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Democrats’ messy impeachment push hits critical phase

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler stunned many with this recent declaration that he had begun formal impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Democrats return to Capitol Hill next week with an impeachment mess on their hands and just weeks to make a choice that could define the rest of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Lawmakers faced frequently contentious town halls during their six-week August recess as activists pressured Democratic holdouts to support impeachment proceedings. A steady trickle of new endorsements for action followed, and a majority of the House’s 235 Democrats now backs an impeachment inquiry.

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Senior Democrats, however, are sending mixed messages on the prospect of trying to oust Trump.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler stunned many with his recent declaration that the House had already launched “formal impeachment proceedings.” The New York Democrat followed up with a series of court filings demanding expedited access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s evidence and witnesses in order to further his committee’s “impeachment investigation.”

Yet Speaker Nancy Pelosi has continued to resist that posture, telling colleagues in a caucuswide call late last month, “The public isn’t there on impeachment.”

The technical status of the House drive toward impeachment may hinge on whether the courts agree with Nadler’s interpretation, and September is packed with opportunities for the federal judiciary to weigh in. But the bottom line is that Pelosi will have the ultimate say.

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In the meantime, Washington is stuck in an impeachment muddle — with Democrats straddling an ambiguous line between impeachment proceedings and standard congressional investigations. It’s a dynamic that will test the unity of a diverse Democratic caucus this fall, and shape the party’s battle to hold on to the House and defeat Trump in 2020.

“I don’t think the public is really … clear about what’s going on,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) on the state of play. “Whether that’s an intentional strategy or not, I don’t know. But I think that’s clearly the case.”

Yarmuth — who has long been in favor of impeaching Trump — said he expects top Democrats, led by Nadler, to make it much clearer in September that the House is indeed moving ahead with the impeachment process.

“I would bet that before mid-October, there will be actual articles of impeachment drafted by the committee. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that,” Yarmuth said in an interview this week. “I think Jerry’s committed to doing that, and I think, a significant majority of the committee is there.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who also supports impeachment, added that he expects Nadler and other Judiciary members to begin drafting articles of impeachment soon after returning from recess. Exactly how soon, he said, is unclear.

“I’m sure there will be people — the Al Green group writ large — who want the articles of impeachment by Sept. 15,” Beyer said, referring to the Texas Democrat who has previously forced votes on impeachment.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming court battles, Democrats will have to decide soon whether they want to force the matter. Many pro-impeachment Democrats say they need to make substantial strides by the end of the year, before the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest.

INTERACTIVE: See where House lawmakers stand on impeachment

The unsettled state of the impeachment question was reflected in the statements of lawmakers who declared support for impeachment proceedings throughout the August recess. Some called for an impeachment inquiry outright. Others simply declared support for the Judiciary Committee’s “ongoing” impeachment efforts.

Beyer said he can’t pinpoint a precise moment when Democrats suddenly found themselves engaged in impeachment proceedings. Instead, he described it as a natural shift in the course of Democrats’ investigations.

“Jerry [Nadler] said all the way along that he’s been trying to assemble all the pieces and I don’t know what was the trigger to say, ‘OK, enough pieces are together that it is now formally an inquiry.’”

It’s a distinction with potentially massive implications: If the House is already in a formal impeachment inquiry, Democrats’ demands for information that could be damaging to Trump carry greater weight in court — where the growing list of oversight skirmishes between the House and the Trump administration will be determined.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Oversight Committee, acknowledged that the Democratic caucus’ drift toward formal impeachment proceedings has been unclear — partly because it’s been happening largely in the courts.

“I get that there is ambiguity on it,” Khanna told reporters last week, adding that he, too, expected Nadler to take on the question more directly when members return.

“My understanding of what he presented is that we are in an inquiry,” Khanna said of Nadler. “I think he has to clarify that.”

Privately, some Democrats have speculated that the disjointed messaging could be intentional — or, at least, might offer an upside as the caucus remains split on the issue.

In some ways, Nadler’s slow, calculated moves toward impeachment have helped appease a restive liberal base without generating the national furor that Pelosi and her deputies have sought to avoid.

But some lawmakers came face to face during the recess with fuming constituents who have followed every wrinkle of the fight.

“An inquiry is underway before the courts,” one middle-aged woman stood up during a recent town hall hosted by vulnerable Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. “What I’m asking you is whether you will join with your … colleagues and support an impeachment inquiry, one that is already going on.”

At least 137 House Democrats are now on record saying they would vote to open an impeachment inquiry with more likely to trickle out this month.

On Sept. 13, the Justice Department will issue its first response to the Judiciary Committee’s petition to access Mueller’s most closely held evidence — documents and testimony he collected in front of a grand jury. That case, being weighed by the chief judge of Washington D.C.’s federal district court, is the first in which Democrats argued they had in fact already launched an “impeachment investigation” into Trump’s behavior.

DOJ’s response is likely to set the parameters for a bruising fight about what, exactly, constitutes an impeachment inquiry and whether simply declaring impeachment is a possible outcome to a congressional probe will entitle the House to access documents and witnesses that would otherwise be off limits.

In a separate lawsuit seeking testimony from star Mueller witness former White House counsel Don McGahn, the Judiciary Committee has moved for an expedited decision, arguing that every day of delay is validation of Trump’s effort to stonewall Congress and could prevent the timely consideration of articles of impeachment.

McGahn, in extensive interviews with Mueller, provided evidence that Trump repeatedly attempted to undermine the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including ordering the firing of Mueller himself.

Mueller declined to determine whether Trump had committed a crime, citing in part a Justice Department policy that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, but he alluded to Congress’ impeachment authority as a means of holding a president accountable for potential wrongdoing.

But the longer the McGahn fight drags out, the likelier some lawmakers may be to jump aboard the impeachment bandwagon.

Several Democrats have indicated that Trump’s blockade of congressional oversight efforts is itself an impeachable offense, and one that becomes more infuriating the more he appears to denigrate their constitutional authority.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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