Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Q+A:

Brookings’ Molly Reynolds: Is Trump impeachment imminent?

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump had spent the week attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The timing of Molly Reynolds’ visit to Las Vegas this week couldn’t have been better.

Reynolds is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Congress. When she booked her visit to UNLV several months ago for a week of teaching, campus presentations and meetings with students, she could not have known that her arrival in Las Vegas would come just days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

But that’s exactly how it turned out, to the benefit of UNLV students and the community. Students received an up-close look at the impeachment situation, while the general public heard Reynolds discuss it Wednesday evening during a presentation on congressional oversight of the White House.

On Tuesday, Reynolds sat down with the Sun to discuss the impeachment probe at length. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

The impeachment discussion seemed to be proceeding deliberately and slowly until it all of a sudden wasn’t. Did the decision to proceed truly happen quickly? 

Yes and no. There certainly was an effort over the past eight or nine months by some Democrats in the House to begin building a methodical case toward impeaching. But for those who supported impeachment the entire time, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to get some of their colleagues who were less enthusiastic on board with the idea.

That’s where we saw the reports about the Ukraine and the whistleblower really shift the conversation. It helped bring on board some of the Democrats who were less willing to be out there aggressively in favor of impeachment.

Was this incident seen as a more obviously impeachable offense than others that have occurred?

I think one of the reasons it moved a lot of Democrats, as we’re starting to see, is that it may be less contained than we thought. It was a concrete thing we could point to — both members and the public could see the need to go down five or 10 other rabbit holes.

Another important piece of it is that a number of the Democrats who had been more reluctant to support impeachment are what we’ve taken to calling National Security Democrats. There were seven of them who came out with an op-ed last week in The Washington Post that was really critical of the call with Ukraine. So the very clear-cut national security implications of this particular incident helped focus attention on something that could mark a pivot from a broader inquiry to something more specific.

What are some determinations that will affect how long the impeachment process will take?

Democrats are still trying to figure out exactly what a timeline will look like, including how much more information they need to gather. So you’ve started to see some additional subpoenas and requests for information and interviews. There’s a subpoena to Rudy Giuliani, there are requests to various current and former State Department officials to appear, that sort of thing.

That’s the substantive part of the question, but there’s also a political question, which is what’s the best timing for House Democrats to have this unfold?

I think their hope is to complete the process in the House by the end of the calendar year.

But there are competing considerations. One, you don’t want to move too quickly, because you don’t want to leave information uncovered that might be relevant. And two, you don’t want to rush through the process, have the Senate deal with any articles of impeachment the House approves and then leave the issue off the table and let President Trump say, “I was exonerated.”

But you also don’t want to drag it out too long. Looking ahead to the 2020 elections, you don’t want to leave this hanging around the necks of too many of those moderate House Democrats who were less than enthusiastic about pursuing impeachment. They believe that much of how they won their seats in 2018 was not by talking about corruption but by talking about jobs, health care and other issues that voters care about.

Looking at the Senate, it’s an open question. Majority Leader (Mitch) McConnell was on TV yesterday saying that Senate rules require the Senate to take up any impeachment articles that come over from the House, which is both consistent with my reading of the Senate rules but also suggests that even if McConnell saw a way in the rules to ignore a set of articles, he’s not inclined to do that.

But then he also said that they have to take them up but the question of how long they spend on them is a different matter entirely.

So I think one of the big mysteries to folks who watch the institution closely is what exactly the process would look like if the House does send over articles of impeachment.

Mitt Romney has been the loudest voice in the Senate Republican caucus on this, so does he get together with a couple of other Republicans who might care about some of these issues and say, “No, we don’t want just to take up the articles and find a way to dismiss them quickly; we actually want to hear the evidence”?

As the House decides on articles of impeachment, what incidents do you see as being on the table, and which ones are off?

There’s been some interest in trying to keep the focus relatively narrow, (primarily) on the Ukraine incident.

But one of the challenges we’ve seen just in the past 48 hours is that as more and more information comes out about what happened with this call to Ukraine, does it indicate other behaviors? How much was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo involved? How much was Attorney General Bill Barr involved?

So even if the initial instinct among Democrats was to keep it more defined, it may ultimately be the case that that approach isn’t tenable.

It’ll be interesting to see what other issues they include in potential articles. So much of what the House Judiciary Committee has been looking into over the course of the year has been under the purview of the Mueller report — both the Russian interference and the potential obstruction of justice — so whether that remains part of the focus, I’m not sure.

When Pelosi gave that press conference last week, she said there were six committees in the House that had been doing investigations that were now going to operate under what she called the umbrella of the impeachment inquiry (Intelligence; Judiciary; Financial Services, which has investigated the Trump organization’s financial records; Ways and Means, which has pursued access to Trump’s tax returns; Foreign Affairs, which has delved into the Ukraine situation; and Oversight, which has examined emoluments and other matters).

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., found himself in the center of a flap this week when several news organizations identified him as the first Republican to support the impeachment inquiry. Amodei caught a firestorm of criticism from Republicans and went into damage-control mode, saying he supported House oversight of the administration but not impeachment. What Republican dynamics does that incident point out?

Most notably, it’s how for many Republicans in the House, their concern is primarily about their Republican voters. If we were talking about a Republican who represented a more swing district (than Amodei, whose district is strongly Republican), you could see where trying to walk this line might be motivated by a concern about needing to attract some independent voters. But if you’re a safe Republican, so much of what you’re worried about is whether you’re going to get a primary challenge from someone who thinks you’re insufficiently supportive of President Trump.

We’ve seen that dynamic play out in lots of other situations in the past couple of years, where Republicans from safe districts who might find things that Trump is doing personally objectionable are concerned that if they get too far away from the president — who remains quite popular among members of his own party — that would draw them a primary challenge.

In what ways could the impeachment inquiry blow up on the Democrats?

In general, the Democrats still seem to be pretty unified behind this choice to escalate the inquiry. I don’t know exactly what would have to happen for some Democrats to start second-guessing the decision, but you can imagine that being a challenge.

The Ukraine incident has the advantage of it being also about the integrity of our electoral system. As a policy matter, most people inside and outside of Washington think we haven’t paid enough attention to that.

If you think about the one big takeaway from the Bob Mueller press conference, it was this: What we should really be talking about is that the Russians tried to interfere with our electoral system and we haven’t done enough to ensure that that doesn’t happen again in the 2020 election.

That’s something people can get their heads around.

Are any elements of this story not getting enough emphasis?

Sometimes when we talk about things like impeachment that are provided for in the Constitution and have an element of big-picture thinking about what members’ constitutional responsibilities are, we can miss that at the end of the day, they’re people doing their jobs.

Do you think the Republicans are taking their congressional duties into account, even if it’s just in private? Or is this just about partisan politics?

A lot of it comes back to how individual members of Congress see their congressional duty.

There’s a lot of different ways to think about that. There are probably some Republican members who think, “My job as an elected representative is to reflect the views of my constituents, and if they’re not supportive of impeachment then that’s not my role.”

You heard former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake say over the weekend that if the vote in the Senate on removing the president was private — if people didn’t have to give their position publicly — there would be 30 to 35 Republicans voting against the president.

That gets back to this question of, as a member, how do you balance the various competing incentives you face?

Do you have any predictions on the outcome?

I like to say that I got out of the prediction business after the 2016 election. But the most likely outcome is that the House approves one or more articles of impeachment and the Senate dispenses with them in some way that doesn’t involved convicting the president or removing him from office.

That might feel like a pretty safe prediction, in part because it allows for lots of possibilities for how that would unfold. But I do think momentum in politics is real, and once Speaker Pelosi said we’re escalating this and we’re going to undertake a formal impeachment committee, there’s some degree to which that train is heading down the tracks. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t get steered off into a station, but that’s probably the most likely destination for it.