Democrats Grapple With Trump’s Moves to Thwart Inquiries

Democrats Grapple With Trump’s Moves to Thwart Inquiries

WASHINGTON — The Trump family lawsuit to block oversight of its finances has House Democrats scrambling to confront what many see as the gravest threat to congressional independence since the Nixon era, reviving internal debate over the ultimate weapon in the Democrats’ arsenal: impeachment.

For nearly two weeks, Democrats have debated how to respond to Robert S. Mueller III’s findings that President Trump might have obstructed justice, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her fractious rank-and-file to avoid a broad, open-ended impeachment inquiry she believed could backfire disastrously in 2020.

But Democrats see Mr. Trump’s latest string of provocations — starting with his blanket declaration last week that he would defy all subpoenas requested by Democratic committees and culminating in this week’s legal action — as a dangerous abuse of executive authority that they must address forcefully.

Allies of Ms. Pelosi are publicly floating possible countermeasures, including even pursuing a narrow path to impeachment based on Mr. Trump’s refusal to respect the oversight authority of Congress, a move modeled on the third article of impeachment drafted against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

“There are all these streams and creeks of offenses that seem to be converging into a bigger river — impeachment,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and former constitutional law professor who serves on the Judiciary Committee.

“There is nothing to explain how the executive branch can defy, categorically, every lawful request for information from the Congress of the United States,” added Mr. Raskin, who said he is open to the idea of a limited impeachment inquiry. “President Trump’s defiance of Congress is far more comprehensive and sweeping than anything Congress experienced during the Watergate period.”

Several Democrats close to Ms. Pelosi said that impeachment still remained unlikely, cautioning that Mr. Trump’s threats alone were not enough to spur such action. And her leadership team is keenly aware that Mr. Trump “is goading us” into making a political mistake, according to Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

“While we may have our difficulties in other areas, we cannot, we cannot, we cannot ignore the needs of the American people as we go forward,” Ms. Pelosi said after meeting with the president about kick-starting a long-dormant infrastructure funding bill.

But sentiment appears to have shifted significantly over the past week.

“I am not there yet, but I have to say that the president’s obstruction of Congress now following his obstruction of the Justice Department is certainly adding new heft to the idea that he has to be held accountable,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

He suggested another possible way of striking back at Mr. Trump, using the House’s power of the purse. “We’re looking at other ways to fence money allocated to the agencies in a way that forces them to comply,” said Mr. Schiff, a close ally of Ms. Pelosi’s.

Still, the rage toward Mr. Trump is spreading from the left wing of the House to Ms. Pelosi’s more moderate allies in Democratic leadership and committee chairmanships. Ms. Pelosi’s office on Tuesday compiled a three-page set of talking points titled, “Trump Administration Obstruction: Unprecedented, Unwarranted, Unconstitutional.”

“President Trump’s stonewalling has metastasized from refusing to release his tax returns or divest his assets to the Trump Administration now refusing to cooperate on every level of government, from the sabotaging Americans’ health care to protecting our elections,” the document reads.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, fumed, “If you let them get away with this, then what do you have?”

“If a president can get away with blocking any information or anybody from testifying before the Congress, what road are we going down? Just ask the question. That’s the question. I don’t think we have any choice but to do every single thing in our power to get him in,” said Mr. Cummings, who has been sued by the president over a subpoena issued by the committee for Mr. Trump’s financial records.

Democrats have other options, none of them particularly palatable or effective, ranging from votes to hold administration officials in contempt of Congress to civil lawsuits to pry free documents that the president is fighting to withhold.

Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, joked that he would find a “nice jail cell” for administration officials slapped with contempt citations by the House. He called the battle between the branches the most important constitutional confrontation in decades.

“Some of my colleagues aren’t taking this seriously enough — we already have prima facie evidence of contempt of Congress — and that is pushing Democrats like me in the direction” of an impeachment inquiry, he added.

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have continued to push for a broad impeachment effort. Representative Al Green, Democrat of Texas, said on the House floor that he would try to force a vote on the matter.

A White House spokesman declined to comment. But the president’s lawyers have argued that Mr. Trump’s actions differ from Mr. Nixon’s refusal to hand over documents and recordings in 1974 — because the underlying inquiry into Mr. Trump’s actions by the House now is not actually an impeachment inquiry. And, they said, the president is merely trying to defend himself from what they called invasive and illegitimate Democratic inquiries.

“Do they have any lawyers in Congress?” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, who has cast Democrats’ actions as an attempt to damage the president’s re-election prospects. “Since when can’t you contest the legitimacy of a subpoena?”

Ms. Pelosi and her team have tried to stave off such actions, saying instead that the House first needs to investigate the issues raised in Mr. Mueller’s report.

In a separate action on Tuesday, Mr. Schiff sent the Justice Department a criminal referral to investigate whether Erik Prince, a private security contractor who figured in Mr. Mueller’s investigation, had knowingly lied to his committee in 2017 about meetings he had with foreigners. Mr. Schiff identified six potentially false statements, though a transcript of the committee’s interview with Mr. Prince has been public for more than a year.

Mr. Trump’s actions are intended to thwart further investigations, leaving Democrats with the prospect of holding witness-less, document-free hearings or exploring other means of punishment.

Over the past few days, Democratic aides and some lawmakers have discussed the possibility of opening an impeachment inquiry independent of, if not unrelated to, the findings in Mr. Mueller’s report. A narrower inquiry would put the focus on Mr. Trump’s defiance of Congress and could move the battle from the muddy conclusions of Mr. Mueller’s report to a loftier debate over separation of powers.

Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, whose Judiciary Committee is facing the brunt of the administration’s intransigence, appears to be losing patience. While Mr. Nadler views impeachment as a last-ditch alternative, he has been less categorical in his rejection of impeachment than Ms. Pelosi, according to several leadership aides with knowledge of his thinking.

The administration appears as if it will not comply with the Wednesday deadline for a subpoena demanding the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying evidence. It has signaled that it will try to block another subpoena for documents and testimony from Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel who was crucial to Mr. Mueller’s work. Meanwhile, Mr. Nadler is threatening to issue another subpoena for Attorney General William P. Barr if he refuses to appear voluntarily at a hearing on the Mueller report scheduled for Thursday because of a dispute over procedure.

“It certainly builds the case that the administration is engaged in a wholesale obstruction of Congress,” Mr. Nadler told reporters on Monday. He continued, “It’s absolutely unacceptable, and we’ll take whatever action we have to do to deal with it.”

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