Washington, DC – A key committee of the US House of Representatives voted on Thursday to intensify its investigation into President Donald Trump by approving guidelines for impeachment hearings, a move Republicans called “smoke and mirrors”.
The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted 24-17, along party lines.
The vote raises the stakes in the Democrats’ widening corruption investigation of the president and opens a door to potential formal accusations against Trump by the House.
“This investigation will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Trump,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democrat chairman of the Judiciary committee, told reporters after the vote.
“With these new procedures will begin next week an aggressive series of hearings investigating allegations of obstruction, corruption and abuse of power against the president,” Nadler said.
The committee action elevates political risks for both US political parties ahead of the 2020 elections. Since April, Trump and his lawyers have refused to cooperate with Democrat-led investigations in the House, claiming exemptions from partisan congressional oversight. Frustrated, Democrats have been forced to go to federal court to seek enforcement of subpoenas. Thursday’s move by the Judiciary panel, designating its inquiry as an impeachment investigation, is seen as strengthening the House panels’ court claims.
But Democrats are divided on the prospect of pursuing actual impeachment proceedings against Trump and top House leaders took pains this week to avoid casting the committee action as a step towards impeachment, although rank-and-file members said it should be viewed as such.
Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary committee, said Democrats don’t have the votes in the full House to bring a proper impeachment inquiry against Trump.
“This stays in committee. It does not go outside the committee. This does not go to the House floor. So, they are covering for their moderates who don’t want to vote for impeachment, the vast majority of which don’t want to have anything to do with this,” Collins said.
Asked on Wednesday whether the Judiciary Committee is conducting an impeachment inquiry, Representative Steny Hoyer, the No 2 Democrat leader, said “no”.
“I don’t want to be simplistic about it, or quibble on words either, but an impeachment, what you imply is, the consideration of an impeachment resolution and a vote on the resolution. That is not currently before the committee,” Hoyer told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“What’s before the committee is this ongoing investigation,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top House Democrat, has repeatedly said she will not initiate impeachment proceedings without a strong factual basis and broad public support.
But pressure on Pelosi is building within the Democrat caucus in the House. As many as 135 of the 235 Democratic members of the House have expressed support either for impeachment or, at least, an impeachment investigation.
“From my view, we don’t need a single more hearing to get evidence in terms of the president having committed felonies,” Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee, told Al Jazeera.
“That’s very clear from the Mueller report and from Michael Cohen’s pleadings and testimony. The president has committed multiple felonies,” Lieu said.
After a 22-month investigation, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued a lengthy report that found “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election won by Trump.
Mueller found no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian government operatives. However, Mueller said he could not make a final recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice, instead outlining multiple attempts by the president to use his authority to undercut or block the investigation.
“There are a lot of members who feel strongly that the Mueller report indicates there is culpability and at the very least we should study it and move forward,” Representative Elliot Engel, Democrat chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters on Wednesday.
“I do think that ultimately we will have articles of Impeachment,” Engel said.
‘Smoke and mirrors’
Republicans view the committee action as an effort to gain public attention and damage the president with unsubstantiated claims instead of legislating on behalf of the nation.
Representative Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, told Democrats on the committee, “This is just more smoke and mirrors so you can appease the far left while doing absolutely nothing.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No 1 Republican House leader, said earlier this week, “It’s time for the Democrats to stop focusing on trying to tear the president down, to actually build America up”.
Under House rules, the Judiciary Committee has the authority to conduct an impeachment inquiry and then recommend any articles of impeachment, or indictments against the president, for adoption by the full House.
“The committee will be on a course that will lead to impeachment. Whether it’s the intent or not, the hands of history will steer them into impeachment,” Representative Al Green, a Democrat, told Al Jazeera. “I know this; there will be” a majority of the House “who will ultimately vote to impeach this president.”
If the House votes to impeach the president, the Senate would then be called upon to conduct a trial with House members serving as prosecutors, an unlikely prospect as Trump’s Republican allies control the Senate by a 53-47 margin.
Specifically, the Judiciary panel’s adoption of investigative procedures on Thursday strengthens the House’s demand in federal court for secret grand jury material developed by the Mueller investigation, including testimony and documents underlying the special counsel’s report.
Meanwhile, the committee has expanded its inquiry to include alleged corruption and abuse of power by the president. Democrats are investigating whether Trump is profiting at his various hotels and golf properties and whether he improperly offered pardons to US officials to break the law in enforcing his border policies.
“The investigation will go well beyond the four corners of the Mueller report,” Nadler said.
Five other committees of the House are conducting separate inquiries into allegations of financial dealings with Russian oligarchs, potential money laundering and tax fraud. The Judiciary Committee plans to draw information from those proceedings as well.