Dems stumble on impeachment messaging

By Kyle Cheney, Andrew Desiderio, Sarah Ferris and Heather Caygle

Democrats are mired in an impeachment mess of their own making.

Conflicting signals from the House’s most powerful Democrats have left rank-and-file lawmakers exasperated, unable to say confidently whether the House is, in fact, considering one of the weightiest actions any Congress can take: recommending a president’s impeachment.

Some see the muddled messaging as a strategic boon — it allows moderate Democrats to sidestep politically explosive questions about impeachment while permitting progressives to insist they’re aggressively hammering President Donald Trump. But others doubt the tactics are intentional and note that it has strained the Democratic Caucus, that it has aroused suspicion among the party’s base and that it could weaken the House’s hand in court.

Sixteen House Democrats, in interviews, offered conflicting assessments of the status of the House Judiciary Committee’s investigation of Trump, which its chairman — Rep. Jerry Nadler — bills as an “impeachment investigation.”

“We have been in the midst of an impeachment investigation,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“No, we’re not in an impeachment investigation,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

A third, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), said the House is investigating to determine “whether or not there should be an impeachment investigation.”

Others are wrangling over semantics, with some insisting the House is in an “impeachment inquiry” while others are hewing to the “impeachment investigation” terminology, which the Judiciary Committee introduced in court filings in late July. Others, like Nadler, say they’re synonymous.

“You know, I think people can call it whatever they want to call it, but I think we’re just trying to get to the truth and we’ll see where that leads us,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Go to the dictionary and try to determine the difference between an inquiry and an investigation,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who supports impeachment, said with a laugh.

“I can’t even tell you which of those is more significant,” Sherman added. “And I realize the politics of it. I realize how they’re using the language. But somebody just focusing on the dictionary couldn’t tell you which is more important.”

According to a source familiar with the matter, some lawmakers called Nadler over the August recess in order to “get a better understanding of what’s going on.”

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi avoids the terms altogether. In a talking-point document sent to the caucus Tuesday morning, Pelosi’s office described the House’s investigative activities in anodyne terms, characterizing them as typical House oversight of the executive branch. The talking points characterized a Thursday vote by the House Judiciary Committee — billed by the panel as a formal acknowledgment of the House’s impeachment probe — as “procedures related to its investigation of the president’s wrongdoing.”

Pelosi has at times adopted the harsh rhetoric of pro-impeachment lawmakers, most recently accusing Trump of violating the Constitution by allegedly steering government spending to his luxury resorts. She has also accused Trump of “self-impeaching” and privately told colleagues she preferred to see him in prison, rather than impeached. But Pelosi has also repeatedly emphasized the House’s slow, deliberative investigative and legal strategy when pressed on impeachment.

Some Democrats dismiss the semantic and tactical fights as an inconsequential media obsession or insist that there are no conflicting sentiments. Others view them as signs of a disjointed strategy and messaging as the House enters a crucial phase of its Trump-focused investigations. In the meantime, top Democrats are working to smooth over and downplay any differences between them.

“What we’re doing is very clear. It’s been very clear. It continues to be very clear,” Nadler told reporters on Monday. He added: “The speaker has backed us at every point along the way.”

Privately, though, some Democrats are fretting that the mixed messages could hurt them in federal court, where they are fighting multiple battles with the president and the Justice Department over access to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s files and key witnesses. The committee’s court filings are dependent on judges accepting the House’s posture on pursuing potential impeachment of the president.

The competing characterizations have seeped into staff meetings, including a gathering of Judiciary Committee members’ communications directors, who complained they lack clarity needed to prepare their bosses for media appearances related to impeachment, according to two people present for the meeting.

Several staffers argued in the Monday afternoon meeting, which at times became heated, that they were not fully briefed on the broader strategy — to which Judiciary Committee staffers responded that those details would need to come from top Democrats’ offices, rather than from their own panel.

Since returning from the six-week August recess, Pelosi has publicly and privately sought to limit talk of impeachment in favor of discussing the caucus’s policy aims, such as new gun limits.

In a Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday morning — the first since the end of July — the topic was briefly mentioned, according to people in the room. Pelosi said the Judiciary Committee’s process is “keeping open the options for all of us,” according to a source who was inside the room.

The set of talking points distributed by the speaker’s office, which was obtained by POLITICO, does not mention impeachment; instead, the document, which was prepared in conjunction with the Judiciary Committee, referenced federal court opinions stating that the House has an absolute right to investigate.

But those cases have yet to yield new information, and even the ones that the House have won are tied up in the appeals process.

Himes, a moderate who publicly favors an impeachment inquiry, acknowledged Pelosi and her leadership team have sought to craft a message that can work for all corners of her caucus.

“I represent the people of southwestern Connecticut. The speaker sees the whole country, so I’m giving her a lot of room,” Himes said. “The speaker understands that impeachment is a political thing, that’s why it lives in the Congress. And I’ve known the speaker long enough that politics for her means public sentiment.”

But some Democrats also acknowledge that it could look like the caucus is attempting to have it both ways on impeachment.

“It gives people cover to be able to say, 'We’re not for impeachment, we’re just investigating,'” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), a vocal supporter of ousting Trump. “But it does formalize it more — it depends on what exactly they do now.”

To Nadler, the answer is clear: his committee is investigating the possibility of recommending articles of impeachment — holding hearings and fighting court battles for evidence to make its determination. Last month, he said: “This is formal impeachment proceedings.”

Nearly two months ago, the Judiciary Committee began telling federal courts that impeachment is a possible outcome of their myriad investigations. The panel began embracing the term as a way to obtain information and testimony related to Mueller’s investigation, in particular, the allegations that Trump obstructed justice.

Nadler and his fellow Democrats on the committee began using the term “impeachment investigation” as shorthand for their process of determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment — even as more and more House Democrats affirmatively declared their support for an "impeachment inquiry."

By resisting that language but signing off on the Judiciary Committee’s "impeachment investigation," Pelosi satiated progressives’ demands for a more aggressive posture while sidestepping questions about calling a full House vote to establish an inquiry.

Asked if it seemed to be part of a grand strategy, Vargas laughed and said: “No, I wish we did have one.”