Updated 2:11 p.m. | A Wednesday morning discussion by House Democrats on oversight matters did little to resolve a stewing intraparty debate about whether to open an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, but it did set off the president.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi organized the meeting to continue to hold her caucus back from heading down an impeachment path with an unknown outcome that could backfire on her party. As she left the discussion to go to the White House to meet with Trump on infrastructure, she had harsh words for the president.
“We believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up,” the California Democrat said.
That comment and the idea that Democrats are even debating impeachment irked Trump, who had spent all morning tweeting his frustration about what he views as Democrats’ effort to redo special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigations.
When Pelosi and a cadre of House and Senate Democratic leaders reached the White House, Trump was in no mood to engage on infrastructure. He told them they could work on legislation together when the Democrats ended their investigations, and walked out of the meeting.
Trump then went out to the Rose Garden to hold a press conference to publicly air his grievances against the Democrat-led investigations. In a direct response to Pelosi’s earlier comments, he noted, “I don’t do cover-ups.”
Pelosi doubles down
Pelosi, however, was not dissuaded. She doubled down on her remarks after the infrastructure meeting debacle during an appearance at the Center for American Progress’ ideas conference.
“In plain sight, in the public domain, this president is … engaged in a cover-up. And that could be an impeachable offense,” she said. “As they say, the cover-up is frequently worse than the crime.”
Still, Pelosi continued to repeat a familiar refrain about Democrats following the facts where they lead, whether to impeachment or not.
Notably new, however, was Pelosi’s remark rejecting an argument made by some in her caucus who say that opening an impeachment inquiry would help investigating committees obtain information the administration has refused to provide.
“I’m not sure that we get any more information by initiating an impeachment inquiry,” she said.
That was clearly the message Pelosi was trying to send earlier Wednesday at the caucus meeting, several members said. Rather than make the case directly, the speaker had the six committee chairs leading investigations into various matters involving Trump and his associates speak about their probes and how they’re fighting the administration’s stonewalling.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, whose panel is leading a probe into Trump’s alleged obstruction and abuse of power, spoke about the importance of enforcing subpoenas and voting on contempt citations for those who ignore them as soon as possible. Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, who is expected to soon initiate court proceedings to obtain Trump’s tax returns after the Treasury Department ignored a subpoena for them, said members need to have more faith in the process as Democrats proceed methodically and judiciously.
Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings told Democrats they needed to add a new word to their vocabulary: “cover-up.” Perhaps that’s what prompted Pelosi’s use of the word, although many Democrats, from House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer on down, had already been using it for weeks.
Cummings also noted that a federal court ruling upholding Democrats’ subpoena to obtain Trump’s financial records from his accounting firm Mazars USA vindicates congressional authority to conduct investigations.
After the meeting, Cummings told reporters he agrees with Pelosi’s approach.
“The speaker is right on this point — that we have to bring the American people with us,” the Maryland Democrat said.
At least one committee head leading an investigation does support impeachment, however. Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters even mentioned that during her presentation Wednesday, which one member said prompted some laughter given the understanding that the chairs were meant to make the case for not proceeding down that path.
“I’ve always been for impeachment. I’ve never backed up,” Waters told reporters afterward. Asked whether Pelosi could ever get to a “yes” on impeachment, Waters said she didn’t know.
Wednesday’s caucus meeting didn’t appear to do much to tamp down the impeachment talk, with most Democrats leaving the discussion holding on to the position they had going in.
“I wish we had two more hours. There’s a lot that still needs to be said,” said California Rep. Jared Huffman, who supports an impeachment inquiry. “It really wasn’t enough time to do justice to a full airing of opinions within our caucus. We have to stop tiptoeing around this subject and start having some candid conversations. It’s reality-check time in my opinion.”
To Huffman’s point, during the Q&A portion of the meeting when members can speak freely, only about 10 did so. More might have weighed in had there been more time, but members had committee meetings and other business to attend to.
Both sides made their case during the brief period of discussion.
“Having an impeachment inquiry doesn’t change a darn thing,” senior Judiciary member Zoe Lofgren said, according to a source present who took notes.
“Nothing,” Pelosi said in agreement.
“We still have to go to court to get our subpoenas enforced,” Lofgren added. “We are winning those battles now. Unless we want to have no process whatsoever, which cannot be the case for impeachment, we are going to have to go court, get the subpoenas enforced, get the evidence, get the facts for it and then we will see where we are. This just muddies the issue and damages us in many ways as premature.”
Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes also argued that the investigating committees’ work meets the bar for defending the Constitution.
“I don’t in any way feel like we’re being timid,” the source quoted him as saying. “I don’t stand in front of any crowd and feel weak.”
New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. told reporters after the meeting he also spoke out against opening an impeachment inquiry.
Huffman argued the opposite, saying, “I certainly tried to make the point that all of this activity is not a substitute for our constitutional duty.”
Rep. David Cicilline, a Judiciary Committee member, also pressed his colleagues on why he believes it’s time to open an inquiry.
“It’s a way to elevate the seriousness of what we’re doing in response to the president’s ongoing effort to impede and obstruct and prevent us from getting to the truth,” he told reporters after the meeting.
The Rhode Island Democrat, who chairs the caucus’s messaging arm, said Democrats are united in their commitment to holding the president accountable despite differences of opinion on the best vehicle to do so.
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, the vice chair of the Judiciary Committee who backs opening an impeachment inquiry, said the shift in tone among members was because of constituents raising their concerns about the president defying Congress. She noted that leadership has not said that Democrats won’t ever open an impeachment inquiry.
“The question is still open,” she said. “We very much feel like we could all end up there because the administration hasn’t changed its stonewalling of Congress or the American people.”
Chris Marquette contributed to this report.