A recent threat by Attorney General William P. Barr not to show up for a scheduled hearing Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee has only exacerbated the situation after the White House last week vowed to block some officials from appearing for subpoenaed depositions or interviews.
Earlier this month, several lawmakers from the most liberal wing of the caucus had called for impeachment after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. But Pelosi, fearing 2020 election fallout from such a politically divisive step, had asked Democratic investigators to hold off and simply continue their inquiries.
But Trump’s no-cooperation stance is blocking that mission, as his team has publicly directed administration officials to ignore House Democrats, prompting several of the more establishment Democrats to favor pursuing impeachment in a notable shift on Capitol Hill. Pelosi makes the final decision.
“The Mueller report and this assault on the legislative branch made Nancy’s call to avoid impeachment much more difficult for rank-and-file members,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the Oversight Committee. “We’ve moved from [Trump’s] culpability laid out in the Mueller report to an assault on the institution and constitutional framework that is the legislative branch.”
During a House leadership meeting Monday night, Pelosi (Calif.) argued Trump was “making the case” for obstruction with his own actions but also urged Democrats to be prudent in focusing on the agenda.
“We have to deliver” on the agenda, she said at several points in the meeting, according to participants who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the session.
Trump’s public declaration last week that he would ignore “all the subpoenas” — coming after Mueller’s findings of 10 potential cases of obstruction by Trump — has led many Democrats associated with some of those investigations to argue that they need to pursue impeachment, even as they await Pelosi’s go-ahead. These Democrats contend that Trump’s move to stonewall the House constitutes additional obstruction and abuse of power.
“Trump’s conduct is such that it will force people to consider impeachment, no matter how politically difficult,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee who has supported impeachment and deferred to Pelosi in the past but plans to talk to the speaker. “His conduct is so opprobrious that its hard for people to eventually not see that he’s trampled on the Constitution. . . . So that’s going to eventually lead people to consider [impeachment], I think.”
Yet at the same time, Pelosi’s standard for whether to move ahead on impeachment remains unmet: No Republican lawmaker has joined Democrats in calling for removing the president, and public sentiment — something Pelosi frequently cites as the safeguard for any policies or political moves — has not shifted in Democratic investigators’ favor.
A majority of Americans say they oppose initiating impeachment against Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday. Thirty-seven percent of Americans favor starting the process that could lead to impeachment, a slight dip over the past month, while 56 percent say they oppose the idea, about the same as a month ago.
On Monday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) focused on working with Trump, not ousting him. The two Democratic leaders and other lawmakers were scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday to discuss a bipartisan infrastructure plan.
It has created something of a dual reality in the House Democratic Caucus, with Pelosi signing a letter to Trump saying, “We look forward to seeing you on Tuesday. Best wishes,” and investigators increasingly outraged.
In July 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee passed three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon, one of the charges leveled against him was “contempt of Congress,” while the third article said Nixon had “failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas” and “willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.”
The full House never voted on the articles of impeachment, and Nixon resigned in August.
Now, Trump is flaunting his intentions to rebuff congressional requests. His advisers have told former White House counsel Donald McGahn he cannot testify or cooperate with lawmakers’ probe of obstruction, even though they waived executive privilege to allow him to testify in the Mueller investigation. And they’ve reached out to other former aides to encourage them to ignore the House’s inquiries.
Trump is also blocking the Ways and Means Committee from obtaining his tax returns, and his lawyers are suing the Oversight Committee for requesting records from his accounting firm.
Barr’s appearance Thursday could reduce the frustration. The attorney general threatened Friday to boycott the hearing over the Democrats’ plan to have a counsel question him along with lawmakers.
Pelosi has walked her caucus back from the brink on impeachment before. Several weeks ago, when many liberals began pressing for impeachment, she declared that Trump was “not worth it” in an interview with The Washington Post. Lawmakers fell into line, demonstrating the strength of her pull with the caucus.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an interview Monday night that it was still too early to talk about impeachment and that the House needed to go through a process — not jump ahead several steps.
“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” Bass said. “I think it is critically important that we go through the entire process, in terms of hearings, having people come, and if they don’t come, subpoenaing them, and if they don’t do that, then taking them to court, and that we educate the public all the way. If we were to jump from the Mueller report into impeachment, I think it would be very confusing.”
Another member of Pelosi’s leadership team noted that there were several deadlines looming and that lawmakers needed to wait to see what happens. Barr, for example, is supposed to turn over the full Mueller report by Wednesday to honor a House subpoena. He is not expected to do so, and Democrats are prepared to take him to court.
In addition, McGahn is supposed to hand over documents in the coming days. Should he refuse at the behest of the White House, that would be another example Democrats could cite in an impeachment push.
Lawmakers agree that only the chairmen are likely to be able to convince Pelosi to start impeachment proceedings. So far, only one of the six investigating Trump has pushed the envelope. In the wake of the Mueller report, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, started tweeting that Congress had a duty to impeach Trump now lest it be derelict in its duty. She even tweeted at a fellow chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), head of the Judiciary Committee, to start the process.
When asked if a nonappearance by Barr or the Justice Department missing a Wednesday subpoena deadline would help make a case for impeachment, Nadler tiptoed up to that possibility.
“It certainly builds a case that the administration and the president is engaged in wholesale obstruction of Congress. . . . Trying to make the presidency not responsive to Congress, trying to make the presidency into a monarchy, it’s absolutely unacceptable and we’ll take whatever action we have to do to deal with it,” Nadler said.
But impeachment? “That remains to be seen,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized remarks Pelosi made in a private meeting Monday. She said Trump is “making the case” for impeachable offenses, not that Democrats needed to focus on “building a case” for impeachment. The story has been corrected.