The emerging strategy of a rapid investigation focused mainly on the accusation that Trump urged Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt about a political rival comes as lawmakers prepare to leave Washington for a two-week recess. A whistleblower complaint said unidentified White House officials tried to keep the conversation a secret within the government.
“The consensus in our caucus is that our focus now is on this allegation,” Pelosi told reporters earlier in the day, adding: “This is a coverup.”
Pelosi and other leaders huddled in a basement conference room Thursday evening with more than a dozen “front-liner” members representing the toughest districts for incumbent Democrats to discuss the fledgling probe and, in the words of multiple attendees, “get on the same page.”
Inside the room, the group urged the leadership to keep the messaging around impeachment on national security and the Ukraine probe being led by the House Intelligence Committee and Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) — not on the litany of potential Trump offenses being investigated by other panels, including the House Judiciary Committee, which traditionally takes the lead in impeachment proceedings.
“I’m very supportive of Adam Schiff and what he and his committee can do in a measured way,” said Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), one of the freshmen who endorsed an impeachment inquiry.
Some senior Democrats are even arguing that other committees should forgo potentially explosive hearings that could distract from the intelligence panel’s work, complicating other investigative committees’ plans.
“Very few hearings, if any,” said a senior Democratic aide, who said the coming investigative work will largely take place in closed-door interviews. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.
One exception may be Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who handled the whistleblower complaint sparking the Ukraine inquiry. Schiff said Thursday he had asked Atkinson, who spoke to the committee behind closed doors, to return for a “subsequent hearing,” though he did not specify whether it would be public.
The timeline of the probe is a subject of internal tension. Privately, Pelosi told Democrats upon announcing her support for an impeachment inquiry Tuesday that the probe would move “expeditiously” to capitalize on public outrage over the revelation that Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate potential 2020 Democratic rival and former vice president Joe Biden.
But many of the moderate freshmen do not want to be seen as rushing to conclusions — whether on the Ukraine probe or any other aspect of potential presidential wrongdoing. Publicly, Pelosi told reporters Thursday that “the facts will determine the timeline.”
A senior Democratic aide familiar with discussions among the party’s moderate wing relayed concerns that a probe seen as moving too rapidly by the public could backfire.
“The stakes are extraordinarily high politically, and if we do this wrong and we get ahead of the majority of Americans, this could actually lead to a much worse fate, which is Trump getting reelected, Democrats lose in the House and lose in the Senate,” the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about private concerns. “This process is going to take time. Nobody knows how long it will take to shift public opinion.”
One of the first credible polls to test the Democratic impeachment push following Pelosi’s Tuesday announcement found the public almost evenly split. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist Poll conducted Wednesday found Americans approving 49 percent to 46 percent of the House inquiry, with independents disapproving 50 percent to 44 percent.
While a few Senate Republicans expressed concerns about the revelation, the majority of Republicans stood firmly with Trump.
“We’re talking about impeaching a sitting president that they have no crime for,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in dismissing the Democratic inquiry.
Under an informal timeline discussed by multiple Democrats on Wednesday, the Intelligence Committee would spend the coming weeks investigating the Ukrainian allegations. Meanwhile, the other five committees investigating Trump-related matters would work to close out their own investigative portfolios. After that, the findings would be passed to the Judiciary Committee, with Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) taking the lead in drafting potential articles of impeachment.
Following the two-week recess, the House is scheduled to be in session for the last three weeks of October, then after another one-week recess, another two weeks in session before Thanksgiving. Some Democratic lawmakers and aides said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, that they believed impeachment articles could be ready for a House vote around Thanksgiving.
The prospect of a quick impeachment means that a host of House probes could be left without a resolution. The House Financial Services Committee has been trying to secure Trump’s financial information amid Democratic allegations that he laundered money as a business executive. The House Oversight and Reform Committee is in a legal battle trying to get additional documents that former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen said demonstrate that the president undervalued his wealth to dodge taxes and win lower loan interest rates.
The judiciary panel has also sought to pursue other allegations — including a probe of Trump’s alleged involvement in hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 presidential campaign — planning hearings on those allegations for October. The committee also is investigating allegations that Trump illegally enriched himself in office and committed obstruction of justice to short-circuit the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Those investigations could continue, Democrats said, but they could be left out of impeachment articles if the Intelligence Committee probe into Trump’s Ukraine dealings quickly bears fruit.
Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.) said that matter has a “totally different feel” and has generated consensus across the Democratic caucus. “We have to act with unity,” he said. “In terms of how we proceed on the ultimate question of impeachment, this is not only the strongest case, but it is the one Democrats are united around.”
Democrats expressed concern Thursday that public interest in impeachment could diminish during the two-week recess — and perhaps undermine party unity. The meeting Thursday evening was prompted largely by concerns about heading into the recess without a road map for what’s ahead, several Democrats said.
“There’s a growing chorus seeking better articulation of strategy, process and timelines,” said one Democratic lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly describe the concerns of fellow freshmen.
Pelosi’s office on Thursday circulated talking points to those members highlighting Trump’s “grave new level of lawlessness” and the fact that the Intelligence Committee “will take the lead” investigating it.
Meanwhile, a host of liberal activist groups and some lawmakers called on Pelosi to cancel the recess and keep lawmakers in Washington to keep the focus on impeachment. But House leaders have brushed off the calls, arguing that the relevant committees will continue their work while members are back in their districts visiting with constituents — and communicating the need for a vigorous investigation.
A Democratic aide who is knowledgeable about the internal discussions but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on them publicly said that the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were a “major factor” in keeping that recess intact as well as leaders’ pledge to avoid disruptions to the schedule.
“I think it is very important that members go home to their constituents and explain what they are thinking,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday. “This is a matter of grave importance, and the American people need to understand what is occurring.”
Jacqueline Alemany and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.