She added: “The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
The rhetorical stakes of that comment are high; the material stakes are not so clear. Pelosi’s announcement came after months in which she worked to put the brakes on impeachment, even as a growing number of Democrats began to support launching a formal inquiry. But over the past few days, more members of the caucus joined them. That included a group of moderate Democratic freshmen, whom Pelosi feared she would be endangering politically by moving forward, and Representative John Lewis, a respected elder statesman.
But although Pelosi called it an “official impeachment inquiry,” she didn’t offer any indication of what that would mean in practice. She said she is directing chairs of committees to work together “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.” She did not announce plans for a separate impeachment inquiry, nor for new appropriations or hiring. That creates the possibility that business will continue in the House as usual, only with the speaker herself now labeling that business an impeachment inquiry.
Yoni Appelbaum: Impeach Donald Trump
“If we have to honor our oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, from all enemies, foreign and domestic, that’s what we’ll have to do,” Pelosi told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, today at The Atlantic Festival in Washington. “But we have to have the facts.”
The protean nature of impeachment inquiries became apparent in the first attempt to remove a president. The House began considering impeaching Andrew Johnson in early 1867. As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum has written, the initial charges against Johnson included a host of substanceless rumors, including the allegation that he’d been involved in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. As the investigation proceeded, a number of rumors were exposed as baseless. “Many of the claims against Johnson failed to survive the journey,” Appelbaum writes. “Those that did eventually helped form the basis for his impeachment.”
The act that ultimately led to Johnson’s impeachment, the firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, had not yet occurred when the impeachment inquiry began. But once an inquiry was open, it took on a life of its own, and ultimately brought the president to within a single vote of removal from office.
David A. Graham: Trump admits everything
Richard Nixon was not impeached, because he resigned from office before the House had a chance to act, realizing he would probably be convicted and removed from office. Still, the events that led up to his resignation demonstrate the same unpredictability. Some House Democrats had been toying with impeachment even before the Watergate break-in. There were new calls, again unsuccessful, after the break-in. Only after the Saturday Night Massacre did the House Judiciary Committee open an impeachment inquiry. Meanwhile, the Senate Watergate Committee, which had been created to investigate the break-in but did not assume there had been presidential wrongdoing, turned up extensive evidence of Nixon’s personal involvement in a cover-up. One of the three articles of impeachment passed against Nixon concerned his refusal to comply with subpoenas by the committee after the impeachment inquiry had begun.