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Calls for impeachment intensify in House, dividing Democrats

Former White House counsel Donald McGahn defied a subpoena to testify on May 21, 2019. (Video: The Washington Post)

A growing number of House Democrats are publicly calling for a formal inquiry into President Trump’s impeachment amid continued stonewalling from his administration, applying new pressure to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders who have been determined to stick to a methodical course of investigation and litigation.

While a handful of lawmakers have agitated for impeachment for months, Tuesday’s no-show of former White House counsel Donald McGahn at a House hearing and the uncertain prospects for public testimony from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III have prompted a larger number of Democrats to speak out. On Monday and Tuesday, 25 House Democrats publicly called for an impeachment inquiry.

Leading the charge are members of the House Judiciary Committee who have been increasingly frustrated with the Trump administration’s blanket refusal to cooperate with congressional requests for documents and testimony. Some confronted Pelosi at a private meeting of the House leadership Monday, seeking to convince her that an impeachment probe would be the most effective way to hold Trump to account, even if he is never formally impeached.

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

“This effort by the president and the White House to impede and undermine our ability to collect the evidence necessary to do our work is something that can’t be tolerated,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and is a member of the party leadership team. Democrats, he said, need to “demonstrate that you cannot just trash the Constitution, undermine the rule of law, and expect the Congress of the United States to accept that.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) stated his intent to hear former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s testimony. (Video: Reuters)

Pelosi has so far carefully managed the pressure, refusing to rule out an impeachment of Trump while also emphasizing the need to pursue a prudent course to defend congressional prerogatives against presidential resistance. That view was bolstered Monday when a federal judge rejected an attempt by Trump’s lawyers to assert a sweeping claim of executive authority to block a House request for Trump’s financial records.

The newly vocal Democrats say they are seeking only an impeachment inquiry — a formal investigation that may or may not lead to the actual drafting and passage of articles of impeachment to be tried by the Senate.

But for a broader group of lawmakers — some of them moderate freshmen who unseated Republicans last year to deliver the House majority to Democrats — that is a distinction without a difference. They fear that any rush into impeachment proceedings would betray campaign promises to focus on policy issues more directly affecting their constituents, a potentially perilous political move ahead of the 2020 elections.

“I believe in checks and balances and the constitutional division of powers, but I also know that I get stopped in the grocery store constantly and what people are asking about is the price of health care and the price of prescription drugs,” said freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). “I think the perception is that Washington is more focused on the checks and balances than they are on actually helping people’s pocketbooks and their kids. And that’s a real problem.”

Democrats have in recent months passed bills meant to shore up the Affordable Care Act, reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and, last week, provide new LGBT civil rights protections. But party leaders have been forced to take heed of the frustration with Trump’s no-cooperation stance.

Pelosi scheduled a Democratic caucus meeting for Wednesday morning, billing it as an opportunity for members to receive updates on oversight and investigations. But many lawmakers said Tuesday that they expect it will become a robust discussion of whether to pursue an impeachment inquiry as Trump remains defiant, arguing in a tweet Tuesday evening that Democrats were “unhappy with the outcome” of the Mueller report “so now they want a do-over.”

The House and the administration continue to do battle in the courts on multiple fronts, and Monday’s favorable ruling from a federal trial judge in Washington has not alleviated fears among many Democrats that the courts simply move too slowly to provide an effective check on the president’s obstinacy.

“This is something that the president has relied upon in his business dealings — that he can win in the courts because he can outlast those who are bringing lawsuits against him,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee and an outspoken supporter of impeachment. “So while I have a great appreciation for that ruling . . . I still think we should move forward.”

McGahn’s no-show has particularly rankled Democrats who have been exasperated by Trump’s sweeping claims of immunity from congressional oversight. McGahn told lawmakers he would skip the hearing pursuant to a White House request rooted in a new Justice Department opinion barring testimony from close presidential advisers.

The panel held a 23-minute “empty chair” hearing Tuesday, during which Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) vowed to continue his probe and accused Trump of seeking to intimidate McGahn into not appearing, calling that “not remotely acceptable.”

“We will hold this president accountable, one way or the other,” he said, holding out the possibility of a contempt-of-Congress charge. “Our subpoenas are not optional.”

Nadler on Tuesday issued new subpoenas to Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s former chief of staff, and Hope Hicks, Trump’s former White House communications director. Both, like McGahn, cooperated extensively with Mueller and were key sources for his report.

Mueller and House Democrats at impasse over how much of his testimony would be public

Doubly frustrating to many Democrats is that Mueller himself has yet to appear before Congress more than a month after he delivered his 448-page report on his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible obstruction of justice by Trump himself.

Nadler wants Mueller to testify as soon as possible, with Democrats ready to press him on whether he thought Trump could or should be charged with obstruction if he were not the president. But the committee and the special counsel’s office have been locked in dispute over whether the hearing will be public or private, according to people familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Democrats think that testimony from Mueller or those who provided him with key evidence could refocus public attention on Trump’s alleged misdeeds and counteract what they see as a misleading impression, created by Attorney General William P. Barr’s early interpretation, that Mueller’s report cleared Trump of wrongdoing.

Republicans on Tuesday accused Democrats of being more interested in theatrics than in genuine congressional oversight. “Cameras love a spectacle, and Democrats covet the chance to rant against this administration,” Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said at the hearing.

A single congressional Republican, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), has publicly supported pursuing an impeachment of Trump. But there is little sign any of his GOP colleagues will join him.

“Justin is one person with one opinion,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday. “It’s out of step with this conference. It’s out of step with America.”

The rising tide of impeachment talk generated dismissive comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose GOP-controlled chamber would have the final word on removing Trump from office if the Democratic House were to pass articles of impeachment.

“You know my view: The case is closed,” he told reporters. “My impression is that the leadership in the House is not so keen on that option and doesn’t think the business of presidential harassment is actually a great way for them to go into the 2020 election.”

Pelosi and other House leaders have played down any political motives in seeking to avoid impeachment, but they have been mindful of the potential downside of a formal probe. The top three Democratic leaders were serving in 1998 when the Republican-controlled House embarked on the impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton — an exercise that seemed to only boost Clinton’s popularity.

“The only way he’s going to try to win this election is if he can get folks to impeach him and fire folks up,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said about Trump. “The president’s a con man, and he knows how to do certain things to flip it around. And I think that’s what he’s trying to do now, but we shouldn’t play his game. We should play our game, and our game is: Do the work.”

Misgivings abound elsewhere in the caucus — including on the Judiciary Committee. Rep. Lucy McBath, a freshman panel member who captured a Republican stronghold in Georgia last fall, cautioned against rushing to start an inquiry.

“At this point, I think we still have a little bit more we need to consider before we really start talking about impeachment,” McBath said. “Let’s go through the entire process and try to find as many resolutions as we possibly can.”

Freshman Rep. Max Rose, who flipped a swing district in New York last fall, said he has been frustrated with what he called an endless game of “impeachment chicken” between House Democrats and the White House on investigations. The constant tug of war, he said, “speaks to why people despise this institution.”

“The president ignores requests, and then it appears at times that the Democrats keep pushing things, and they’re each feeding into each other,” Rose said. “And it starts to look ridiculous.”

The tension between the widespread revulsion among Democrats to Trump’s behavior and fears of playing into his hands by pursuing a divisive impeachment effort has generated a sometimes contradictory response from top Democrats.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Trump was “conducting one of the biggest coverups of any administration in the history of the United States,” but then said of impeachment, “I don’t think we’re there at this point in time.”

Hoyer said he doubted there was any Democrat “who probably wouldn’t in their gut say, ‘You know, he’s done some things that probably justify impeachment.’ ” He then added that “the majority of Democrats continue to believe that we need to continue to pursue the avenue that we’ve been on. . . . And if the facts lead us to a broader action, so be it.”

Spencer Hsu, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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