Trump row with Democrats takes harsh turn with impeachment at stake

Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump doubled down Friday on his claim of an "attempted coup" against him as his battle with Democratic foes entered a vicious new phase of personal insults and strong-arm tactics.

Hovering over it all: the looming question of whether or not the Republican leader will be impeached -- "the big I-word," as Trump put it recently.

The president said he has given his attorney general wide latitude to declassify intelligence information as he probes the origins of the government's investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign ties to Russia.

"They will be able to see ... how the hoax or witch hunt started and why it started," he told reporters as he departed on a trip to Japan. "It was an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States."

"There's word and rumor that the FBI and others were involved, CIA were involved with the UK, having to do with the Russian hoax," he said, adding that he might talk to the outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May about it.

"We're exposing everything," he added.

Trump's bid to turn the tables on his political opponents comes amid an escalating constitutional clash of powers with the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

House Democratic leaders have launched numerous probes aimed at getting evidence gathered during Special Counsel Robert Mueller's 22-month probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign -- only to be stonewalled by the White House.

That has raised calls by Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump.

In an odd turn however, it has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump's congressional nemesis, who has pumped the brakes on impeachment -- even as she accuses the president of a potentially impeachable cover-up.

The president, for his part, is daring his opponents to initiate proceedings against him -- confident that an impeachment by the House would most certainly be blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"'If they try to Impeach President Trump, who has done nothing wrong (No Collusion), they will end up getting him re-elected,'" the president wrote Friday, approvingly retweeting a warning to Democrats by a fellow Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham.

- Cutting words -

Trump, meanwhile, is pulling out the stops in the fight for political supremacy as the country heads toward the 2020 presidential election.

On Thursday, he gave Attorney General William Barr sweeping and unprecedented new authorities to investigate the investigators of his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia -- directing all US intelligence agencies to "quickly and fully cooperate" with Barr's review.

The intelligence agencies had previously rebuffed, on national security grounds, declassification demands by Republican lawmakers seeking to spotlight alleged misdeeds by investigators.

As pressure mounts, a cutting war of words has erupted between Trump and Pelosi, with each questioning the other's mental stability.

On Friday, Trump posted a video of Pelosi remarks that had been edited to mash up instances in which she stumbled over her words.

Asked why he was attacking her personally, Trump bristled: "Did you hear what she said about me long before I went after her?"

"She said terrible things, so I just responded in kind. Look, you think Nancy is the same as she was? She's not," he said.

On Thursday, speaking to a room full of farmers and ranchers who had been invited to the White House for an unrelated event on China tariffs, Trump said Pelosi -- the most senior female politician in American history -- was "a mess."

Pelosi had spent the previous few days needling Trump, claiming he threw a "temper tantrum" during a meeting with Democrats, saying she would "pray" for him, and suggesting those close to him should stage an "intervention."

"She's obviously gotten under the president's skin," House Democrat Ro Khanna told CNN.

Where this goes from here is unclear -- although there is an opportunity to lower the political temperature, with Trump off to Japan and Pelosi out of Washington next week on a holiday recess.

Pelosi must contend with a restless Democratic caucus that is divided over whether or not to impeach the president.

Progressives including Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin have argued that, in the face of White House stonewalling, the time has come to begin impeachment proceedings.

Raskin argued recently that this would consolidate the varied House inquiries in a single centralized process that would have greater standing in the inevitable court battles to come.

But Pelosi also must consider the impact of what she said would be a "very divisive" impeachment battle on some 30 vulnerable Democrats in districts carried by Trump.

Their loss in the next election could threaten her party's hold on the House, which puts Pelosi at a fateful crossroads.