WASHINGTON (AP) — First came the sternly worded letters. Then the subpoenas. Now the votes to hold Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress.
As House Democrats plod ahead investigating President Donald Trump, against unprecedented stonewalling by the White House, they are pursuing a long-game strategy that’s playing out in the committee rooms, the courthouse and in the court of public opinion. And it’s going to take time.
Some Democrats say the administration’s blockade is leaving them almost no choice but to open an impeachment inquiry — not necessarily to impeach Trump, but as part of a legal strategy to force the administration to comply with their requests for documents and testimony.
“Things are coming to a tipping point,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee. “We’re running out of options,” said another on the panel, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla. “I think we’re on the road,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi racheted up the pressure this week when, faced with a 12-page letter from the White House counsel saying Congress had no “legislative purpose” in its investigations, shot back that the purpose could, in fact, be for impeaching the president.
“We hope we don’t have to do that,” Pelosi said. “We want to see what we can get respectfully. First, we ask. Then we subpoena friendly. Then we subpoena otherwise. And then we see what we get.”
Democrats say they’re not ready to impeach the president. But opening an impeachment inquiry would provide legal weight to their investigations that would be tougher for the administration to ignore. Already, a judge indicated last week Congress may have a right to review some of Trump’s financial documents. As Trump instructs his White House to reject the requests from Congress, more legal battles are coming.
Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University who wrote a book on impeachment, said the administration’s arguments for blocking Congress would likely go by the wayside in court if the House were in an impeachment inquiry. The Constitution gives the House the sole power to impeach, which stretches even beyond its traditional oversight role. It’s one thing for Trump to say the White House won’t respond to Congress. It’s another for the administration to defy a court order to turn over documents.
“The courts have been very, very wary of interfering in the impeachment power,” Lichtman said. “This is really a case where one branch of government rules.”
Pelosi, though, signaled she is in no rush to get there. Next week, there will be more steps in the process as Congress delves into Trump’s finances and possible obstruction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said the panel will be taking an “enforcement action” against Attorney General William Barr or the Justice Department after they refused to hand over an unredacted version of Mueller’s report and other documents.
Schiff wouldn’t say what that action would be. Options could include voting to recommend Barr be held in contempt of Congress, as the Judiciary Committee has done, among others. Schiff said he will be conferring with House lawyers on the strategy.
But as a federal court moved quickly in the case in which Trump is attempting to block Congress from his financial records, Schiff said, “what we have seen thus far has been very encouraging.”
The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., said he was consulting with legal counsel after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin failed to comply with the panel’s subpoena for Trump’s tax returns.
And the Judiciary Committee will weigh options if former White House counsel Don McGahn fails to comply with a subpoena to testify by Tuesday.
The step-by-step approach is part of a broader strategy by House Democrats to methodically pursue their inquiries while giving the administration multiple opportunities to comply.
For some, it can’t come fast enough as they consider the option of opening impeachment proceedings.
“Everybody says ‘impeachment’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re going to impeach the president.’ That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an inquiry, and impeachment inquiry, that might give us more tools to get the information that the administration is refusing to provide to a coequal branch of government,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.
“So as the administration continues to do what they’re doing, I think there are more and more people, and it isn’t just progressives, who feel like this is untenable,” she said.
“Members of Congress — like the American people — are exhausted by all this drama,” said Huffman. They wish it would all go away, he said. “I don’t think we have the luxury of that option. Not with this administration, not with the offenses we’ve seen, not with the daily and weekly institutional challenges that are coming our way.”
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman in Washington contributed to this report.