The Slatest

What Does “Accountability” Mean to House Democratic Leaders?

Pelosi and Nadler huddling
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler on March 20 in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For the indefinite future, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be managing Democrats’ unenviable task of aggressively pursuing as much information from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe as possible while somehow keeping a lid on any discussion of impeachment. On Monday, in both a letter to and a conference call with her Democratic colleagues, Pelosi called for further, aggressive investigation through the committees of jurisdiction, citing the importance of thorough fact-finding to achieve the larger goal of holding the president “accountable.” It’s just not clear what Pelosi, and the rest of the House Democratic leadership, considers accountability short of impeachment.

In her letter, Pelosi acknowledged that “our views range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment,” while adding that “we all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth.

“It is also important to know,” she added, “that the facts regarding holding the President accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings. As we proceed to uncover the truth and present additional needed reforms to protect our democracy, we must show the American people we are proceeding free from passion or prejudice, strictly on the presentation of fact.”

In other words, impeachment proceedings will not begin immediately, as some prominent Democrats—like Sen. Elizabeth Warren—have called for. The committees, first, will try to secure fuller, less-redacted versions of the Mueller report as well as underlying documents like grand jury testimony. They will also hold further hearings with crucial witnesses. In addition to hearings with Attorney General William Barr and Robert Mueller himself, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler also on Monday subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn, who, in the Mueller report, is quoted complaining about the “crazy shit” Trump had asked him to do. Democrats will “go as fast as the facts take us,” Pelosi told members on the conference call.

Once Democrats have compiled all they need, though, what are they going to do about the Mueller report’s findings of reasonable instances of obstruction of justice? This is the question to which there is, at present, no answer.

If House Democrats’ thorough investigation and airing of all the facts surrounding Trump’s activity don’t shift public sentiment for impeachment to an overwhelming majority, then there will not be 67 votes in the Senate to convict Trump on articles of impeachment. And if there aren’t the votes in the Senate to convict, it will be difficult to convince Nancy Pelosi to support impeachment—though she didn’t entirely rule it out on the call.

As far as accountability goes, then, what are their other options? Getting Democrats to specify what they mean, when they allude to alternative measures of accountability, isn’t easy. One member on Monday’s conference call, Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, asked whether it would be feasible to censure the president. Nadler, in Politico’s words, said that censure “would be possible but legally meaningless.” Indeed, there isn’t much bite in Congress passing a document shaming someone, especially when that person has an otherworldly immunity to shame.

And then there’s the option of airing it all out before the election, hoping that Trump is held accountable at the polls. That appears to be where the party leadership is headed, and don’t be surprised if it takes House Democrats until Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, to acquire all the documents they deem necessary for a proper follow-up of the Mueller report. Over the course of those 19 months, though, House Democratic leaders will have to endure questions from elements of the party who want impeachment now about why they haven’t broken the glass on the very specific accountability measure the Constitution provides. It’s not just high-profile progressives like Warren, or representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib, who are beginning to ask questions, either.

“We are struggling to justify why we aren’t beginning impeachment proceedings,” Florida Rep. Val Demings said on the conference call. “While I understand we need to see the full report and all supporting documents, I believe we have enough evidence now.”