North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman has made no secret of his desire to see the U.S. House of Representatives officially begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. He's been steadfastly outspoken on the subject. His public statements began largely 140 fiery characters at a time on Twitter before, in February of 2018, Huffman co-sponsored the Articles of Impeachment introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee. But in recent weeks, in the wake of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, amid a slowly growing chorus of House Democrats calling for impeachment, Huffman has been making the national media rounds, interviewed by the likes of CNN, Politico and the Huffington Post.
As Congress mulls the historic step, the Journal caught up with Huffman on June 7. Looking to go beyond the tweets, sound bites and pithy quotes, we asked Huffman, a lawyer by trade, to make his case as to why the House should begin impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States. Here's a transcript of our conversation, which has been minimally edited for clarity.
North Coast Journal: To start, we're going to tap into your lawyerly past and ask you to give us a brief opening argument as to why it's time for the House to start impeachment proceedings.
Jared Huffman: The distinction that you just made is an important one — impeachment proceedings as opposed to just going straight to an impeachment vote. It would be a mistake, I think — and I say this even as someone who favors impeachment — to do what the Republicans did in 1998 and simply take a special counsel's report and rush right to the floor for a vote. That would be a disservice to the process, it would look a lot like a partisan power play and it's not going to happen that way.
What I do believe should happen is we should take these disparate inquiries and subpoena battles and investigations, and wrap them into a coherent context for the American people, because the truth is we are looking into the corruption issues and continuing to look at the counter intelligence stuff with Russia and the follow-up on the Mueller report issues and different things because they could potentially lead to impeachment. That is very much the backdrop to all this. I think bringing it into a coherent context as part of an official impeachment inquiry would help people understand that better.
NCJ: In your eyes, the harm of continuing apace with the, as you said, disparate investigations is the messaging — that it makes it harder for the American people to understand exactly how it all ties together?
Huffman: There are really advantages to having this done in the context of an impeachment proceeding. First, we know the administration is going to drag their heels and obstruct and resist all of this, and one of the arguments they're already making in court is that we lack a legitimate legislative purpose for all these things.
So, this can almost seem like a circular argument here — if we were to take impeachment off the table and still pursue all these different things, then the Trump legal defense might actually be strengthened because it might just look like it's investigation for the heck of it or for partisan positioning for the next election. But if we were to clarify that, yeah, we're seriously considering this constitutional mechanism of impeachment and we have to gather these facts and bring forward these witnesses, our case in court gets a lot stronger. And that's not just me. A lot of legal scholars, people like Laurence Tribe and others, have made this point. And my understanding is that many of my colleagues and even some of the legal staff for the (House) Judiciary Committee agree with that. So there's the legal advantage you gain by having it as an official impeachment inquiry.
There's also, I believe, the public narrative that needs to be clarified, that the story in the nightly news should not be that we're fighting about (former White House Communications Director) Hope Hick's testimony or (former White House Counsel) Don McGahn's subpoena or any of these other things. It should be, 'Tonight, in the impeachment hearings, these things happened.' And the American people will begin to put this information together in the proper context and, in that sense, we will bring the public along in a much better way than if we continue to tiptoe around this issue of impeachment as if it's some forbidden subject.
NCJ: Previously, you've outlined four grounds you think warrant further inquiry in such proceedings. We're hoping we can go through them one by one and, for each, give what you consider the probable cause, for lack of a better term, that warrants further investigation.
Huffman: OK. Sure.
NCJ: The first would be obstruction of justice.
Huffman: It's one of the easiest ones because you have roughly 10 counts of potential criminal obstruction laid out in the Mueller report. Mueller goes to great lengths to lay out the elements of criminal obstruction and to actually discuss the evidence on each of these counts as to whether it meets the threshold for a chargeable offense. And for at least five of the counts, it's very clear from his report that it does.
Now because of the Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president, he didn't actually reach the conclusion. But he laid out the elements, he applied the evidence and he clearly teed this up for Congress and that's why you have more than 1,000 prosecutors now from around the country — Republicans and Democrats — on this historic letter saying that if Trump was a private citizen, he would be criminally indicted for these counts.
NCJ: Then, second, you have pointed to conflicts of interest and potential violations of the emoluments clause.
Huffman: Right. We are in court against Trump right now — I'm one of the plaintiffs in the foreign emoluments clause case. We've gotten a favorable ruling that should allow us to begin discovery sometime soon but they have hidden all of the details on these things.
What we do have is some pretty compelling anecdotal evidence that foreign governments and others have directed business to Trump entities. And that's a big no-no under the emoluments clause and there are other aspects to this corruption that I think will be revealed as these investigations go forward. So it's not just the emoluments clause, it's abuse of the presidency to benefit relatives, financial interests or Trump organization interests. And really some of the worst public corruption we've seen since the Harding administration and maybe even worse than that.
NCJ: Third, you have pointed to criminal campaign finance conspiracy.
Huffman: Right, and that's not something you have to take my word for. You can look at the criminal case in the Southern District of New York, where our president is known as 'Individual 1' because, even in this Justice Department, he was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony campaign finance violation that has resulted in his personal attorney being imprisoned.
So that's not a close call at all. It's right there in the pleadings that are already on file in that case: The president of the United States directed this criminal conspiracy that extended into the Oval Office. He actually wrote checks to a porn star as part of a hush money campaign finance violation while he was the sitting president.
NCJ: Fourth, you have pointed to potential abuse of power. Specifically, one of the examples you have put out previously is the president's handling of security clearances.
Huffman: Right. Overriding national security officials in order to grant security clearances to family members is about as outrageous as anything we've ever seen from a president of the United States but it's almost become a garden-variety outrage in this presidency. ... I think directing the Department of Justice to pursue criminal charges against your political opponents is outrageous and an abuse of power. There's a long list of things that would likely be examined if this were one of the elements of an impeachment inquiry. You know, having secret conversations with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin where you told the interpreter to conceal the record from your own national security team. We could go on. There is a long list of things.
NCJ: You've read the entire Mueller report?
Huffman: The part that is un-redacted, yes.
NCJ: So how has reading that report and hearing his (Mueller's) brief statement more recently changed your calculus as to whether to begin impeachment proceedings?
Huffman: For many months, my colleagues and, frankly, a bunch of the country have been waiting to see what Robert Mueller found in this historic investigation. And the significance of this report is that now we know. We know for sure that there are all these counts of what is clearly criminal obstruction of justice and that the president of the United States may have not crossed the line into a criminal conspiracy with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election, but that he absolutely encouraged and welcomed and benefited from (Russia's interference). And the many, many acts of collusion and cooperation, while not criminal, are deeply unethical and disturbing, and I think that jumps out from the report. The things that were done are deeply unpatriotic, deeply un-American.
One of the other things that jumped out is what was not in the report. There was no follow-the-money investigation. We don't know anything about money laundering or this very dubious Deutsche Bank relationship, or the tax returns, or any of it because Mueller, for his own reasons, decided not to look into any of that.
NCJ: While some have referred to Mueller's report as a road map to an impeachment inquiry, you also see things that Mueller didn't address and you think it's incumbent on Congress to pick up that responsibility?
Huffman: Definitely. Just because the president, from the evidence that was introduced in this investigation, didn't commit a criminal conspiracy with Russia doesn't mean he may not have had financial entanglements with Russia that would make him subject to pressure or influence. The American people deserve to know that. And that's one of the big unanswered questions. What are these foreign financial entanglements? And it may be a whole lot more than Russia.
NCJ: Within the Democratic party, there's been some push back to beginning these proceedings, primarily, from what I've seen, for two reasons. One is the feeling that it would be viewed as a partisan act and Congressional Democrats could be seen as focusing all their attention on attacking Trump instead of going about the work of the American people. First, can you speak to that criticism?
Huffman: I think how you do it really matters. If this were truly to become all we talked about, all we worked on, I think the American people would rightfully have a problem with that. But if we are working on all these other fronts, if we're pursuing infrastructure, if we're trying to pass net neutrality, lowering prescription drug prices, or at least trying to do that, and trying to deliver on all the other promises but also aggressively holding this president accountable, I think that's our job and I think the American people expect that.
That doesn't mean it's going to be pleasant because, if we've learned anything from Donald Trump in the last two and a half years, it's that anyone who questions him, disagrees with him or tries to hold him accountable is subject to the ugliest and most personalized viciousness that we've ever seen. So I think that type of bullying and those tactics have frankly intimidated a lot of people, not just Republicans who have kind of fallen in line. You see all these emasculated sycophants like (South Carolina Sen.) Lindsey Graham now saying and doing whatever the president wants, but I think some Democrats, too, have become quite hesitant to challenge this president.
NCJ: The second reason that's often floated is just the prospect of an actual impeachment vote in the Senate and the political ramifications if that doesn't come for the Democratic party. Can you speak to that?
Huffman: The reasoning there is that if the Senate didn't vote to remove him from office, he would claim he was vindicated, right? That's basically what is often said. Tell me the difference between that and the House of Representatives, presented with all of this compelling evidence of impeachable offenses, that decides not to act on it? How is that not political vindication? I think Trump is going to claim vindication no matter what we do. That's my point.
And those who say we've got to wait for some green light from the United States Senate, those who are fixated on the downside of moving forward, I think are losing sight of the impact of the statement it would make and the precedent of our inaction, because inaction is itself a decision. It will be portrayed as vindication, as exoneration. And all of the same tactics by Trump are going to take place whether we punt on impeachment or go forward on impeachment. So, I think that argues for doing the right thing.
NCJ: You had a very interesting quote in a Politico article recently on this very subject. You said, "The Hamlet act is, I think, wearing thin and it's becoming untenable and intellectually strange." Can you explain to our readers what you meant by that?
Huffman: What I meant by that is on the one hand saying, 'This president is engaged in criminal conduct, he's self-impeaching, he deserves to be impeached, he's done all of these things and he should be held accountable,' and on the other hand saying, 'We're not going to do what the Constitution calls for in this situation, which is impeachment.' There's a disconnect.
I think if this goes forward for a little while, while we're aggressively pursuing investigations that could put us into impeachment, that's one thing. That might be sustainable for a little while. But if that's our final answer, that we're going to offer all this tough talk and claim that this guy's committed impeachable offenses, but not do anything about it, that's totally untenable and really ceding new power to the executive branch, and we will regret it with this president and with future presidents.
NCJ: As one of roughly 50 or so congressional Democrats who has thus far voiced support for beginning these proceedings ....
Huffman: There's more than that, by the way. The latest whip count, I think, is at 57. I read it this morning and I know of a number of colleagues that are not on that public whip count. What I'm saying is the support for beginning an impeachment inquiry is much broader than even these whip counts you see in some of the Capital Hill publications. But go ahead. I didn't mean to interrupt.
NCJ: So as somebody who wants to see that number grow, who wants to see this step taken, how do you move that needle and how do you see it moving? Is it a natural progression? Is it incumbent upon folks like yourself to be more outspoken? Do you think ultimately an external event is necessary to push this over the edge?
Huffman: Well, it's pretty hard for me to be more outspoken. I've done everything but light my hair on fire and I'm reserving the right to do that.
I think it really will be the eventual unsustainability of this position, talking tough on the one hand but saying we can't really follow through with action on the other. That's completely untenable and over time something is going to give. You asked about a forcing event or a triggering event, I don't know if it will be any one thing. I mean, certainly if we got the tax returns and they reveal all sorts of foreign money entanglements or laundering of money, or other things, that could do it. But more likely, in my opinion, is that we will see all of these legal challenges just bog down because of appeals, because of obstructive conduct from the White House, and the inadequacy of pursuing all of these things through the court is going to become more clear to more of my colleagues, and I think that will increase the momentum to just bring this together as part of an official impeachment inquiry and get that ball rolling.
NCJ: What haven't we hit on that you want to make sure your constituents understand?
Huffman: The only other thing is that sometimes people suggest that you have to either be with (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi or against her, and that narrative is kind of a favorite with some of the national publications — they like to develop the internal division narrative. I don't think it works that way.
One thing about our Democratic Caucus is that we actually do have different voices and different views and we're not afraid to have those discussions and debates. In a way, that makes us a healthier caucus. This is not a Trump cabinet meeting where all of these emasculated subordinates one by one publicly profess their fealty and how beautiful the emperor's new clothes are. Nancy Pelosi is, frankly, a better leader than that and that's why she has allowed us to have our voices and I think she's doing a good job of bringing our caucus along, even though some of us are chomping at the bit to start an impeachment inquiry. She's a good enough leader that she hasn't told anybody to sit down and shut up, and there's still an awful lot of unity on the whole in the Democratic Caucus.
NCJ: Have you had the chance to speak directly with the speaker on the subject?
Huffman: Yes. Absolutely. She knows where I stand and I hear her, and she continues to push accountability for this president. That's the most important thing in the immediate term. This accountability machine needs to keep rolling and it is. There may come a point where, if a decision is actually made not to take action, that would be deeply troubling to me. But I don't think we're there yet and she has been very respectful of my voice and the different voices in our caucus, so let's see where this thing goes in the weeks ahead.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.