WASHINGTON — House Democrats, infuriated by President Trump’s stonewalling, are struggling to mount a more aggressive campaign to compel him to cooperate with their investigations — a push that could include a threat to jail officials, garnish their wages and perhaps even impeach the president.
With Mr. Trump throwing up roadblocks on practically a daily basis — he moved on Wednesday to keep the unredacted version of the special counsel’s report out of lawmakers’ hands — Democrats and their leaders are feeling a new urgency to assert their power as a coequal branch of government.
Some who previously urged caution are now saying impeachment may be inevitable.
“If the facts lead us to that objective, so be it,” Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, told reporters on Wednesday. He said Democratic leaders and the chairmen of six committees are coordinating on what he hopes will be a “holistic” strategy to paint a picture for the public of “perhaps the greatest cover-up of any president in American history.”
Among the options they are considering is to bundle contempt citations for multiple Trump administration officials into one overarching package that could be referred to the Federal District Court here, in much the way Congress looked to the courts to compel President Richard M. Nixon to turn over tape recordings of his Oval Office conversations. Nixon’s refusal to do so prompted impeachment proceedings.
Democrats are studying that history with an eye toward Article 3 of the Watergate Articles of Impeachment, which accused Nixon of violating his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws by refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas, said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a member of the Democratic leadership.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Mr. Cicilline said. “But people are mindful of that.”
The Judiciary Committee’s vote on Wednesday to recommend holding Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress effectively started a more confrontational strategy than its initial effort, which was to use a series of hearings to shine a light on the president’s misdeeds. The full House must still vote on the contempt resolution, and when that vote will take place is unclear.
But Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a former constitutional law professor, said Democrats are energized by the confrontation.
“We get the narrative from our leadership that we all got elected on health care and the economy and all of that,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, “but we also got elected to impose checks and balances on a president who is unchecked and unbalanced.”CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
“This has had a cathartic effect on the Democrats because we have finally been able to find a way to fight back at the obstructionism,” said Mr. Raskin, a Judiciary Committee member. “My grandfather used to say that duck hunting is a lot of fun until the ducks start firing back. We’re starting to fire back.”
But unless the courts move to enforce the contempt resolution, it will have no teeth, and court action takes time. When Barack Obama was president, House Republicans held Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress for his failure to provide documents and information related to the so-called Fast and Furious gun trafficking program. But it had little immediate effect.
When George W. Bush was president, the House voted to hold his chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and the White House counsel, Harriet E. Miers, in contempt for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into the mass firings of federal prosecutors. Ms. Miers eventually agreed to testify — but by that time, Mr. Obama was president.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and a chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she would not be willing to wait that long. “This is a really dangerous and unpredecented set of actions that the president is taking,” she said.
Ms. Jayapal said Democrats’ decision on whether to begin formal impeachment hearings would become clearer after they have three more “data points”: whether they get the special counsel’s report, unredacted; whether Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel, testifies (Mr. Trump is trying to block him from doing so); and whether the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, testifies.
“There’s a few more pieces that we still need to see,” she said.
The conversations, and Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee vote, reflect a sharp escalation of the tensions between Democrats and the White House since the release of the Mueller report. The report found no evidence that Mr. Trump had coordinated or conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 elections. But it did list at least 10 ways in which Mr. Trump may have obstructed the Mueller inquiry.
After the report’s release, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and other top Democrats urged caution on impeachment. Instead, they promised a series of hearings so Americans could judge the evidence that Mr. Mueller had gathered for themselves, and then decide whether the facts warranted impeachment.
Ms. Pelosi said that proceeding would have to be bipartisan.
But with Mr. Trump trying to keep Congress from gathering the facts, the mood in the caucus has shifted, many Democrats say.
“We get the narrative from our leadership that we all got elected on health care and the economy and all of that,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, “but we also got elected to impose checks and balances on a president who is unchecked and unbalanced.”
Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, who is a close ally of Ms. Pelosi’s, added, “I think there is a growing frustration among my constituents that we need to do something.” Ms. Speier expressed a growing sentiment that Democratic voters want to see concrete actions in response to Mr. Trump’s unapologetic stonewalling.
Party leaders are exploring all of their legal and procedural options. Some, including Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and also a close ally of Ms. Pelosi’s, threatened this week to withhold the salaries of federal employees who fail to appear before a House committee.
Mr. Cummings also said Democrats should consider “inherent contempt” — the congressional power, last used in the 1930s, to jail officials who defy subpoenas. Mr. Connolly, who leads an oversight subcommittee, agreed.
“We should be putting people in jail,” Mr. Connolly said.
With liberal Democrats — including presidential candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — calling for impeachment, House Democrats are feeling intense pressure from the left to move more aggressively.
“We can’t have mealy-mouthed language about more facts have to come in,” said Adam Green, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group. “We’re past that stage. People want accountability.”
But Democratic leaders recognize that their ability to force cooperation is limited if Mr. Trump is determined to flout historical convention and cannot be shamed into compliance. They fully expect their clash with Mr. Trump to be settled by the courts — and likely by the Supreme Court.
One case is moving through the legal system already: Mr. Trump has sued Mr. Cummings and the oversight panel to quash a subpoena for 10 years of his financial records. Oral arguments are scheduled for next week.
During a closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning with Democrats, Ms. Pelosi said Mr. Trump was “self-impeaching” — a phrase later echoed by Representative Ann McLane Kuster, Democrat of New Hampshire, who said she meant that in defying Congress, Mr. Trump was making the case for his own impeachment.
“He’s taking actions that demonstrate he is not fit for office,” Ms. Kuster said. “The American people are watching that in plain sight.”
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