House Democratic leaders still can’t get their impeachment messaging straight.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Wednesday backtracked after saying Democrats were not conducting an “impeachment inquiry,” a remark that directly contradicted top House investigators and further sowed confusion about Democrats’ strategy.
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The No. 2 Democrat later released a statement that said he misunderstood a question from reporters, shortly after he told reporters that he did not believe the House was conducting an impeachment investigation — a direct refutation of the language in the House’s own court cases against President Donald Trump, and one that senior Democrats fear could hurt their standing with the federal judiciary.
“I thought the question was in regards to whether the full House is actively considering articles of impeachment, which we are not at this time,” Hoyer wrote in a statement.
“I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation ‘to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,’ as the resolution states,” he continued.
Earlier, when pressed if he agreed with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s characterization that the House had begun an impeachment inquiry, Hoyer said “no.”
“The delineation ought to be whether they’re considering a resolution of impeachment,” Hoyer said. “I don’t want to be simplistic about it but I don’t want to quibble on words either.”
Hoyer’s initial comments undercut Nadler (D-N.Y.), who has said — and argued in court filings that Hoyer himself signed off on — that an impeachment investigation is ongoing.
And minutes earlier, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) had declined to say definitively whether the House is conducting an impeachment investigation.
The comments from Hoyer and Jeffries come as Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also sidestepped questions about impeachment and has avoided espousing the Judiciary Committee’s posture on the issue.
Privately, several senior Democrats have expressed concerns that the conflicting descriptions could undermine their efforts in court, which depend on federal judges formally recognizing the House’s impeachment authority in order to grant lawmakers access to critical grand jury information and to unlock testimony from key witnesses.
The muddled messaging from top House Democrats has some built-in strategic advantages, defenders argue: it allows Pelosi to satisfy progressives’ demands to more aggressively investigate the president, while giving cover to vulnerable moderates who have tried to avoid the politically charged issue altogether.
Earlier Wednesday, several vulnerable freshmen privately confronted Nadler about the muddled impeachment messaging, according to multiple sources present.
The sit-down with Nadler — which included more than a dozen Democratic freshmen — was part of a routine series of meetings Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) holds with new members. While the huddle was described as cordial, several freshmen, including Rep. Xochitl Torres-Small (D-N.M.), and New York Reps. Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose, told Nadler they were concerned the widespread confusion was overshadowing their policy agenda and could cost them the House.
“We keep talking about how we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but if you look at someone in real life who is chewing gum and walking, you don’t see them chewing gum at all,” Rose said according to multiple sources in the room.
Freshman Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) who represents a swing district, said freshman in tough districts told Nadler that they’re tired of Democrats being “characterized as the party of impeachment.”
“Everyone is frustrated that impeachment discussions take up all the oxygen in the room,” said Hill, who was also in the meeting. “But beyond how we each talk about it in our own communities, and paid communications, we cannot control the national media narrative.”
Some moderates have been spooked by new polling by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which found that the public was more aware of Democratic investigations than the bills they’ve passed.
The national poll found that “just 10% said investigating Trump should be a top priority for Congress, but 54% said that they believe it’s the top priority of Democrats in Congress,” according to the polling results, which was obtained by POLITICO.
“The message was sent by multiple members to the chairman that his efforts are sucking the air out of the room and they are not being cogently being presented to the American people,” said one member in the room. “They are being presented with elitist legalese.”
“All the while we’re not doing nearly enough on health care and infrastructure and we’re losing trust of American people,” the member added.
Before Hoyer misspoke, Jeffries, a top member of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would wait until after the panel voted on a resolution Thursday formalizing the procedures for its impeachment investigation.
“I don’t want to get caught in semantics,” Jeffries told reporters Wednesday. “We all agree, from Speaker Pelosi through every single member of the House Democratic Caucus, that we have a constitutional responsibility to hold an out-of-control executive branch accountable.”
Despite these remarks, articles of impeachment have already been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, and in recent court filings, House lawyers have noted that the panel is actively considering whether to recommend those articles, or a revised version, to the full House. As a member of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, Hoyer signed off on the lawsuits.
Additionally, in July, the committee began officially telling federal courts that it was considering whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president.
“[The] investigation includes consideration of whether the Judiciary Committee should exercise its Article I powers to recommend articles of impeachment,” House lawyers wrote in a lawsuit seeking testimony from former White House Counsel Don McGahn.
“Articles of impeachment already have been introduced and referred to the Judiciary Committee in this Congress,” the lawsuit continues.
Hoyer on Wednesday addressed concerns from the caucus — particularly from moderates — that talk of impeachment could swamp the party’s ambitious agenda going into 2020.
“The fear is that you will be exclusively focused on it, to the exclusion of all the other things we need to do in the Congress of the United States,” Hoyer said.
Pressed on what exactly he would consider a formal impeachment inquiry, Hoyer said it would need to be a specific action by the committee, or a formal floor vote on the House.
“Impeachment consideration is a resolution that is drafted and under consideration by the committee, and or voted to proceed by the House,’ Hoyer told reporters. “In either event, I don’t think that’s what happened. We don’t think that’s what happened. I don’t think we can explain it better than that — that they’re continuing the search for truth.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this story.