'A shift to Schiff': With growing calls for Trump impeachment, Democratic leadership plots a new course

WASHINGTON — With advocates of impeachment growing bolder, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives are beginning to consider several options for starting formal proceedings against President Trump amid growing tensions and internal feuds among its members.

One possibility, according to Democratic sources familiar with deliberations, is moving impeachment proceedings out of the powerful House Judiciary Committee — a move that one highly placed source said could provoke an insurrection among its members.

As the Democratic caucus headed into meetings Tuesday to discuss the possibility of impeachment, multiple Democratic sources on Capitol Hill said it remained unclear how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would proceed, even as she has begun to sketch out how Democrats might move against Trump, whom they accuse of a variety of grave ethical lapses.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, left, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a news conference in July. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The path forward, sources say, may not involve House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who has thus far been the public face of the most consequential congressional investigations into the Trump administration. Pelosi has clashed repeatedly with the Judiciary Committee chair in recent weeks and, according to several sources, has lost confidence in him and prefers to have House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff be the public face for making the case against Trump.

“A shift to Schiff is one of the options,” a Democratic source told Yahoo News.

Pelosi herself denied the rumors during an appearance at the Atlantic Ideas Festival in Washington. "It may be true that that’s what they’re saying but it’s not true," Pelosi said.

Yet multiple party leadership aides on Capitol Hill told Yahoo News on Tuesday that a future inquiry could be moved out of the House Judiciary Committee and into another jurisdiction, including that of a select committee created by Pelosi’s office.

That would signify a marked escalation in Democrats’ pursuit of Trump while at the same time be seen as a slap at Nadler and Judiciary Committee members.

“This idea has been raised by some members. We understand some members may endorse this publicly. The caucus will make these decisions,” a senior Democratic aide said on condition he not be identified.

The Democratic source who discussed the possibility of Schiff leading impeachment proceedings said Pelosi is “upset” with how Nadler has handled the hearings especially after last week’s testimony by Corey Lewandowski — a session that was widely panned as a disaster for the Democrats when the former Trump campaign manager repeatedly refused to answer the panel’s questions.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., right, speaks as Nadler, center, listens during the Corey Lewandowski hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 17. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nadler “looked awful,” said one committee member. “He had all these staff members around him and it looked like he didn’t know what to do.”

The Democratic source called the Lewandowski hearing an “abject failure. Complete embarrassment.”

A spokesperson for Nadler did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Schiff declined to comment.

But at least one prominent Democrat, fellow New Yorker Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said the impeachment proceedings should stay in Nadler's committee in the interest of a judicious and speedy process.

"This is an emergency. We don’t have the luxury of time [with] another committee," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "Judiciary has been investigating & putting the pieces together for months. Impeachment belongs there. We must honor jurisdiction, historical precedent, & work done [and] allow Judiciary to move forward."

In addition, some Judiciary Committee members argue that letting Schiff handle the impeachment case has its own problems: His committee is bound by strict confidentiality rules, forcing any documents or information it receives from the intelligence community to be kept behind closed doors.

Moreover, setting up a new select panel could only further delay any House impeachment vote, resulting in the Democrats squandering a rare opportunity to strike against Trump when he is potentially vulnerable, and infuriating Judiciary Committee members who have been working on impeachment for months. Another way for Pelosi to reward her allegiance to Schiff, one member said, is to give him assurances he will be one of the impeachment managers for any trial in the Senate.

Such considerations were a sign that Pelosi has come to recognize that impatience with the investigations into Trump thus far has become untenable. Particularly, there was widespread frustration among Democrats with Nadler’s handling of last week’s hearing involving Lewandowski, who assumed a haughty, insulting posture toward Democrats. Two other key witnesses who had been given subpoenas simply did not show up.

It is far from certain, however, that Pelosi will activate a more aggressive investigatory agenda. While the Democratic source who discussed the structure of a potential inquiry said that Pelosi is likely to escalate matters this week, they were not sure whether that would include launching formal impeachment proceedings.

“Not sure how far she’ll go,” the source said.

And a senior aide to Democratic leadership cautioned that "no decisions have been made" regarding a select committee in particular. "This idea has been raised by some members. We understand some members may endorse this publicly. The caucus will make these decisions."

The growing calls for impeachment follow last week’s revelation that a whistleblower filed a complaint alleging Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who has had business dealings in Ukraine. Biden is a contender for the Democratic nomination for president, making any such investigation a charged political affair.

President Trump addresses reporters as he arrives with first lady Melania Trump for the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. (Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP)

Trump has admitted to talking about Biden to Zelensky, but has maintained that the “perfect” call was completely acceptable.

This week came renewed calls to impeach the president, which had quieted somewhat in the weeks since former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified somewhat anticlimactically on Capitol Hill about his report on electoral interference in the 2016 election, and alleged attempts by the Trump administration to obstruct an investigation into that interference. For the president’s detractors, trying to exert influence on a foreign nation is a more clear-cut example of wrongdoing.

On Monday night, seven first-term Democrats published an op-ed in the Washington Post, calling on House leaders to consider holding impeachment hearings over Trump’s “flagrant disregard for the law.” More than a dozen Democrats in the House have come over to the pro-impeachment side, meaning that 155 Democrats now support such proceedings, which have not taken place since 1998, when Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.

Now the pressure is on Pelosi, who it appears can no longer ignore the growing calls for impeachment. At the same time, she knows how risky such a move would be: Republicans are widely believed to have lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections because of their zealous pursuit of Clinton at that time.

In a letter sent to House Democrats on Sunday, Pelosi announced that acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire would be testifying on Capitol Hill later this week about the Ukraine phone call. She also warned that if the administration attempted to shut down a congressional investigation into the whistleblower complaint, “they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”

The message from Pelosi to the Democratic conference was 303 words long, but it was most notable for the single word it did not contain: “impeachment.”

Progressives, however, are saying the time for caution is over. “Now is the time to prosecute the case,” says Max Bergmann, who directs the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. “The president committed an impeachable act,” Bergmann said, adding that “it makes Democrats look weak” if they fail to call him to account.

California congressman Jared Huffman voiced a similar sentiment on Twitter, charging his fellow Democrats with “tragic fecklessness” for failing to impeach Trump. The message has close to 10,000 retweets, and close to 40,000 likes.

With pressure rising for Democrats to move against Trump, three Democratic House committee chairmen — Eliot L. Engel of New York, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee, Schiff of California and Elijah E. Cummings of the Oversight Committee, who has been one of Trump’s most vociferous critics in Congress—announced on Monday that they would issue subpoenas unless the Trump administration was forthcoming in producing evidence regarding the call with Zelensky. “If press reports are accurate,” the three influential Democrats wrote, Trump had committed “a betrayal of the President’s oath of office” that “cannot go unchecked.”

A woman holds an “Impeach” sign in front of the Rayburn House Office Building on Monday. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

On Monday, a senior aide in the speaker’s office who has worked with the House committees investigating Trump said that Pelosi was not rattled by the impeachment calls. The aide characterized those calls as the predictable fulminations of a small but loud fringe.

That, however, was before a sustained campaign by pro-impeachment Democrats that lasted through Monday and into Tuesday — and could continue indefinitely.

“House Democrats’ strategy for holding Donald Trump accountable has been consistent from day one: legislate, investigate, litigate — and it is working,” the speaker’s aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The aide pointed to oversight and legal efforts that “have produced a number of new and damning examples of the corruption and incompetence of this administration,” including investigations into travel expenditures by Vice President Mike Pence and spending by the military at Trump-owned properties.

The aide explained that Pelosi believes that proceeding on impeachment without an “ironclad” case is simply too risky.

But by Tuesday morning, reports had Pelosi “reconsidering” her reluctance to impeach.

For Rep. Don Beyer, a moderate progressive who represents a district in Northern Virginia and is generally in line with House leadership, the time for impeachment has come. He compared Trump’s alleged call to have Biden investigated to the interference Russia conducted on his behalf in the 2016 election.

“Congress absolutely cannot allow that,” Beyer told Yahoo News. “I think the case for impeachment is the strongest that it has ever been. We have to take action to put a check on this president’s lawless abuses of power.”

Patience finally appears to be running out among Democrats.

Huffman of California told Yahoo News that he retains faith in Democratic leadership, including Pelosi, and he forcefully discounted any suggestion of a tea party-style putsch. But he also expressed a strong frustration with leadership’s inaction.

“I think this is a hinge of history right now,” Huffman said. “We shot past Watergate levels of corruption long ago.”

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