The Democrats Call Trump’s Bluff

The speaker announced today that the full House will hold a vote to set the terms of the impeachment inquiry.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

If Republicans want a vote so badly, they can have a vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced today.

President Donald Trump’s allies in and out of the White House have spent recent days complaining that the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives is illegitimate or at least unfair because the full chamber hadn’t voted on it. In a letter this afternoon, however, Pelosi told Democratic lawmakers that although she believed she was in the right legally, she would hold a vote this week.

“We are taking this step to eliminate any doubt as to whether the Trump Administration may withhold documents, prevent witness testimony, disregard duly authorized subpoenas, or continue obstructing the House of Representatives,” she wrote.

The same day, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said that Democrats would not attempt to compel witnesses to testify over White House objections using federal courts. “We are not willing to let the White House engage us in a lengthy game of rope-a-dope in the courts, so we press ahead,” Schiff said. He suggested that withholding witnesses would instead be considered evidence of obstruction and abuse of power by Trump.

Taken together, these moves look like Democrats are calling the Republicans’ bluff. Pelosi had resisted a full vote and Schiff had hoped to get the witnesses to testify, but now they are switching their approach—suggesting that they believe they hold a winning hand, even if they allow Republicans to dictate some of the rules of the game. It is, of course, too soon to know whether that gamble will pay off.

Republicans will crow over Pelosi’s reversal, arguing that it proves the process thus far has been unfair. “Today’s backtracking is an admission that this process has been botched from the start,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. They’ll also get a roll-call vote, which is likely to fall largely along party lines, and which they hope will provide good fodder for attack ads in the 2020 election. (Don’t count on Republicans dropping the process complaints altogether, though; crying “witch hunt” is Trump’s go-to move.)

It’s a little tough to see how these victories amount to much in the long term, though. Process complaints are the only defense of Trump that has gotten much purchase, in part because Republicans have been unwilling or unable to defend the president’s behavior. Democrats seem to think that they can defang the process debate with these concessions and return the conversation back to the substance of the accusations against Trump.

If there is an upside to granting the vote, why were Democrats reluctant to hold it earlier? One possibility is internal-caucus dynamics: Since Pelosi announced the inquiry in late September, public support has shot up, giving members who might have been skittish before some cover to support the move. A second is that the investigation has turned up plenty of damaging material already, giving Democrats more confidence as they go forward. That cuts two ways, though. Given how fruitful the investigation has been, why bother changing the rules now?

Schiff’s announcement about avoiding court battles raises some of the same questions. In early October, as the probe began, the White House announced its intention to hold back witnesses, because it considered the probe illegitimate. Almost immediately, the obstruction play fell apart. A procession of current and former officials has gone to Capitol Hill and delivered a series of damning revelations, making an impeachment vote all but inevitable. The first snag occurred last week, when former interim National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman went to court to ask whether he was required to honor the subpoena.

Democrats contend they’d win that legal battle, but they don’t have the time to dawdle, so they’ll move forward without it. “If this witness had something to say that would be helpful to the White House, they would want him to come and testify,” Schiff told reporters Monday. “They plainly don’t.” But the opposite is also true: If the White House doesn’t want witnesses to speak, it’s probably because they have something damaging to say, which Democrats should want to hear. Foregoing a court battle also risks eroding congressional prerogatives in future clashes with the executive branch.

Pelosi, Schiff, and company don’t want to impeach on obstruction alone, which means they have apparently concluded they can gather enough evidence to proceed on both obstruction and other, more substantive grounds. They also want to move fast, disposing of the whole process before year’s end if possible. But it’s not just them: Another powerful voice is calling for a fast process based on substance.

“I’d rather go into the details of the case rather than process,” Trump said this morning. “Process is wonderful. We already have 50 Republican senators—I never called one of them—sign up. Fifty. Out of 53, 50. And perhaps the other ones will do it too. But process is good. But I think you ought to look at the case. And the case is very simple; it’s quick. It’s so quick.”

The president may want to be careful what he wishes for.