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Some in Pelosi’s leadership team rebel on impeachment, press her to begin an inquiry

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke about presidential impeachment on May 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

Several members of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team pressed her to begin an impeachment inquiry against President Trump in a series of Monday night meetings,  according to multiple officials in the rooms — an effort the speaker rebuffed each time.

At least five members of Pelosi’s leadership team — four of whom also sit on the House Judiciary Committee, with jurisdiction over impeachment — pressed Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a closed-door leadership meeting to allow the panel to start an inquiry, which they argued would help investigators attain documents and testimony that Trump has blocked.

Several hours later, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler met with Pelosi as well and made the case to start the inquiry, he later told his panel member on a call.

Pelosi declined to endorse the idea both times,  according to the officials either in or familiar with what happened in both meetings. She and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) argued that such an inquiry would undercut other House investigations — or that the idea was not supported by other members in the caucus.

After the White House blocked numerous congressional subpoena requests, lawmakers have begun calling for impeachment proceedings against President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

Pelosi has long been an impeachment skeptic and tried to tamp down impeachment talk in her ranks as recently as last week by encouraging members to focus on their legislative agenda. But members of the House Judiciary panel appear to have had enough after the White House on Monday again blocked a key witness in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report from cooperating with their investigations.

“It’s a fact-finding process,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) of the push to start an impeachment inquiry. Cicilline was one of the lawmakers who make the case to Pelosi in the meeting. “There’s no doubt that opening an inquiry strengthens the hand of Congress in forcing compliance with subpoenas, whether it’s for documents or individuals.”

The meeting marks the first time a chairman and top rank-and-file lawmakers — including members of Pelosi’s leadership team — have lobbied her to change her long-held position on impeachment. Judiciary Committee members for days have discussed how to move the speaker toward their thinking, but few have been willing to break with her publicly.

However, a core group of Judiciary Democrats plans to begin calling Tuesday for an impeachment inquiry if former White House counsel Donald McGahn does not show for subpoenaed testimony at 10 a.m., according to multiple sources familiar with the plan. The White House on Monday moved to block McGahn from showing up, arguing that he is exempt from testimony. 

“We should be having the conversation about . . . how this will help us break through the stonewalling of the administration,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a Judiciary Committee member, referring to an inquiry.

Deutch was not in the meeting but agreed with those who made the case to Pelosi on Monday night: “If the answer is, ‘No, you can’t talk to anyone, you can’t have anything, we’re simply not going to cooperate,’ then at that point the only avenue that we have left is the constitutional means to enforce the separation of powers, which is a serious discussion of impeachment.”

Late Monday night, after huddling with Pelosi on the matter, Nadler appeared to side with the speaker — though he did not rule out impeachment. He would not speak about his meeting with Pelosi.

Nadler acknowledged, however, that opening an impeachment inquiry “might” empower his investigations, but he pointed to a federal judge’s ruling Monday to uphold a Democratic subpoena as proof that the courts could help the party. Pelosi had made the same point privately during the meetings.

“We have an active inquiry going, and we have to enforce the right to our testimony through the courts, which is the only way you can do it,” Nadler said. “And right now we’re having very good success with it.”

During the Monday night leadership meeting, Pelosi spoke about how Democrats’ messaging isn’t breaking through because everyone is talking about corruption, Mueller’s report and impeachment. She bemoaned the fact that last week the investigations were making page one news while the House’s passage of the Equality Act — a bill aimed at ensuring that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are not discriminated against — was on “Page 26.”

That’s when Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee, jumped in to tell Pelosi that it amounted to a good case for launching an impeachment inquiry, according to people in the room who recounted the exchange. Raskin argued that such an inquiry would allow leadership to streamline and centralize all of the investigations into one — and let everyone else focus on the Democratic agenda items that won them the majority in 2018. 

Pelosi and Hoyer retorted that the panel shouldn’t cut off other committee investigations, which they said are bearing fruit. Judiciary, after all, is not the only panel investigating Trump. Five others are as well, and an impeachment inquiry might undercut those probes, some think.

“You want to tell Elijah Cummings to go home?” Pelosi said, referring to the House Oversight and Reform Committee chairman.

Later, in a third leadership meeting where members again confronted Pelosi, she argued that the courts are coming to help Democrats.

“Today, we won our first case,” she said, referring to a federal judge’s move to uphold the Oversight Committee subpoena despite Trump’s objections. “We’ve been in this thing for almost five months, and now we’re getting some results . . . We still have unexhausted avenues here.”

Judge rules against Trump in fight over president’s financial records

During the leadership meeting, three other Judiciary Committee members — Cicilline, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and freshman Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) — backed Raskin. Neguse argued that the panel's role in investigating Trump is being severely impeded by all the stonewalling. 

The White House is blocking more than 20 Democratic investigations into Trump, his finances or his policies.

Lieu pointed out that Democrats don’t have to impeach Trump just because they begin an inquiry. He also argued that Democrats could start an impeachment inquiry right away and be done with it before 2020, allowing lawmakers to focus on their agenda when they run for reelection.

At one point Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), a fierce Pelosi defender and ally, grew angry and scolded the lawmakers that an impeachment inquiry would further distract from legislating. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (Ill.) — who has argued before that legislators should move on from impeachment talk — pushed back as well, noting that when the DCCC asked voters in focus groups what topics they cared about, Mueller’s inquiry ranked near the bottom.

It wasn’t just Judiciary Committee members making the push, however. When the top leaders said that voters don’t care about this issue, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) defended the group of Judiciary members. While she agreed that her constituents are more interested in matters like prescription drug prices, she argued that they elected representatives to come to Washington and take care of big problems. She said voters put trust in leaders that they will tell hard truths — including hard truths about Trump. 

Pelosi’s office declined to comment. 

Judiciary Committee members argue that there is a distinction between an impeachment inquiry and impeachment proceedings that require a vote. Lieu, in an interview, declined to comment on the meeting but said that an inquiry “could lead to nothing” — or it could lead to impeachment. 

“That inquiry is also what happened during Watergate,” he said. “It’s not like the House Judiciary Committee just dropped articles of impeachment. There was an investigation that preceded it. This inquiry could lead to impeachment, or it could lead to nothing. But I think if McGahn doesn’t show, we have to at least start it.”

It might not matter what Judiciary members want, however. Leadership, namely Pelosi, makes the decisions on high-profile issues like impeachment. Lawmakers have long thought that if anyone could change Pelosi’s mind, it would be her chairmen. However, Nadler’s effort to lobby her on the matter Monday didn’t appear to work —at least not at this time.