With a slew of depositions of key figures in the impeachment inquiry lined up for next week, House Democrats aren’t anywhere near done compiling evidence of President Trump’s misconduct—and yet in the span of just a few hours this past week they got enough to make staying focused their biggest obstacle.
In a remarkable appearance at the White House briefing room podium on Thursday, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted that President Trump held up nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine as leverage for them to investigate his political rivals—complicating repeated GOP defenses that there was “no quid pro quo” and surprising Democrats who have insisted that the question of quid pro quo is not central to their impeachment of Trump.
Mulvaney also announced that the administration would host the G7 conference of world leaders at Trump’s golf club in Florida—a brazen move to promote the president’s business interests that flared up simmering sentiment among Democrats that they have not focused enough on how Trump has enriched himself through the presidency, something many of them already view as impeachable conduct.
As all this unfolded, many of the lawmakers involved with the impeachment inquiry were sitting, phones locked away in boxes, in a secure facility below the Capitol for a deposition from Ambassador Gordon Sondland. They left the room that evening literally several news cycles behind—and exasperated at the difficulty of keeping up with it all as they try to keep their eyes on the ball.
“I think we're being constantly invited to change the subject,” remarked Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), a vocal impeachment proponent, who was not locked away on Thursday but was exhausted by the news all the same. “And constantly tempted to focus on the outrage du jour.”
It has been accepted for some time that Democrats would have a challenge in maintaining the narrow focus they want for their impeachment inquiry—in particular, Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—given the broad concerns within the caucus about the president’s conduct and his ability to spark fresh controversy daily.
But as the grab-bag of grounds for investigating Trumpworld grows at a faster pace than Democrats can keep up with, their cautiously plotted inquiry is being stretched in more directions than ever before. And that could open up new spaces for debate and disagreement within the caucus over how the probe should proceed—namely, whether impeachment should be expanded to accommodate any accumulating evidence of wrongdoing, or if other grounds for impeachment should be set aside in order to preserve what has so far been a successful investigation.
The news that is most testing Democrats on this front is Trump’s G7 gambit, which revived the discussion of the Constitution’s emoluments clause that prohibits the president from taking any kind of gift or benefit from a foreigner.
Many House Democrats have long believed that Trump has violated the clause due to the steady stream of foreign business at his D.C. hotel and now the steering of a high-profile international conference to his Florida resort. To date, only a small handful of lawmakers have been arguing that this should be a central focus in their impeachment probe—but the brazenness of Trump’s move could change that as the issue is thrust into the spotlight.
A top House progressive, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), told The Daily Beast on Friday that there is a case to be made to write an article of impeachment based on the emoluments issue. “We have to see how strong we can make it,” she said. “Obviously, these things are being done in public so it makes it easy.”
And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who was among the first lawmakers to advocate for impeachment on the grounds of emoluments, said Friday there’s “more than enough” material out there now to write such an article.
Hardly any Democrats shrug off the issue of the president’s profiting off his properties, but there’s a genuine split over whether impeachment is the proper way to respond to it. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) pointed to language in House-passed spending bills that prohibits the administration from spending federal funds at Trump properties, which would make it impossible to host a G7 summit at his Doral hotel.
“Impeachment is a last resort,” said Malinowski on Friday. “We have the power of the purse, and we can use the power of the purse. There’s no reason to make it a part of an impeachment inquiry.”
Ultimately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership will decide whether or not emoluments are included as part of an impeachment inquiry when the House Judiciary Committee draws up the final articles of impeachment, which is expected to come at some point this fall.
But the success so far that Democrats have seen in securing revealing witness testimony already had Democrats wondering how much more they actually need in order to make a persuasive impeachment case to the American people. Mulvaney’s admission on Thursday that there was quid pro quo—and that it’s not a big deal anyway—only supercharged that sentiment, leaving some itchy trigger fingers within the caucus. And yet there’s still a long line of depositions scheduled for next week, including testimony from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine who is believed to have witnessed at least part of Trump’s pressure campaign firsthand.
“Maybe we don’t have to hear from as many witnesses, because we’re starting to get a lot of confessions,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) when asked about Mulvaney’s remarks as he left the Sondland deposition on Thursday. “I think we just try to stay focused and be purposeful, because in 118 days, people start voting in the election.”
There isn’t a whole lot of disagreement with that sentiment among House Democrats. But it does have some of them wondering if they couldn’t be doing more, from pushing the emoluments to further probing the complex web of foreign connections woven by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, which some members around the caucus are anxious to start unraveling.
“I think we have the bandwidth to pursue accountability for Giuliani's kind of mafia-like affairs… for the corruption and the emoluments, for the whole suite of misconduct that we're dealing with,” said Huffman. “But some of it is just inherently time-consuming. And I think that's the frustration. I believe all of it rises to the level of impeachable. In a different in a better political climate, we would include all of it, and we probably would have impeached this guy by now.” But, Huffman added, he doesn’t “second-guess” leadership’s strategy and the results it has yielded so far.
Even among Democrats who view a broad range of impeachable conduct on the part of the president, the overwhelming desire to not screw up their inquiry may win the day.
“It doesn’t matter if you impeach the president on one article or 10,” a Democratic aide told The Daily Beast. “You can only remove him from office once. The problem of having too many crimes to choose from is not a terrible problem to have.”