The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats fall in line with Pelosi’s no-impeachment strategy despite Trump’s defiance

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attends a Democratic news conference on health care at the Capitol on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump, who is refusing to cooperate with more than 20 congressional investigations, instructed current and former aides Wednesday to ignore a House committee’s request for documents in the latest act of defiance that has prompted Democrats to declare that the nation is facing a constitutional crisis.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats in a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning to stick to their policy agenda ahead of the 2020 election rather than initiate impeachment proceedings. And not a single lawmaker challenged her, according to a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

The events underscored that Pelosi has managed to hold the line on her no-impeachment stance despite Trump’s ongoing resistance and relentless liberal pressure for Democrats to try to oust the Republican president. Most notably, she has quelled an internal clamor and kept even the most vocal impeachment proponents and eager investigators in check as Democrats increasingly look to the courts to settle the fight between Congress and the chief executive.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called impeachment "one of the most divisive paths that we can go down," and that Congress will see where the investigation goes. (Video: AP)

In the nearly hour-long session heavily focused on health care, Pelosi was the only one to bring up impeachment, acknowledging that some Democrats are complaining.

“Why aren’t we impeaching the president?” she said, parroting their words. “Why aren’t we impeaching him? They get a little down,” she said of frustrated members of her party.

“The point is that we need to show [voters] that we are doing all of these other things that they care about so much,” Pelosi said. Not a single lawmaker in the room protested.

In the latest example of the president’s resistance, the White House told House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) that it was refusing a broad demand for records and testimony sent to 81 Trump allies and affiliated companies. 

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes the standoff between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration and whether it could lead to impeachment. (Video: REF:riegerj/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In his letter, White House counsel Pat Cipollone repeated a claim the White House and Trump’s business have begun making — that Congress is not a law enforcement body and does not have a legitimate purpose to investigate the questions it is pursuing.

No ‘do-over’ on Mueller probe, White House lawyer tells House panel, saying demands for records, staff testimony will be refused

Before the White House letter, Nadler seemed to walk a fine line on impeachment during a CNBC interview, saying Trump is making it “increasingly difficult” to avoid it but also arguing that the House is probably not headed in that direction.

“It depends on what comes out,” Nadler said. “It depends where the American people are, whether they want to go that way or not. I don’t want to make it sound as if we’re heading for impeachment. Probably we’re not.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”: “We are already a bitterly divided country, and an impeachment process will divide us further.” 

Democrats have issued numerous subpoenas in their investigations as they seek documents and witnesses related to Trump’s businesses, his tax returns and details on administration policies. The president and senior officials have refused to comply.

Lawmakers are also seeking the unredacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the underlying evidence to determine whether they should impeach Trump. But the Justice Department has refused to relinquish much of that information, despite a congressional subpoena.

For Democrats, their hopes rest with the courts. Nadler told reporters Wednesday that he would issue subpoenas for any information he needs that the White House is blocking — then take the matter to court after a series of contempt votes if they refuse.

But House Democratic leaders have yet to schedule a vote for the first package of contempt resolutions, including one for Attorney General William P. Barr. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that a full House vote on Barr’s contempt citation, approved by the Judiciary Committee last week, and any others wouldn’t occur until next month at the earliest.

That would set up a future lawsuit — perhaps weeks or months later — to enforce the contempt citations in the federal courts.

“This case may take some time, but ultimately I think the courts will . . . rule on behalf of the Congress of the United States and its legitimate constitutional capacity to oversee the executive branch,” Hoyer said. 

Trump asserts executive privilege over Mueller report; House panel holds Barr in contempt

On Tuesday, a federal judge gave Pelosi allies hope that the courts would come to their rescue, expressing skepticism about a Trump move to quash a congressional subpoena and promising to fast-track the case to deliver a quick verdict.

“I would like to thank the president for helping our court case immensely,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and member of Pelosi’s leadership team. Asked whether it was time to impeach Trump, Lieu responded: “Not there yet. I think we would try a court case first.”

Ironically, Democratic investigators could benefit from starting impeachment proceedings, legal experts argue, because they would have a greater chance of getting some of the documents.

Democrats’ falling in line despite their anger toward the president is yet another reminder of Pelosi’s hold on her caucus, power Trump often tells associates he admires. Lawmakers say they ­either trust her political instincts or are privately afraid of incurring her wrath. 

Even the most impassioned impeachment backers such as Reps. Al Green (D-Tex.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have declined to organize against or lobby Pelosi to reconsider. Not one has taken her on by name to increase public pressure for impeachment. 

“For the speaker, as a leader of the caucus, she has to consider a lot more than I do, and we would expect her to do that — that’s why she is the leader and the speaker,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a former police officer who wants to start impeachment proceedings but had only good things to say about Pelosi’s strategy. “And I think she will get to the place, in a very strategic way, that we need her to get to. I trust her judgment.”

It’s a turnabout for Pelosi. She put down an uprising after the 2018 election as a group of rebels tried to deny her a second stint as speaker. But since then, particularly after Pelosi steered her party through a 35-day government shutdown fight with Trump, rank-and-file members have deferred to her on issues such as impeachment. 

Only billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer has dared to challenge Pelosi directly on impeachment, but even then he has done so carefully. This week, Steyer name-checked Pelosi on social media and wrote a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed arguing that Democratic leadership was making a mistake by refusing to impeach Trump. 

“Speaker Pelosi and conventional wisdom are wrong,” Steyer wrote on Facebook on Monday. “Impeachment — in addition to being the right thing to do — is also good politics for Democrats.”

Still, even Steyer has refrained from hosting an impeachment town hall in the San Francisco area. His group “Need to Impeach” has hosted town halls in the districts of Democratic chairmen.

Still, not every Democrat is content with Pelosi’s strategy.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said that “at some point, as every committee gets stonewalled . . . the case for impeachment as a mechanism to get what we need . . . gets stronger and stronger.”

Asked whether he thinks Pelosi will support impeachment eventually, Grijalva replied: “I think a lot of people are going to have to reconcile themselves to that.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal, said Pelosi has been clear that she needs to see public support for such an effort before she moves ahead, especially with Republicans controlling the Senate and insisting Democrats should stop investigating the president. 

“I think she’s left the door open, but she’s not going to lead an effort which doesn't have the significant majority of the Congress behind it,” Khanna said. 

Khanna scoffed at the prospect of anyone trying to push Pelosi into it: “People have been betting against Nancy Pelosi on losing the trust of the caucus for 20 years, and they always tend to be wrong.

Democrats, in the meantime, plan to take turns Thursday reading the redacted, 448-page Mueller report.

Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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