When the impeachment ground shifted, it shifted quickly. For literally years, progressive Democrats have urged the party to take more seriously Donald Trump’s probably impeachable offenses—welcoming Russian interference in 2016 and possibly colluding in it; obstructing the investigation into that interference; enriching himself and his family while in office; paying off an adult film star just before the 2016 election to keep her silent about their affair, and more. Democratic leaders, most importantly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, disagreed. But the revelation that Trump asked Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate not only Joe Biden’s family but a scurrilous conspiracy theory about the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, and held up military aid while waiting for Zelensky to take action, represented a political earthquake.
First, the centrist first-term Democrats in purple or red districts whom Pelosi was trying to protect from impeachment blowback declared that the Ukraine scandal merited movement. Then Pelosi herself came around and on Thursday announced that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry, mainly focused on Ukraine, under the direction of Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff.
But does that mean Democrats should drop their investigations of Russia, obstruction, corruption and other matters to focus exclusively on the Ukraine charges? Some smart progressives, like our own Jeet Heer, have argued “to keep impeachment clean and simple”:
If Democrats go after Trump with everything but the kitchen sink, the public might well have a harder time remembering the specific facts of the most damaging scandal. Republicans might more easily conclude that the goal is to get Trump on anything the Democrats can find. Further, an expansive impeachment would drag on, with Trump and his allies doing everything to slow down the process.
Adam Jentleson, former adviser to Senator Harry Reid and a longtime critic of the Democrats’ failure to initiate a formal impeachment inquiry, also leans toward a focus on Ukraine. As he wrote last week in GQ:
The Ukraine news is damning, clear as day, and impossible to explain away. And it provides a rock-solid foundation for a story about a president who extorted the power of his office for personal gain, and tried to cover it up when he got caught.
Still, Democrats should be wary of false binary choices. First of all, it’s hard to completely disentangle the Russia scandal from the apparent threat to withhold Ukrainian aid needed to discourage more Russian incursions (which Trump actually did, mysteriously, until a bipartisan group of senators forced him to release it). Trump has been pushing Zelensky to make peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin, most recently in a meeting last week, though currently the two countries are at serious odds over the Russian annexation of Crimea and the country’s interference in Ukrainian politics. When in doubt, Trump still backs Putin’s aims—even when they’re diametrically opposed to stated US policy. This weekend, The New York Times revealed that Trump officials stored records of the Zelensky call on the same “secret” server where calls with Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been hidden, and Putin’s government officially asked that his conversations with Trump not be made public. Schiff said Sunday that his committee would pursue the release of those other calls.
So it could be difficult, even politically unwise, to entirely sever the multiple Russia issues from the Ukraine affair. That said, an increasing number of progressives agree that it makes sense for Schiff (until lately, an impeachment skeptic) to take charge of Ukraine—as long as Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler and others continue to investigate other Trump scandals.
“It’s not wrong to say if we have momentum and a clear story on Ukraine, Democrats can move fast on it,” says longtime impeachment advocate and Pelosi critic Jeff Hauser, who runs the anti-corruption Revolving Door Project. “But I don’t want to set up other issues as less significant. It can work if the delegation of those other issues to Nadler is treated significantly—by both Pelosi and the media.”
Pelosi and Nadler have frequently been at loggerheads on impeachment, with the liberal Judiciary chair seeming to say during the summer that his committee’s investigation was in fact an “impeachment inquiry,” while Pelosi and others in leadership resisted the term. This Washington Post article irritated a lot of progressives, as it depicted Nadler and Judiciary Dems as bumblers on impeachment, and moderates as the ones who’ve saved the day. The brazen defiance of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in his Judiciary Committee testimony almost two weeks ago is being depicted as the excuse Pelosi needed to put Schiff in charge of impeachment. Hauser says that’s unfair, but admits that “at times Nadler has seemed overmatched by the criminality of Trump officials,” noting that he treated Lewandowski “like a normal witness.”
Schiff and Nadler made a “show of unity” last week, the Post notes, appearing together Thursday at a Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting and promising “a swift and thorough investigation.” Still, Judiciary Committee member Cedric Richmond told the Post that committee Democrats could add an obstruction of justice count when it votes on articles of impeachment. If it made it out of the committee, other House Democrats would be free to vote that count down.
Though Jentleson still favors Schiff’s taking the lead on Ukraine, he’s also irritated by the media’s denigration of Nadler and the Judiciary Committee’s process, as well as the lionizing of moderate members who were only recent converts to the impeachment cause. “I firmly believe the consistent calls from the left created an environment where it was impossible for moderate Democrats not to act when the next impeachable offense was committed,” he told me. On Twitter Sunday, many folks were enraged by coverage that stressed the role of five white first-term congresswomen in making impeachment happen, while ignoring the role of Representatives Maxine Waters, Al Green, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other leaders of color in pushing for impeachment for a long time. “Those people felt the pressure created by Waters, Green, and Tlaib,” Jentleson says.
The former Reid staffer agrees that it’s tough to detach Russia from Ukraine because Mueller’s investigation “establishes a pattern of behavior—asking a foreign country to help him in an election.” But he continues to believe prioritizing the Ukrainian issue in impeachment proceedings makes political sense. “People I respect say, ‘Now that we have your attention [on Ukraine,] let us tell you a larger story.’ But we can’t go back. I personally believe a lot of this is impeachable. But I think there’s a credibility gap if after refusing to impeach for so long, Democrats try to work in other things. The media will be like, ‘Oh, tax returns! Oh, Mueller! We’ve heard this before.’” He agrees that other committees can and should continue their oversight and investigations on other issues.
The other false binary, both men agree, involves speed. Although Hauser notes that some key witnesses, including the whistle-blower, may not be able to testify in open session (on Sunday night, 60 Minutes revealed that he has had threats against his life), Schiff should invite “compelling academics and military and national security officials to testify about why this is impeachable, and what it’s done to relations with [other allies].” Jentleson wrote in GQ: “The length of the hearings shouldn’t be artificially shortened or prolonged—it should be determined by a simple test: are we driving the news? Do we have control of the narrative? If so, keep going. If not, wrap it up and vote.”
Hauser believes continuing with investigations in other committees while impeachment moves along can keep the pressure on Republicans. He and Jentleson both warn against acting as though there’s no chance to move the GOP, especially if other investigations proceed simultaneously. “Democrats have to quit playing pundit on what’s going to happen in the Senate—they take pressure off the Republicans” by writing off the chance that they’ll respond to evidence, Hauser told me. (This pundit did exactly that last week, but I would love to be proven wrong.)
The party, he notes, “has a history of setting up false choices: Should we pursue white working-class voters, or African Americans and people of color? Or should we do health care reform or hold Wall Street accountable in 2009? In fact, Congress has many different committees that can conduct many different investigations. I think they all should continue their oversight and take it all seriously.”