Seeking Unity on Impeachment, Democrats Decided Against Mueller Charges

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants huddled in her office last week as Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, who oversees the Judiciary Committee, made the case that the House should take up three articles of impeachment against President Trump. Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, countered that there should only be two.

A vigorous debate unfolded, and in the end Ms. Pelosi made the call: There would be only two articles of impeachment, on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, narrowly focused on the investigation into Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. A third, on obstruction of justice tied to the president’s attempts to thwart the inquiry of Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, was too much of a reach.

On Tuesday, the Democrats unveiled those two articles, pushing forward with their carefully managed plans to impeach Mr. Trump before Christmas. But the last-minute dispute over how broad a case to bring reflects the competing demands on Democrats from within their own party, and their determination to appear as unified as possible in a hyper-polarized environment.

Now, Democrats will see whether their decision has its intended effect of keeping the party united behind impeaching Mr. Trump, protecting moderate lawmakers who face steep re-election challenges in conservative-leaning districts, and persuading the public — and the Senate, where a trial will play out — of the seriousness of their case.

Many of the moderates had resisted impeaching Mr. Trump for months, convinced that Mr. Mueller’s report was not sufficient grounds to proceed, as public polling showed that voters did not see a clear case. Representative Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from a Staten Island swing district, for instance, told his constituents that it was better for the country to simply move on from the Russia episode than impeach Mr. Trump over it. He changed course and embraced the impeachment inquiry only after allegations surfaced that the president tried to pressure Ukraine to help him in the 2020 election.

Even now, some centrist Democrats are worried about the process. A group of them met behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the possibility of opposing the articles of impeachment and instead trying to build bipartisan support for a resolution to formally censure the president. They quickly dismissed the idea, which seemed destined to fail. But their conversations reflected the eagerness of some Democrats to avoid the spectacle of a highly partisan impeachment of Mr. Trump in the House.

The debate that unfolded in Ms. Pelosi’s personal office took place only hours after she announced to the nation on Thursday that she had directed her lieutenants to draft articles of impeachment. Sitting around a large wooden table already decorated for Christmas, the visage of Abraham Lincoln staring down from a portrait on the wall, she and the senior Democrats hashed out their disagreement.

Mr. Nadler, who had spent months trying to build an impeachment case from Mr. Mueller’s findings, argued that it was not enough just to charge Mr. Trump with abusing his power and obstructing Congress. We should go broader, he asserted, laying out a pattern of behavior by Mr. Trump. What message would it send if the House gave Mr. Trump a pass for such egregious misconduct?

Three of Mr. Nadler’s fellow committee leaders in the room concurred: Eliot L. Engel of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Carolyn B. Maloney of the Oversight and Reform Committee, and Maxine Waters of the Financial Services Committee.

But Mr. Neal warned that if Democrats put forward anything but their strongest, most agreed-upon case, they risked repeating the mistakes Republicans made in 1998 when they proposed four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, only to see two defeated in votes that split their party.

And Representative Adam B. Schiff, the influential Intelligence Committee chairman, said the facts his panel collected showing that Mr. Trump had solicited Ukraine’s assistance in his re-election campaign carried special urgency, and should not get bogged down by a months-old fight.

The debate, described by lawmakers and aides familiar with its contours who insisted on anonymity, mirrored a larger argument running through the Democratic caucus in recent weeks as it became increasingly clear the House was destined to draw up formal charges against the 45th president.

The final decision, agreed to by all six committee leaders, came down to this: The vast majority of Democrats agree that the allegations of wrongdoing toward Ukraine are overwhelming and pressing as well as a continuing threat to the nation. The same could not be said of attempts by Mr. Trump to interfere with Mr. Mueller’s work.

People close to her said Ms. Pelosi always remained reluctant to move based on obstruction of justice. The case dealt with events in the past, failed to excite public opinion, and far from uniting her caucus, it made moderate freshman lawmakers who had delivered Democrats the majority deeply uncomfortable.

“You make choices and people have different opinions and at the end you come up with a recommendation,” Mr. Engel said on Tuesday. “When you come to consensus it doesn’t mean that initially everybody had the same idea.”

Even after Thursday’s meeting, though, some lawmakers and officials in favor of including an obstruction of justice article worked through the weekend to try to persuade their colleagues otherwise. The Judiciary Committee went as far as sketching out what a possible obstruction of justice charge might look like, according to one official familiar with its work.

The idea had powerful proponents. Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, told McClatchy in an interview last week that obstruction of justice belonged in the articles.

“Obstruction of justice, I think, is too clear not to include,” he said. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, agreed.

Some lawmakers floated the idea that obstruction of justice and obstruction of Congress could be combined into a single article of impeachment claiming a broad-based pattern of conduct over more than two years. But that almost certainly would not have appealed to moderates.

They did manage to incorporate at least one key aspect of their argument in the final articles. Even without mentioning obstruction of justice, Democratic leaders included a paragraph in each tightly scripted article alluding to a pattern of behavior.

“These actions were consistent with President Trump’s previous efforts to undermine United States government investigations into foreign interference in United States elections,” they wrote in Article I.

Mr. Mueller dedicated a full volume of his lengthy report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to Mr. Trump’s attempts to undercut his inquiry. It included nearly a dozen episodes of possible obstruction of justice. Among them were his dismissal of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, attempts to fire Mr. Mueller, efforts to pressure the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, not to recuse himself from the inquiry and then to reverse that decision and retake control of the inquiry, issuing a misleading statement about a meeting with Russians and potentially trying to influence witness testimony.

But the report was far from clear cut. Mr. Mueller himself said he could not decide whether the conduct constituted illegal obstruction because of a Justice Department policy prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president. Attorney General William P. Barr showed no such reluctance, stepping in before the public ever saw Mr. Mueller’s report to clear the president of wrongdoing.

Even House Democrats were not convinced; for months, less than half of the lawmakers in their ranks supported impeaching Mr. Trump.

Mr. Rose was emblematic. He made himself freely available to reporters last week to remind them that he had not supported proceeding with an impeachment inquiry based on the Mueller report, but because he saw something more menacing in the Ukraine allegations.

Another vulnerable moderate, Representative Elaine Luria, Democrat of Virginia, said on Tuesday that she would probably support the articles as introduced. She helped remove any last opposition to an impeachment inquiry in September when she and six other freshman Democrats with national security backgrounds published an op-ed in The Washington Post saying the accusations of Mr. Trump were a threat to national security.

“I wanted to see that they would be narrow, that was my desire, so I am satisfied,” Ms. Luria told reporters.

Privately, some progressives and members of the Judiciary Committee lamented that months of earlier work would go unused.

Representative Lloyd Doggett, a liberal Democrat from Texas, conceded that as bad as Mr. Trump’s attempts to impede Mr. Mueller were, there was too much murkiness around the special counsel’s report to make it a clear case for impeachment.

“Going back to pick that up would just give Republicans more talking points and excuses to delay,” he said.

Mr. Barr’s pre-emptive statements clearing the president of any wrongdoing “set the stage for some confusion out there about what was in the Mueller report,” Mr. Doggett said. “I’m not sure we ever fully recovered.”

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