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Pelosi escalates attacks on Trump, compares him to Nixon, as Barr’s defiance angers Democrats

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said May 2 that Attorney General William P. Barr “lied to Congress” during his Senate Judiciary Committee testimony. (Video: Reuters)

Attorney General William P. Barr’s confrontational dealings with congressional Democrats prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday to escalate her attacks on President Trump, to the point of comparing his behavior to that of President Richard M. Nixon.

Pelosi’s heightened rhetoric was on display at a morning news conference, at which she accused Barr of committing a crime by lying to Congress. But hours before, in a closed-door meeting of lawmakers, the California Democrat was even more explicit, calling Barr an “enabler” and saying Trump had engaged in the type of behavior that prompted the move to impeach Nixon in 1974.

“Ignoring subpoenas of Congress, not honoring subpoenas of Congress — that was Article 3 of the Nixon impeachment,” she said, according to notes taken by a person present for the remarks. “This person has not only ignored subpoenas, he has said he’s not going to honor any subpoenas. What more do we want?”

Nixon resigned in August 1974 before the full House voted on the three articles of impeachment that had passed in the Judiciary Committee.

Still — both publicly and privately — Pelosi stopped short of supporting impeachment for Trump, maintaining a position she has kept for months as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finished his work, as the Justice Department prepared his report for public release and as the aftermath of that release has played out. 

She has been wary of starting a polarizing and distracting proceeding as long as Republicans remain squarely behind Trump. 

“We are in a very, very, very challenging place, because we have a Republican Party that is complicit in the special-interest agenda . . . so they are not going to say anything,” she said at the news conference. “Impeachment is the easy way out for some of these people because they know it will end at the Senate’s edge.”

House Democrats threatened to hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress on May 2 for refusing to appear at a Judiciary Committee hearing. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

At the private meeting, she delivered sharper remarks: “I think I’m an expert on why he shouldn’t be president of the United States. I think impeachment is too good for him. But one person knows more why he shouldn’t be president of the United States, and that is Donald Trump. And he tells us every single day.”

Individuals who took notes in the meeting and relayed Pelosi’s comments did so on the condition of anonymity to freely describe what she said.

The comments were a turnabout less than 48 hours after Pelosi visited the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss a potential infrastructure agreement. Both leaders left the White House beaming about the possibility of a $2 trillion deal and happily noted that Trump had not brought up the Democratic investigations into his campaign, administration, business and family.

Trump, top Democrats agree on goal of crafting $2 trillion infrastructure plan

But Barr’s defiant testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and his decision not to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday appear to have made a damning impression on Pelosi. 

“I really lost sleep last night,” she told reporters, describing viewing Barr’s Senate testimony “over and over again.” “How sad it is for us to see the top law enforcement officer in our country misrepresenting, withholding the truth from the Congress of the United States.”

The accusations against Barr are rooted in his appearance at an April 9 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing at which Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) asked Barr about media reports that members of Mueller’s team were frustrated about Barr’s summary of their findings. 

“Do you know what they’re referencing with that?” Crist asked

“No, I don’t,” Barr said, two weeks after receiving a letter and phone call from Mueller outlining his concerns. Barr added: “I suspect that they probably wanted more put out, but in my view, I was not interested in putting out summaries or trying to summarize.”

On Wednesday, Barr dismissed Mueller’s letter as a “bit snitty” and said he believed it had probably been written by a staff member.

At the private morning meeting, Pelosi praised Crist for questioning Barr and said, “He committed a crime right before our very eyes.” She later said much the same to reporters while remaining cagey about what the consequences should be: “There is a process here. The committee will act on how we proceed.”

‘I’m not for impeachment’ without bipartisan support, Pelosi says, roiling fellow Democrats

Pelosi’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the administration has been noticed by her members. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said that “with each passing day we learn more and more about this administration that is deeply troubling” — and so it is natural for Pelosi to become more upset with Trump, he said.

“I know that Pelosi is someone who respects the institutions of our government and is horrified by what she’s seeing unfold,” said McGovern, a close Pelosi ally. 

Added Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.): “I think everybody, including the speaker, is having to adjust to the tenor of the moment, and it keeps getting worse. I think she’s just moving with the events. Barr has taken it to a whole new level, and if it keeps going like this, it’s going to be to the detriment of the president.”

Cleaver, who opposes impeachment and jokes that “I’m probably going to be the last holdout” against starting proceedings, said that “even I’m getting more and more convinced that if we don’t do something — or something does not happen — it’s driving the institutions that we have depended on for years down.”

There is little doubt that Pelosi’s invocation of the Nixon impeachment has now brought her in closer alignment with some of the most liberal members of her caucus, who have spent the past few weeks talking about the Trump administration’s stonewalling campaign as grounds for impeachment.

“There is incredible unity of purpose in not allowing the executive branch to pull a curtain over itself and pull the wool over the American people’s eyes — we’re not going to allow that to happen,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a Judiciary Committee member. “The Trump administration is engaged in far more sweeping and systematic defiance of Congress than even the Nixon administration did.”

But, he said, Democrats have to be careful about impeachment: “If we get there we will get there on our own time, in our own way. We’re not going to be baited into it. If they want to impeach the president so badly they should introduce the articles today, and I bet you a lot of Democrats are ready to join them.”

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