“You can’t ignore that,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, who called for an impeachment inquiry after special counsel Robert Mueller finished his investigation into whether Trump associates worked with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. “How do you take an oath to protect the Constitution … and then ignore obstruction of justice by the president?”
Everything — even obstructing an investigation — could be used against Trump in the case for removing him from office for what the Constitution describes as the ambiguous “high crimes and misdemeanors,” lawmakers and impeachment experts say.
“If you are just looking at Ukraine, there are significant crimes and wrongdoing that are left on the table,” said Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, an advocacy group that works closely with staff of House committees.
And after months of stonewalling by the White House, Democrats have gained more power to seek documents and testimony from the administration now that the House has opened an impeachment inquiry.
House Democrats believe judges will be more willing to force the administration to turn over documents and witnesses — and turn them over faster — if it’s part of an impeachment inquiry from Congress, according to Democratic lawmakers and congressional aides.
“Its power is at its constitutional zenith when conducting an impeachment inquiry,” said Austin Evers, former senior counsel in State Department who is now executive director of American Oversight, a watchdog group working with Congress on oversight. “It maximizes its authority.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers she is considering narrowing the House inquiry to Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine, but said late last week that she had not excluded the other investigations yet. One lawmaker told POLITICO that even if she focuses on Ukraine, she would quietly allow a couple other issues to be included in the impeachment inquiry, likely including obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation.
Last week, she directed six House committees — Justice, Oversight, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means, and Financial Services — to continue their investigations as part of an impeachment inquiry.
“The broader inquiry will emphasize abuse of power generally,” said Corey Brettschneider, a Brown University professor who wrote the forthcoming book, “The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents.”
“All of these episodes illustrate a failure to respect the office and protect the Constitution,” Brettschneider said.
The committees, which are looking into everything from Trump’s finances to his communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, are being asked to send relevant information to the Judiciary Committee for what is expected to be a formal vote.
“The key is for the House to define the scope of any impeachment inquiry,” said Ross Garber, a lawyer who defended four governors facing impeachment. “Right now, it’s unclear what the issues are or which committees are responsible for which issues.”
Trump admitted he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into whether former Vice President Joe Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to fire a prosecutor who investigated Biden’s son’s company, but he insisted there was nothing wrong with what he did.
He is defending himself in much the same way he did during the two-year investigation into whether he and his aides colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections — attacking the Democrats, the media and his critics.
“What they’ve done to this country is a disgrace,” he said last week. “They’ve hurt this country very badly. And no other president should have to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Trump has released documents related to his contacts with Zelensky, saying he wants to be transparent in the investigation, leading some to speculate that he, too, would like to keep the House focussed just on Ukraine.
The Trump administration is expected to ignore other requests and subpoenas despite the impeachment label, according to several people familiar with the White House plans, meaning the two sides may end up in court. But the Democrats could use those setbacks to their advantage.
“The White House refusing to comply with subpoenas can be used toward an impeachment charge,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who has written books on impeachment and testified before Congress on the topic.
House Democrats have launched dozens of investigations, but the allegations garnering the most attention for impeachment involve Trump violating the so-called emoluments clause of the Constitution by allowing federal employees and service members, and foreign officials to stay at Trump resorts; paying $280,000 to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign to cover up his sexual encounters; and trying to thwart special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
But Trump also faces allegations that he inflated and deflated the value of assets to acquire loans and pay less in taxes and that he allowed top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, to receive security clearances they were not qualified to have.
Republicans insist the House needs to vote on impeachment before Democrats have any additional powers. But many experts say that’s not necessary.
Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, argued Pelosi’s announcement on impeachment last week didn’t change anything legally. “There has been no House vote to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry,” he said.
A study on impeachment by the Congressional Research Service doesn’t indicate a vote is needed, according to Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.
But Garber said a House vote could help a judge decide whether Trump’s assertions of executive privilege outweigh the interests of the House.
“In both Nixon and Clinton [impeachments] the House formally endorsed impeachment inquiries and granted subpoena authority to committees for purposes of conducting those inquiries,” he said. “That has not happened here. A court could, therefore, easily conclude that the statements of the speaker do not convert the inquiries that had been underway into impeachment proceedings.”
Democratic leaders suggested the impeachment inquiry might be more effective if it’s narrowed, because the Ukraine call is an issue that has resonated with the American public and lawmakers. The House could lose support, especially with some moderate lawmakers, if it expands to other investigations, they say.
Connolly said he understands why some colleagues want to narrow the focus and said he‘s “torn” about how the House should proceed on impeachment.
“Do you go forward with your best case that’s the clearest and most compelling, so that we try to keep the country as united as possible as we undertake impeachment of the president?“ he asked. “Or do you go and lay out all of the case with the understanding some of them are not going to carry majority support and will be picked apart and can distract and are hard to follow sometimes?”
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who has supported impeachment for months, told reporters last week that most members don’t want to exclude what he called egregious violations.
“It may be that if push comes to shove, and we do have multiple articles, that not all of them will get the same level of support,” he said. “Maybe some will, maybe some won’t pass.”
The House has not set a deadline for impeachment, but some lawmakers want articles of impeachment to be considered by the end of the year.