It may not be a constitutional crisis — but it’s about to be a constitutional cage match.
Frustrated with the White House’s stonewalling, House Democrats are turning up the heat on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch impeachment proceedings on President Trump. And the push is not just from the party’s left: pressure to forcefully check Trump is even increasing from some of the speaker’s top lieutenants who she helped steer into their powerful posts as committee chairs.
On Tuesday, the administration stiff-armed lawmakers again by defying a subpoena issued to former White House counsel Don McGahn. That infuriated House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler of New York, who is now accusing President Trump of interfering in his committee’s investigation. Pelosi is scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning for members of her caucus to air their concerns and devise a plan on how to proceed.
“He took to Twitter to call Mr. McGahn a liar. His lawyers went on cable television to do the same,” Nadler said at the hearing where McGahn was supposed to testify. “In short, the president took it upon himself to intimidate a witness who has a legal obligation to be here today. This conduct is not remotely acceptable.”
While Nadler hasn’t publicly called to move to impeach, he and other chairs feel the blocking of some 20 separate congressional investigations by the president and his administration will force them to open the impeachment proceedings soon.
“He’s not leaving us with any choices. We don’t have any choices,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chair of the Oversight Committee, told reporters just off the House floor.
While Congress has the authority to declare administration officials who rebuff subpoenas in inherent contempt of Congress, which would allow House Democrats to actually jail and fine executive branch officials who don’t comply with their subpoenas, Cummings says impeachment may be the more appealing route.
“I think most members of the Congress would rather not see the prison piece of it,” Cummings said, before adding fines may be more appealing.
But many Democrats want to bypass the arcane process of inherent contempt altogether.
“It just becomes harder every day not to move to impeachment,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told VICE News at the Capitol Tuesday. “It’s like it’s become a dictatorship, rather than a third branch of government. And it’s incredibly frustrating when the White House basically says the legislative branch is irrelevant.”
Beyer became the third Democrat this week alone to call for launching impeachment proceedings, with the full number now hovering around 25 (at least publicly). The other two were Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Col.) and Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.).
These lawmakers, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a few other progressive freshmen, aren’t calling for Democrats to try to remove the president. They say instead they gain more investigative clout if they launch the formal impeachment process that makes House lawmakers the lawyers for the trial (while the Senate would play the jury).
Pelosi, meanwhile, continues to call for patience. She and her allies maintain the court process is actually working, and it needs to be given a chance to play out. On Monday, a federal district court judge ruled that the accounting firm Mazars USA must comply with a congressional subpoena and send Congress eight years of Trump’s financial records.
“Our best path forward is to go through that legal process, and what I’m encouraged by is that it’s expedited. It is moving quickly,” Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) told VICE News after leaving a closed-door meeting with Democrats in the basement of the Capitol.
Hill isn’t on board with impeachment proceedings just yet, and that’s because she thinks Pelosi’s approach is proving right, pointing to Monday’s ruling as proof.
“It really, I think, sets a precedent for what we’re going to see in future rulings,” Hill said. “It says we have the right to investigate, and we have the right to call witnesses accordingly. And that in fact our power of investigation is in many cases even more important than our power of legislation.”
That approach isn’t good enough for many Democrats though. On Tuesday, Democrats also issued subpoenas for former Trump adviser Hope Hicks along with former White House deputy counsel Annie Donaldson. And the party is still negotiating with special counsel Robert Mueller over whether he’ll testify publicly or behind closed-doors. If he refuses the public route, some Democrats say a subpoena will be necessary.
All told, these attempts to get the administration to comply with their requests for witnesses and documents are adding up to a plethora of legal challenges.
“If we continue to go down the legal path, we’ll get there; I just feel incredible impatience,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told VICE News while hopping into an elevator at the Capitol. “Soon we’ll be in the campaign season, and then it looks political to the American public.”
While the pressure is building in a palpable way for Pelosi to open impeachment proceedings, many senior Democrats are still sticking with her as they trust her ability to play the long game.
“Whether it’s true or not, it’s almost like Trump wants this to happen, and it would solidify him with his base but it wouldn’t be good for the country,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) told VICE News as he was walking through the Capitol. “If you don’t have the people with you when you go into that kind of setting then it becomes difficult.”
COVER IMAGE: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meets with reporters at her weekly news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)