‘Pre-im­peach­ment’ be­gins

House Democrats take very early steps in a po­lit­i­cally fraught process

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - DOYLE McMANUS Doyle McManus’ col­umn ap­pears on Wed­nes­day and Sun­day.

Last week, no fewer than six com­mit­tees of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives were in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­ten­tial grounds for im­peach­ing Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent of the United States.

They don’t use the word “im­peach­ment.” Their in­struc­tions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (DSan Fran­cisco) 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 con­vinc­ing the pub­lic that im­peach­ment is war­ranted and build­ing bi­par­ti­san sup­port in Congress, es­pe­cially in the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Se­nate. That’s tougher.

If only one party is in­volved, Democrats risk the kind of dis­as­ter Repub­li­cans faced when they im­peached Pres­i­dent 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-Bur­bank), 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-Los An­ge­les), 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 short­sighted. 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 re­elect Trump.

And, as Pelosi knows, it would di­vert at­ten­tion from ev­ery other pri­or­ity, from health­care 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.

Erik S. Lesser EPA/Shut­ter­stock

“THERE’S a lot of work we need to do to f lesh out the facts,” In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chief Adam Schiff said.

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