WASHINGTON — Members of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's own leadership team confronted her in a contentious Monday night meeting and argued that it was time to begin an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, according to sources in the room.
At least five members of Pelosi's leadership team — four who also sit on the House Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over impeachment — pressed Pelosi to allow the panel to start the inquiry, which they argued would help investigators attain documents and testimony Trump has blocked.
Pelosi, according to sources in the room, pushed back on the idea with senior leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Pelosi has also long been an impeachment skeptic and tried to tamp down impeachment talk in her caucus as recently as last week by encouraging members to focus on their legislative agenda.
"It's a fact-finding process," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., one of the members in the meeting who also took to Twitter and TV on Monday to make the case for an impeachment inquiry. "There's no doubt that opening an inquiry strengthens the hand of Congress in forcing compliance with subpoenas whether it's for documents or individuals."
The meeting underscores the first time Pelosi's rank-and-file lawmakers — including members of her leadership team — have lobbied her to change her long-held position on impeachment. Judiciary members for days have discussed how to move the speaker toward their thinking, but few have been willing to break with her publicly.
However, a core group of Judiciary Democrats on Tuesday plans to begin calling for an impeachment inquiry if former White House counsel Don McGahn does not show for subpoenaed testimony at 10 a.m., according to sources familiar with the plan. The White House on Monday moved to block McGahn from showing up, arguing that he is exempt from testimony.
"We should be having the conversation about … how this will help us break through the stonewalling of the administration," said Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., of an inquiry. Deutch was not in the meeting but agreed with those who made the case to Pelosi on Monday night. "If the answer is, 'No, you can't talk to anyone, you can't have anything, we're simply not going to cooperate,' then at that point the only avenue that we have left is the constitutional means to enforce the separation of powers, which is a serious discussion of impeachment."
Late Monday evening, after huddling with Pelosi in her office on the matter, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., appeared to side with the speaker over his panel's members — though he did not rule out impeachment.
Nadler acknowledged that opening an impeachment inquiry "might" empower investigations, but he pointed to a federal judge's Monday ruling to uphold a House subpoena as proof that the courts could help the party.
"We have an active inquiry going, and we have to enforce the right to our testimony through the courts, which is the only way you can do it," Nadler said. "And right now we're having very good success with it."
During the Monday night leadership meeting, Pelosi spoke about how Democrats' messaging isn't breaking through because everyone is talking about corruption, special counsel Robert Mueller's report and impeachment. She argued that last week the investigations were making front-page news while the House move to pass the Equality Act — a bill ensuring that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are not discriminated against — was on "Page 26." That's when Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a subcommittee chairman on the Judiciary Committee, jumped in to say something along the lines of: Madam Speaker, you've just made a great case for an impeachment inquiry, according to sources in the room who summarized his words.
Raskin argued that an inquiry would allow leadership to centralize all of the investigations into one inquiry and then allow everyone else to focus and talk about the Democratic agenda items that won them the majority in 2018.
Hoyer pushed back, arguing that the panel shouldn't cut off other committee investigations, which he said are bearing fruit. The Judiciary Committee is not the only panel investigating Trump. Five others are, and an impeachment inquiry might undercut those probes, some think.
"You want to tell Elijah Cummings to go home?" Pelosi said, referring to the House Oversight Committee chairman.
Later in another meeting, when Pelosi was confronted on the same issue by another group of members, she argued that the courts were coming to help Democrats.
"Today, we won our first case," Pelosi said, referring to a federal judge's move to uphold an Oversight Committee subpoena despite Trump's objections. "We've been in this thing for almost five months, and now we're getting some results … We still have unexhausted avenues here."
During the leadership meeting, three other Judiciary panel members — including Cicilline, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and freshman Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo. — backed Raskin. Neguse argued that the Judiciary Committee's role in investigating Trump is being impeded by the stonewalling. The White House is blocking more than 20 Democratic investigations into Trump, his finances or his policies.
Lieu pointed out that Democrats don't have to impeach Trump just because they begin an inquiry. He also argued that Democrats could move to an impeachment inquiry right away and be done with it before 2020, allowing lawmakers to focus on their agenda when they run for reelection.
At one-point Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a fierce Pelosi defender and ally, grew angry and scolded the members, saying an impeachment inquiry would further distract from legislating. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos — who has argued that it is time for members to move on from impeachment talk — pushed back, arguing that the DCCC conducted focus groups on topics voters cared about; she said Mueller's inquiry ranked among the bottom.
It wasn't just Judiciary Committee members who pushed back against the speaker. When the top leaders argued that voters don't care about this issue, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., defended the group of Judiciary Committee members. While she said she agreed that her constituents were more focused on things like prescription drug prices, she argued that they elected members to come to Washington and take care of big problems. She said voters put trust in leaders, that they will tell hard truths — including hard truths against Trump.
Pelosi's office did not respond to request for comment.
Panel members are arguing that there is a distinction between an impeachment inquiry and impeachment proceedings that necessitate a vote. Lieu, in an interview, declined to comment on the meeting, but he said an inquiry “could lead to nothing” — or it could lead to impeachment.