t just dust off a rule book for conducting an impeachment inquiry. When dealing with presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, the House formally began impeachment proceedings by voting to direct the House Judiciary Committee to launch an inquiry. This time, leaders do not seem inclined to hold such a vote. Everything Pelosi does is informed by the need to get 218 votes — a majority of the House — to move forward. Avoiding a floor vote protects Pelosi’s most vulnerable Democrats — those in “purple” districts — from having to take a public stand either way.

But such a vote probably isn’t necessary. Today’s committees have the sorts of investigatory tools those earlier House impeachment resolutions provided. Since the Clinton impeachment, House majorities have given many committee chairs such tools as unilateral power to issue subpoenas to procure testimony from recalcitrant witnesses. Nor is it clear that a floor vote would give committees greater legal heft if, say, they went to federal court to secure documents and witnesses’ cooperation.

Pelosi has taken advantage of the lack of a formal set of impeachment inquiry procedures to build and now keep a majority on board for the investigation while deciding who would take the lead. First, she suggested creating a “select committee” to broaden participation beyond the Judiciary Committee. But some members objected, saying that the Judiciary Committee’s investigation was already well underway. Instead, Pelosi has invited the six committees probing Trump’s conduct to continue their investigations and make their best case, if any, for drawing up potential articles of impeachment.

Pelosi wants to keep the inquiry narrowly focused on the current topic: whether Trump withheld foreign aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. Democrats from safe blue districts want to keep investigating the many other misconduct allegations in the Mueller report. But as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), one of the four high-profile freshman Democrats known as “the Squad,” put it, if Ukraine is what “brings us to 218 then we should focus on this issue.”

Why Pelosi decided to launch an inquiry now

Lawmakers from those relatively safe districts came out early in favor of launching an inquiry. But until this week, Pelosi kept an impeachment inquiry on the back burner, professing her own disgust with the president’s behavior but making clear that Democrats didn’t yet have enough public support for the House to formally open an impeachment investigation. Members from swing districts — especially the 31 Democrats serving in seats Trump won in 2016 — demurred. To protect these mostly moderate lawmakers, the speaker downplayed the need to open a formal investigation but let several House committees pursue separate inquiries into the president’s conduct, without the party’s imprimatur.

Without Pelosi’s endorsement, Democrats’ support for an impeachment inquiry expanded in fits and starts. Nearly half of the Democratic Caucus had signed on by midsummer, but momentum had stalled until news of the whistleblower complaint broke this month.

This week, a gang of seven first-termers from swing districts declared in The Washington Post their support. Their swing district status combined with their shared military and intelligence backgrounds signaled to skittish colleagues that it was safe to challenge Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine as a danger to national security. Just as important, their support signaled to the speaker that they were ready to face pushback in their districts. Pelosi, in turn, put an impeachment inquiry on the front burner. At the time this story was written, only 16 Democrats hadn’t yet endorsed such an inquiry. Twelve of those are from districts that Trump won in 2016, a reminder that lawmakers remain sensitive to opinion back home.

Freshman power

The fact that freshman lawmakers tipped the balance is a new phenomenon. Past research has found that lobbying groups can help lawmakers build coalitions for favored bills by signaling their groups’ support. When senior lawmakers cast floor votes early, they are typically suggesting to junior colleagues how they, too, should vote. But with their Post op-ed, this “gang of seven” first-term members are the ones sending valuable electoral signals to their colleagues: If we moderates can endorse an investigation, so can you. That kind of influence reminds us that Pelosi faces many pressures trying to lead this class of especially ambitious new lawmakers.

Of course, the lawmakers newly signing onto the impeachment inquiry also included numerous lawmakers from safe blue districts who often align with Pelosi. The speaker this week both caught up to her ambitious freshmen and brought along reliable caucus colleagues.

Are Republicans hedging their bets?

Republicans appear to be responding much as they have since Trump’s election: attacking the impeachment inquiry as partisan and defending the president at all costs. But GOP support for the president this time around might not be as robust as it seems.

First, when Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) moved to have the Senate call on the White House to let Congress’s intelligence panels see the whistleblower complaint, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refrained from blocking it. Schumer’s resolution passed unanimously, albeit on a voice vote. Reports suggested that McConnell was responding to his GOP colleagues’ requests for more information about the charges. That may not be surprising, because he and his colleagues pressured the White House this month to stop delaying military aid to Ukraine.

Second, some Republicans are publicly expressing concerns about Trump’s behavior, while others are doing so privately, to reporters. As more information becomes available, more Republicans might break ranks.

No, Trump isn’t Teflon. Scandals lower his approval among Republicans — if they see the news.

But even if more GOP senators question the president’s conduct, that doesn’t mean the Senate would necessarily convict if the House sent charges of impeachment. If every Democrat and independent voted for those charges, 20 GOP votes would still be necessary to remove Trump from office.

Nor is it even clear whether McConnell would be obligated to open a Senate trial. Merrick Garland might have a hunch about that.

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