House Judiciary Committee approves guidelines for Trump impeachment probe

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The House Judiciary Committee approved the parameters for its impeachment investigation into Donald Trump on Thursday — the most significant step Democrats have yet taken as they weigh the divisive move.

The party-line vote comes as House Democrats have struggled to articulate a unified message on impeachment, with senior party leaders avoiding the term even while the Judiciary Committee embraces it in court filings.

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“Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said, arguing that a House vote is not necessary. “There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.”

The resolution, which Nadler billed as a “necessary next step” in its months-long investigation, allows President Donald Trump and his lawyers to formally respond to evidence and testimony presented in the committee’s hearings.

The measure also preemptively triggers a House rule that allows staffers to question witnesses for an hour at the end of every hearing deemed part of the impeachment investigation. It describes the panel’s ability to accept evidence in secret “executive sessions,” and it authorizes the subcommittees to hold hearings and question witnesses in order to expedite the process.

Republicans ripped the measure as a meaningless gesture that simply points to procedures already available in the House and committee’s rules. Nadler has said the resolution is an important step to acknowledge the panel’s investigation and to deploy the procedural mechanisms in advance of impeachment-related hearings.

Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats were trying to make it appear that they were toughening their stance on impeachment.

“The Judiciary Committee has become a giant Instagram filter,” Collins quipped. “To make it appear that something’s happening that is not.”

“He wants the appearance of something that is not,” Collins said of Nadler.

In late July, the committee for the first time referred to its investigation as an impeachment probe, telling federal courts that the panel is considering whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House. It was part of an effort to secure documents and witness testimony that Democrats say are critical for its investigation, and remain tied up in court amid blockades from the White House and the Justice Department.

But when lawmakers returned to Washington this week after a six-week recess, Democrats couldn’t seem to agree on what to call their investigation — a reflection of the competing political priorities inside the Democratic Caucus.

Progressives have been clamoring for a more aggressive posture on impeachment, while moderate Democrats, many of whom represent Republican-leaning districts and are considered vulnerable in 2020, are reluctant to embrace the impeachment moniker.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said Democrats were trying to “have your impeachment and deny it too.” Republicans also noted that Democrats do not have enough support among their caucus for a vote on the House floor to authorize an impeachment inquiry.

The committee kicked off its investigation into the president in March, focusing on allegations of corruption and abuses of power. The following month, special counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election, and Trump’s efforts to interfere with the probe.

Mueller’s report documented several potential incidents of obstruction of justice, including a directive from Trump to his then-White House Counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Mueller and shut down his investigation.

More recently, Democrats have zeroed in on allegations that Trump is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, which seek to ensure that presidents do not benefit financially from government spending — by the U.S. or foreign governments.

The Judiciary Committee is investigating Trump’s recent suggestion that next year’s G7 summit be held at his Doral resort in Florida, in addition to Vice President Mike Pence’s recent stay at a Trump-owned property in Ireland.

Additionally, the House Oversight and Reform Committee is probing military stays at Trump’s resort in Turnberry, Scotland, during stopovers from the U.S. to the Middle East.

Nadler has said that the committee will decide by the end of the year whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House. Some articles have already been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

“We have a constitutional, historical, and moral obligation to fully investigate these matters,” Nadler said. “Let us take the next step in that work without delay.”

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.