Trump Scorches Democrats As Pelosi Broaches Prospect Of 'Impeachable Offense'
Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET
Negotiations over a potential infrastructure program fizzled on Wednesday as a White House meeting between President Trump and Democrats escalated into blame-trading and political threats — including impeachment.
The president was the first to appear after the session in a Rose Garden availability that he used to renew his call for Democrats to abandon investigations into him if they want to negotiate over improving the nation's roads and bridges or other legislation.
"I told the Democrats ... I want to do infrastructure," Trump said. "I'd be really good at that. It's what I do. But we can't do it under these circumstances. Get these phony investigations over with."
The president appeared behind a lectern that had been decorated with placards including details about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and Trump's leitmotif: "No collusion. No obstruction."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., appeared on Capitol Hill shortly after Trump's press conference.
In their telling, Trump was never serious about an infrastructure program.
The president had no proposal for how to finance billions of dollars in new spending, Schumer said. He described a setup inside the White House that Schumer said showed that Trump had decided beforehand that he wasn't going to negotiate, but instead simply tell Democrats no and then walk out to talk to reporters.
"There were investigations going on three weeks ago when we met — and he still met with us," Schumer said. "Now that he was forced to say how he would pay for it, he had to run away. And he came up with this pre-planned response."
A source familiar with the discussion later described it in more detail.
Trump came into the Cabinet Room at the White House and neither shook hands with the congressional guests nor sat in his seat. He spoke for about three minutes, telling the Democrats that he would only discuss infrastructure once their investigations were over.
There won't be "two tracks," Trump said, according to the source — in other words, Democratic members of Congress cannot both investigate and also negotiate with Trump on legislation, he said.
Trump left the room before any of the members of Congress could speak, the source said.
Pelosi later used a public appearance elsewhere in Washington to describe the White House meeting as "very strange" and warn that Trump's continued efforts to frustrate congressional investigations could lead the House to initiate impeachment proceedings.
"In plain sight, this president is obstructing justice and is engaged in a cover-up," she said. "And that could be an impeachable offense."
The late-morning whiplash followed what appeared to be some thawing of the ice between Congress and the Trump administration.
The Justice Department began giving ground to the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who canceled what he had called a planned "enforcement" session because he said the Justice Department would comply with a subpoena and provide documents related to its investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
"The department has repeatedly acknowledged the committee's legitimate oversight interest in these materials," Schiff said. "I look forward to, and expect, continued compliance by the department so we can do our vital oversight work."
The chairman's subpoena will remain in effect, Schiff said, but he expects to begin receiving the documents he has ordered by the end of next week.
Exactly what materials he'll receive isn't clear, but Schiff has said they relate to the findings in Volume I of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, which recounted investigators' discovery about the Russian interference — and the conclusion that the Trump campaign did not conspire with it, notwithstanding a number of contacts.
Trump and Republicans say that Schiff and his colleagues are simply trying to drag out the Russia discussion for as long as they can in order to keep the spotlight on allegations that Mueller already has deflated.
"It's a total horrible thing that happened to our country," Trump said. "It hurt us in so many ways."
Democrats, meanwhile, are conflicted as to what action to take based on Mueller's findings and the reluctance they say they've encountered from the Trump administration about other inquiries, including his finances and business practices.
Pelosi met with Schiff and other top lieutenants earlier on Wednesday morning to discuss the internecine disputes over whether, in the most extreme case, to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.
The speaker, who has previously said she opposes impeachment, is trying to calibrate a message that resonates with many constituencies.
That includes her House chairmen — who are locking horns with the Trump administration — with liberal Democratic voters, who loathe Trump — and also with Americans more broadly, most of whom are much cooler about impeachment.
Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday morning that Democrats would continue to exercise their powers of oversight and keep up the pressure on the administration, but stopped short of using the I-word.
"We believe it's important to follow the facts," she said. "We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. We believe the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up."
Whether or not Trump intended before Wednesday morning's conference with Democrats to rebuff them — as Schumer charged — the remark by the speaker clearly annoyed the president.
Trump called himself, possibly, the most transparent president of all time.
"I don't do cover-ups," he said. "You people know that better than anybody."
Pelosi then turned up the volume later on Wednesday when she appeared onstage at an event hosted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The speaker repeated her charge about the "cover-up" and said that if Trump's administration continues to resist investigations, it could be "an impeachable offense."
Democrats stalled, Democrats angry
Democrats point to the stiff-arm they've gotten from Trump on obtaining an unredacted copy of Mueller's report. The Justice Department says it is protected by executive privilege.
They also say they've been blocked from getting access to testimony and documents from others, including Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., issued subpoenas on Tuesday evening for more prospective witnesses, including Annie Donaldson, McGahn's ex-chief of staff, and former White House communications director Hope Hicks, a close and long-serving former aide to the president.
It isn't clear yet whether the Justice Department may cite the same legal reasoning it has given for seeking to block McGahn's testimony: that presidential advisers of his stature are so close to the president that Congress might as well be trying to compel Trump himself to appear — which would violate the Constitution's separation of powers.
What about Mueller himself?
It also isn't clear yet what will happen with perhaps the highest-profile witness that Schiff, Nadler and other Democrats hope will appear: Mueller himself.
Barr and the Justice Department haven't thrown up any official barrier to a hearing with Mueller, but at the same time, Nadler has appeared frustrated about being unable to nail down a date for a hearing.
The famously taciturn special counsel — who hasn't spoken an official word in public since his appointment two years ago — is understood to be somewhat reluctant to appear in the spotlight of a hearing that would likely rival or equal earlier set pieces in the Russia imbroglio.
Hearings including with Barr, former FBI Director James Comey and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen have drawn national attention, and a Mueller hearing would, too.
Schiff, Nadler and their colleagues aren't giving up, though — they said on Wednesday that they'll continue to press for Mueller to testify as soon as practical.
It isn't clear how much longer Mueller may continue to work at the Justice Department, and his eventual return to private life could affect the kinds of information to which he has access beyond his own recollections and, in turn, what he might be able to discuss with Congress.
NPR's Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.