WASHINGTON - A group of Judiciary Committee Democrats has begun privately mapping a list of possible charges against President Donald Trump, sketching out the contours of potential articles of impeachment even as House leaders publicly resist taking such action, according to a half-dozen lawmakers and congressional aides.
The informal discussions, closely held and preliminary, could produce a range of allegations - some that echo charges in proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and defiance of subpoenas, as well as violation of campaign finance law and allegations of self-enrichment, said the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their work.
Members of the Judiciary Committee believe they have identified five areas of potential obstruction in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, episodes Democrats will explore further during a hearing Tuesday with former Trump campaign official Corey Lewandowski and other ex-Trump aides.
Additional potential impeachment articles being explored by the committee could focus on hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump and allegations that the president has used his public office to benefit his private business, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
Several people close to the investigation cautioned that the articles may never be drafted, particularly given the reluctance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to move forward. But the behind-the-scenes planning reflects a growing desire among House Democrats to build a public case against Trump - and soon - even if there is no chance the Senate would convict him.
The committee voted along party lines Thursday on new investigative procedures the panel will use "to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Donald J. Trump," the resolution reads. Similar procedures have been used in the impeachment proceedings against Nixon and President Bill Clinton.
The additional tools would allow the committee to designate certain hearings as impeachment sessions, allow counsels to question witnesses publicly, permit some evidence to remain private and allow the president's counsel to respond in writing to evidence and testimony.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dismissed the notion of impeachment, telling reporters Thursday, "There's no public appetite for that."
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a committee member who drafted his own articles, threatened to introduce them and then backed off after learning of the panel's plans to eventually craft its own, said Trump "has trampled the Constitution."
"There is just so much you could go after," Cohen said. "It's going to be refining it down to the most salient."
The public drama will unfold as the country moves toward a hotly contested 2020 campaign and Democratic hopefuls jockey for the presidential nomination - one of the reasons some Judiciary Committee Democrats say they fear time is running out. The party's liberal base, most of its presidential candidates and a majority of House Democrats - 134 of the 235 - endorse impeachment, putting pressure on Pelosi.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Daniel Schwarz, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee Democrats, played down any discussions about articles of impeachment, reaffirming the panel's public position that "the committee is focused on its investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment."
"The committee's work on its investigation is ongoing, but there have been no decisions made," he said. "Any suggestion that such articles have already been drafted or that the committee's work is already concluded is categorically false."
Yet increasingly there is a sense among House Democrats that impeaching Trump is inevitable - even among some who do not want to proceed with it.
"I think the train has left the station and at some point there's going to be a vote on articles of impeachment, and that's a concern for members like myself who represent moderate districts," said Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., who is seeking reelection in a district Trump won by 15 percentage points in 2016.
The disagreement between the panel and the leadership over impeachment sets up a possible showdown between Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. The committee has always coordinated its activities with the speaker, and those close to the panel say it is unlikely it would ever defy her wishes and advance articles without her consent.
Pelosi has remained a skeptic of impeaching the president, noting that a majority of Americans oppose the move. She has continued to frame the issue in public and private as an ongoing investigation of Trump rather than official impeachment proceedings, messaging that conflicts with the committee's and has created confusion for lawmakers and the public.
The American people "understand that impeachment is a very divisive measure, and if we have to go there we'll go there. But to go there we have to have the facts," she told reporters Thursday at her weekly news conference.
"Legislate, investigate, litigate - that's the path we have been on and that's the path we continue to be on," she said.
The committee is keen on exploring Trump's alleged involvement in payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, which could be the basis for one article. Several on the panel say they believe there is enough evidence to establish Trump as a co-conspirator on campaign finance charges that sent his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to prison.
Trump's stonewalling of Congress and ignoring of congressional subpoenas would almost certainly make up another charge, according to lawmakers and aides. Trump has blocked more than 20 investigations, according to a Post analysis, forcing Democrats to turn to the courts for help.
Some lawmakers, including Judiciary Committee member Jamie Raskin, D-Md., also have been pushing the panel to make the emoluments piece part of the list, according to some of the individuals. Reports about the military and Vice President Mike Pence staying in Trump hotels at taxpayers' expense smack of corruption and will resonate with voters, these Democrats say.
The panel is considering a subcommittee hearing on these matters in coming weeks, two people said.
"The American people understand what it means to rip off the government for your private business interests," said Raskin, who declined to comment on discussions about articles of impeachment. "That's where we are. The president has converted the American government into an instrument of self-enrichment."
The subject is a sensitive one for the committee and House Democratic leadership. Even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., appeared confused Wednesday about the precise nature of the panel's work - and whether impeachment was a real possibility. Asked by reporters whether the committee was in an official impeachment inquiry, he said no and gave an answer that he was later forced to clarify.
"I strongly support Chairman Nadler and the Judiciary Committee Democrats as they proceed with their investigation 'to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House,' as the resolution states," he said in a statement. "It is critical that Congress have access to all of the relevant facts, and we will follow those facts wherever they lead, including impeachment."
At the same time, a group of centrist House Democrats is growing nervous about the prospects of being forced to vote on impeachment. Several Democratic freshmen, many from districts Trump won in 2016, confronted Nadler at a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the arc of the House investigations.
"I said, 'Look, over the next six months, I would much rather see the Democrats be the party of lowering prescription drug costs, not the party of impeachment,' " said Brindisi, who was in the meeting. "His message back was that the committee is doing their due diligence right now, and he did not commit one way or the other where the investigation would lead."
What is unclear is whether the new fall focus will change public opinion, reversing numbers in which a majority of Americans have opposed impeachment. That view has remained largely unchanged since a June survey conducted before Mueller testified to Congress.
But members of the Judiciary Committee, many of whom are eager to impeach Trump, say they have a job to do - no matter what the polls say.
"I think this is one of those moments where we have to lead, we have to look at the evidence, look at the law, do what the Constitution requires us to do, and the politics will take care of itself," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. "I don't think you can make a determination because you think it is politically disadvantageous."
Cicilline also declined to comment on discussions about articles.
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
This article was written by Rachael Bade, a reporter for The Washington Post.