An increasing number of House Democrats are frustrated by their stalled investigations into President Trump, with an uncooperative chief executive, their own leader’s reluctance about impeachment and courts that could be slow to resolve the standoff.
Democrats have yet to hear from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who led the nearly two-year investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election and possible involvement with the Trump campaign. Even with negotiations, the earliest Mueller could testify would be next month.
And any hopes of former White house counsel Donald McGahn facing a congressional panel on Tuesday are slim, as the White House moves to block all current and former aides from cooperating with congressional inquiries.
Weighing all options, Democrats have raised the specter of imposing fines or jailing people who ignore subpoenas, extreme measures that have prompted some legal experts to wonder whether Democrats have a strategy for this constitutional conflict.
A group of House Judiciary Committee Democrats privately have discussed ways to increase pressure on leadership to being impeachment proceedings despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s wariness, according to several Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the plan.
“There's no doubt in my mind that we are all going to come to a point [where more has to be done] — including the speaker,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio), a senior Democrat. “We respect her leadership and we respect her strategic sense about how these things work, her political sense. But I think we're all getting to a point where we know something more has to be done.”
The anxious search for next steps comes as Pelosi (D-Calif.) has settled on a long-game approach and most Democrats have fallen in line. She has argued that without Republican and public support for impeachment, the move is largely futile and Democrats should focus on their policy agenda ahead of the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Friday rejected a subpoena from House Democrats demanding copies of Trump’s tax returns and the administration again ignored a compulsory measure from the House Intelligence Committee to hand over a still-redacted part of the Mueller report. In total, the White House has moved to block dozens of inquiries, document requests and subpoenas in at least 20 House investigations.
Some Democrats say they’ve had enough. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and Pelosi’s leadership team, said the White House “is treating us like the Mexican government or the prime minister of Luxembourg” rather than an equal branch of government.
Raskin has been encouraging colleagues to try to make the distinction between voting to impeach Trump and voting to begin an impeachment inquiry — the latter of which, investigators argue, could help them secure documents they have struggled to get.
Raskin said Friday that a debate about opening impeachment proceedings would occur “over the next several weeks.” Asked if he wanted proceedings to begin now, Raskin demurred but said lawmakers have a duty before them: “We are in the process of reasserting our preeminence as a constitutional actor, and the members recognize that we have a weighty, historical and constitutional responsibility to fulfill.”
To be sure, any pro-impeachment faction faces resistance not just from Pelosi but also from dozens of rank-and-file Democrats who are skeptical that such a step makes sense with an election in less than 18 months. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said she was “satisfied” with the pace of the investigative committees.
“Right now, I'm much more worried about what's happening to women's rights in this country,” she said. “I mean, listen: Should this guy be president? No. Is there enough there to impeach him? Probably. But I think it's going to have to be done in an election . . . Impeachment is a very extreme remedy, as much as I cannot stand this guy.”
Some lawmakers are mindful that the closer the country gets to the 2020 election, the less justifiable impeachment becomes.
“As we get into the real campaign, as Democrats land on a candidate . . . all the focus is going to be there rather than on impeachment,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). He added, though, that there was a flip side to waiting to counter Trump's stonewalling — calling it an “obvious attempt to run out the clock.”
“And if he were to somehow run out the clock and win, then you go back to the old argument: ‘Look, the voters decided on this,’ ” he said.
Many senior Democrats are hopeful the courts will come to their rescue. A federal judge earlier this week expressed skepticism about Trump’s effort to block his accounting firm from turning over years of financial records to a House panel. The judge promised a quick decision.
But even if the judge acts swiftly in Democrats’ favor, it stands as a legal victory for just one subpoena out of dozens that have been ignored by Trump and his administration.
Should Democrats try to litigate all of those in court, they could face months, if not years, in limbo as their probes languish, experts say. House Republicans in 2012 held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for failing to turn over documents pertaining to a gunrunning investigation. The GOP House sued him in civil court to try to get a judge to force compliance, but it took seven years for both parties to settle the case.
It’s one reason some House Democrats have started talking about inherent contempt, a rare step in which the House instructs the sergeant at arms to take an individual into custody for congressional proceedings.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said that a dragged-out court fight is exactly why it’s vital that House Democrats “short-circuit that time frame.” Democrats on the investigative panels, he said, are not only talking about $20,000-plus fines but also moves to try to disbar lawyers who don’t cooperate with their probes, like McGahn.
“I would say the sentiment for something like this has been growing ” he said. “Our base is furious with the defiance of the Trump administration and absolutely expects us to respond forcefully.”
On Thursday, however, Pelosi notably sidestepped a chance to endorse those ideas.
“Let’s not leapfrog over what we think should be the path,” Pelosi told reporters, suggesting talk about using inherent contempt was a bit premature. “This is one of the possibilities that is out there — I’m not saying we’re going down that path. . . . I don’t have to have a position.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) earlier in the week also rebuffed questions about the House's use of inherent contempt to levy fines or incarcerate people outside of a court’s jurisdiction.
“I don't think we're going to jail people and put them in the basement,” he said. “I don't want to deny that we have inherent contempt authority, but we are somewhat limited in our ability to carry that out.”
Even if the House slaps fines on Trump officials, the officials could ignore them. And the only way to enforce those fines would be to take them to court — another legal fight that could languish.
To address ignored subpoenas, Democratic leaders have backed the idea of eventually scheduling one major contempt vote that bundles several citations together — then taking them to court. That means investigators could be waiting for weeks to begin the litigation process.
In the meantime, several rank-and-file lawmakers are impatient.
“If we’re going to say that this administration has been unprecedented in its lawlessness and its obstruction, then we need to exercise our power that follows through on that,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Everything is there telling us what to do.”