WASHINGTON — On Friday, just two days after former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before his committee, House Judiciary chair Jerry Nadler called a press conference. There, he was joined by 10 members of his committee, all of whom but one have publicly announced their support for opening an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The event seemed tailor-made for the powerful New York Democrat to announce that he was officially joining his colleagues in supporting impeachment. What it turned out to be, instead, was an at-times confusing press conference where Nadler refused to actually say he supports an inquiry, while members of his own committee repeatedly said they see their work as being exactly that.
Friday’s press conference laid bare something that has been clear to everyone on Capitol Hill for many weeks now: Nadler personally supports an impeachment inquiry and believes his committee is doing important work that will, at a minimum, lead to an inquiry. But the chair respects the will of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi too much to say so.
In his opening remarks, Nadler praised Mueller and announced a new court filing aiming to get grand jury information from the special counsel’s probe.
“We will continue to seek testimony from key fact witnesses,” Nadler said. “Our work will continue into the August recess."
When he took questions from the press, nearly every reporter asked some version of the same thing: “It sounds like this is an impeachment inquiry. Do you support an impeachment inquiry?”
And for nearly 30 minutes, members of the Judiciary Committee argued this was not an impeachment inquiry — except for how it kind of was.
“There’s no formal or statutory or House rule for how an impeachment inquiry is to begin,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said. “A lot of people believe we’ve been in an impeachment inquiry since we started looking into high crimes and misdemeanors. Other people think an impeachment inquiry doesn’t begin until you have articles of impeachment. I would say we’re in an impeachment investigation.”
As Nadler was telling reporters “it remains to be seen” whether the committee will pursue impeachment, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, the committee’s vice chair and a public supporter of opening an impeachment inquiry, jumped in to say she doesn’t believe impeachment is a “binary thing.”
“What we’ve been saying and what we’ve been doing is starting a process,” she said. “We’re engaging in an investigation to see if we should recommend articles of impeachment. It’s a process.”
Later, a reporter asked Nadler again.
“Mr. Chairman, there’s a bigger debate in your caucus about whether to open [an impeachment inquiry. Are you all beginning to shade into an impeachment inquiry even if you haven’t held a formal vote of the House?” he asked. “Is that what’s going on here?”
Before answering, Nadler took a long pause, smiled, and looked around him at the group of the House’s most high-profile impeachment supporters. Reporters laughed.
“What’s going on is, I think too much has been made of the phrase ‘impeachment inquiry,’” he said.
If there was any doubt Democrats were seriously considering impeachment at this point, the application they filed Friday in federal court in Washington, DC, removed it; House Democrats explicitly referenced possible impeachment proceedings in the filing. Grand jury materials are secret, but there are exceptions. The House Judiciary Committee is arguing they fall under a "judicial proceeding" exception that previously played a role in the release of grand jury materials to the committee in 1974, when members were investigating potential impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
"Where, as here, the Committee is conducting an investigation whose purposes include determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment, that is more than sufficient for purposes of Rule 6(e)’s 'judicial proceeding' exception," lawyers for the committee wrote.
According to a Politico report earlier this week, Nadler had pushed to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump during a closed-door meeting Wednesday following Mueller’s testimony, but Pelosi rejected the idea. It was not the first time that’s happened, according to a series of reports in recent weeks.
“We will consider what we have to consider, including whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the House,” Nadler said Friday. “That’s the job of our committee. We may decide to recommend articles of impeachment at some point. We may not. That remains to be seen, and there’s no point in speculating whether the speaker or anybody else will agree with our decision at that point.”
Half a dozen members have come out in support of an inquiry since Mueller’s appearance on the Hill Wednesday, including, notably, Rep. Katherine Clark, a member of House leadership, and Rep. Mike Levin, one the Democrats’ “frontliners” — members the party is most focused on protecting in 2020 — who flipped a GOP-held district in California last year.
Pressed Friday on whether the Judiciary Committee’s work was, whether or not he wanted to say so, an impeachment inquiry, Nadler eventually said, “In effect.”
“I suppose there’s one difference you could draw if you said an impeachment inquiry is when you consider only impeachment,” Nadler added. “That’s not what we’re doing.”
Zoe Tillman contributed to this report.