Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, two longtime allies, are clashing over whether to begin an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump — a sign of how toxic the split over Trump has become for House Democrats.
Nadler has twice urged Pelosi in private to open a formal impeachment inquiry, but the speaker, backed by the majority of her leadership team and her caucus, has maintained that impeaching the president would backfire on Democrats without meaningful Republican support. And there is no sign that Trump’s GOP firewall is cracking.
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Pelosi and Nadler, two veterans of the impeachment drama surrounding President Bill Clinton 20 years ago, appear to be drawing opposite lessons from that experience. And the divide between the two lawmakers is illustrative of what all Democrats are grappling with as they respond to Trump’s efforts to stonewall congressional investigations into his personal conduct, finances and policy moves.
“I think they are articulating the different impulses within the caucus, and also within each of us,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said of Pelosi and Nadler. “It’s not entirely clear what to do.”
“Put yourself in the position of somebody in the House of Representatives today,” added Raskin, a Judiciary Committee member who wants to launch an impeachment inquiry. “There are a million factors to deal with. And we’re dealing with the most lawless, corrupt presidency of our lifetime. So what is the right time to respond? It’s not entirely clear.”
Tuesday, though, will feature a key step that all Democrats can agree on: The full House will vote on empowering committee chairs to enforce subpoenas issued to top current and former Trump administration officials, including Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn.
The resolution will, in part, allow the Judiciary Committee to sue Barr and McGahn in federal court to secure former special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and underlying evidence from his Russia investigation, as well as McGahn’s public testimony.
But a majority of Democratic members of Nadler’s committee favor impeaching Trump, which puts intense pressure on the chairman for more drastic action.
Pelosi and other top Democrats argue that most in their party don’t support such a move, especially with no significant GOP support. Even if the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump, the Republican-run Senate would probably acquit him, they argue, meaning that Trump would not only remain in office but that the move could potentially embolden the GOP base and result in the president’s reelection.
Nadler, meanwhile, has made the case to Pelosi that an impeachment inquiry would streamline their investigations under one committee and would strengthen Democrats’ hand in federal court over challenges to their subpoenas.
Nadler and Pelosi sparred over the issue during a private meeting last week. Nadler again pushed the speaker to support an impeachment inquiry, but she refused, saying she’d rather see Trump “in prison.”
Some Judiciary Committee members are hinting at a more serious divide between the two lawmakers. But senior Democratic aides consistently downplay any tension between them.
“I think Chairman Nadler has done a very good job, particularly considering the parameters under which he has to work,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the caucus’s most fervent supporters of impeachment. “There are quite a few.”
Tuesday’s vote — the first enforcement mechanism to hit the House floor since Mueller’s report was released nearly two months ago — is unlikely to calm tensions, even as House Democrats continue to secure key victories in federal court and in their negotiations with the Justice Department over access to Mueller’s files.
That’s in part because Pelosi’s allies are using those wins as evidence that their current strategy is working — and that impeachment isn’t necessary yet.
“We’re winning as it relates to the strategy that we’re pursuing, and the fact that the Department of Justice has agreed to provide documents and allow inspection of a more unredacted version of the report means we should stay the course,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary panel. He was referring to a deal the committee struck with the Justice Department over access to some of Mueller’s “key” underlying evidence about possible obstruction of justice by the president.
At the core of the conflict is a sharp disagreement between Pelosi and Nadler over the intensity and speed with which Democrats investigate Trump and how that decision will reverberate in next year’s election.
Pelosi speaks frequently about how she empowers her committee chairmen — allowing them to make decisions about what legislation they pursue and how they run their respective panels.
With Nadler’s panel, however, she has been much more personally involved in the committee’s decision-making process, according to multiple sources, even compared with panels such as Oversight and Intelligence, which are also pursuing potentially explosive investigations targeting Trump.
The speaker’s allies, though, assert that Pelosi has been hands-off with the Judiciary Committee except when it comes to her disagreement with Nadler over impeachment. Opening an impeachment inquiry, as Nadler has advocated privately to Pelosi, would be the equivalent of “jumping off a cliff,” according to a source close to the speaker.
The squabble has put a strain on what has generally been a cordial and respectful relationship.
They have served together in the House for nearly 30 years. Nadler, a New Yorker, backed Pelosi, who is from California, when she challenged Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), now the No. 2 Democrat, in their bitter battle to become House minority whip in 2001, a critical moment in her rise to the speaker’s chair. The alliances forged then still resonate today and creep into nearly all internal caucus politics.
Pelosi, in turn, stayed out of the race between Nadler and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a close ally of the speaker, to become the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in 2017. Pelosi’s silence was interpreted as a gift to Nadler and a blessing for him to take over the gavel after the resignation of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) amid a sexual harassment scandal.
In the seven weeks since Mueller’s findings were made public, House Democrats have been focused almost exclusively on battling the Trump administration over how much of the Mueller report lawmakers can view; when and whether Mueller testifies; the conditions of Barr’s testimony; and other process-related fights.
Those protracted legal battles were out of Nadler’s control, due in large part to the Trump administration’s unwillingness to comply with congressional subpoenas. Nadler addressed the administration’s recalcitrance during Monday’s hearing with Nixon White House counsel John Dean and former federal prosecutors.
“It is true that fact witnesses have been ordered by the White House not to appear before this committee,” Nadler said. “But we’ll get them.”
Still, Democrats on the committee have privately complained that the process battles do little to educate the public, and even Monday’s hearing with Dean barely made a splash. Instead, most news networks carried coverage of a fatal helicopter crash in New York City on Monday.
“Obviously that’s not going to be effective if they didn’t see that,” acknowledged Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee and leadership member who supports opening an impeachment inquiry.
“I’ve expressed my personal opinions to the speaker,” Lieu said. “It will be a decision that the speaker and the caucus makes. And I respect that decision. In the meantime, I’m going to hold these hearings [and] educate the American people about the report.”
Judiciary Committee Democrats largely remain united behind Nadler, saying privately that they recognize he is in an impossible position — caught between a majority of the panel’s Democratic members supporting an impeachment inquiry and the speaker remaining steadfastly opposed.
“To some extent they’re on the same page,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), a Judiciary member and Pelosi ally, said of the disagreement between the speaker and Nadler. “But the American people have to get there. And as of now, as Democrats, the White House has been able to distract and hide from the Mueller report because we have a president and an attorney general who are co-conspirators in depriving the American people of the real facts.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.