WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Wednesday that President Donald Trump is “engaged in a cover up,” but she and all but one of her six committee chairmen with investigatory powers stopped short of advocating impeachment proceedings during a closed-door meeting of Democrats.
A growing number of rank-and-file Democrats have called for the launch of an impeachment inquiry against Trump as frustrations build over the administration’s stonewalling of congressional probes.
But during Wednesday’s meeting, five of the chairmen who addressed the caucus focused on recent successes in court battles to force the administration to comply with subpoenas and counseled a more measured course advocated by Pelosi, according to multiple people in the room.
The meeting “reflected where most of this caucus is at,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota. “Have faith on the courts and have faith in process, and impeachment only if absolutely necessary.”
Addressing reporters afterward, Pelosi said Democrats had “a very positive meeting” and called for staying the course on investigations.
“We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts,” she said. “We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe the president of the United States is engaged in a coverup.”
In remarks to fellow Democrats during the meeting, Pelosi, according to multiple members, showed no sign of moving away from her approach.
“Stay the course,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, summarizing Pelosi’s remarks.
After the meeting, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida, argued that the committees should continue investigating and that Democrats should focus on legislation, saying that “the impeachment question is taking up all the oxygen in the room.”
“Look, in my mind, even if we impeach, the Senate isn’t going to do anything about it … so what is our goal?” she asked. “If we don’t want Trump to be the president … we’ve got to get him in 2020.”
During the meeting, House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-California, was the only one of the chairmen to call for moving forward with impeachment proceedings, a stance consistent with her past advocacy for seeking to remove Trump.
While other chairmen said they were outraged by Trump’s conduct, several offered reasons to follow Pelosi’s lead. House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, for instance, warned that some freshmen lawmakers in swing districts could lose races if Democrats are too aggressive in pursuing impeachment.
Ahead of the meeting, Trump aimed a barrage of early-morning tweets at House Democrats questioning their priorities as they prepared to discuss investigations into the administration amid the growing calls for impeachment proceedings.
In his tweets, Trump claimed that Democrats are “getting ZERO work done in Congress” and are instead focused on what he called a continuation of a “Witch Hunt” into whether he sought to obstruct special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” Trump wrote in the fourth of his tweets that began before 6 a.m.
The president’s Twitter rant came about three hours before the Democratic caucus meeting called by Pelosi.
Democrats have become increasingly frustrated with the administration’s refusal to cooperate with congressional requests for documents and testimony. That included the White House’s refusal to allow former counsel Donald McGahn to testify at a hearing Tuesday about key aspects of Mueller’s report.
Ahead of the meeting, a Democrat speaking anonymously to candidly describe private conversations, said pro-impeachment lawmakers were concerned the meeting would amount to committee chairmen “circling the wagons” around Pelosi’s measured stance.
“We are hopeful that she will say that an impeachment inquiry is on the table and that there is obviously powerful sentiment for it,” the lawmaker said.
Pelosi called the caucus-wide huddle amid increased pressure from some of her members to begin an impeachment inquiry. Monday night, a band of frustrated House Judiciary Committee members — including powerful chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-New York — confronted Pelosi on her no-impeachment position and encouraged her to green-light an inquiry.
Pelosi refused, arguing that the caucus is not behind the move and that it would impede other committees in pursuing their investigations.
Pro-impeachment members, however, argue that an impeachment inquiry will enable investigators to more quickly secure documents and witness testimony that the White House has blocked at every turn. Since Monday, about 25 lawmakers have gone public to call for an inquiry to begin.
To ease the pressure and the tension, Pelosi has privately signaled that she will green-light more aggressive investigative measures, according to several lawmakers. They expect her and her leadership team to schedule a contempt vote in June against Attorney General William P. Barr and potentially former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who failed to comply with a Hill subpoena, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has denied Congress’s request for Trump’s tax returns.
Pelosi, these lawmakers say, is also talking about so-called “inherent contempt” in a real way. That includes potentially tweaking House rules to allow chairmen to slap steep fines on Trump officials who ignore subpoenas.
Since taking control of the House in January, Democrats have passed several legislative measures, including bills on health care and ethics reform, that have not been taken up in the Republican-led Senate.
The tension over stepped-up House oversight of Trump comes amid continuing discussions of one potential issue on which both Trump and Pelosi have expressed hope for cooperation: investing in the country’s ailing infrastructure. Trump is scheduled to meet later Tuesday morning on the subject with Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and others.
But prospects for a deal seemed to have dimmed since Trump held an initial meeting with Democratic leaders several weeks ago at which there was an agreement on a goal of spending $2 trillion on roads, bridges, rail, airports and other infrastructure.
In a letter to Pelosi and Schumer on Tuesday night, Trump wrote that it is his “strong view” that Congress should pass the trade deal his administration negotiated with Canada and Mexico before turning its full attention to infrastructure.
The White House has stepped up pressure on Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement by the summer amid continuing Democratic concerns about parts of the deal.
During an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders accused Democrats of “dragging their feet” on the trade deal and chastised them for talking about impeachment.
“Hopefully they’re going to have a come-to-Jesus moment where they realize what a terrible idea this is,” Sanders said of the planned Democratic caucus meeting.
In his morning tweets, Trump continued to question why Democrats were interested in hearing the testimony from his aides and others who were interviewed as part of Mueller’s investigation.
Mueller’s report concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election “in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
The report did not find sufficient evidence to bring charges of criminal conspiracy with Russia against Trump or anyone associated with his campaign. It did not offer a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Barr later concluded that there was not sufficient evidence for obstruction of justice, but House Democrats are continuing to pursue that issue.
“After two years of an expensive and comprehensive Witch Hunt, the Democrats don’t like the result and they want a DO OVER,” Trump said in one of his morning tweets. “In other words, the Witch Hunt continues!”
In another, he claimed to have done nothing wrong and suggested that Democrats were now on a fishing expedition.
In a later tweet, Trump claimed that his job approval number would be 65 percent if not for the Mueller investigation. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 38 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing, while 57 percent disapprove.