WASHINGTON — Recent revelations about President Donald Trump's conduct are testing the limits of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's narrow impeachment strategy, leading some Democrats to wonder whether the probe should be expanded beyond the Ukraine scandal.
Since House Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry just over two weeks ago, Pelosi, D-Calif., and her top lieutenants have coalesced around a plan to focus on Trump's pressure on the Ukrainian president to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential candidate, and his son Hunter.
The episode, Democrats argue, is clear-cut, easy for Americans to understand and doesn't require further proof, as the White House has released a rough transcript of the call. In a conference call with Democrats Friday, Oct. 11, Pelosi emphasized that the focus should be Ukraine.
"What we are doing on impeachment is about the facts - 'Just the facts, ma'am' - and the Constitution," she told lawmakers, according to a senior aide. "His policy, his personality, his potty-mouth, that's about the election and let's make sure that we understand the reasons he is - the inquiry is because he has not honored his oath of office. We will honor ours."
But a spate of allegations about other possible abuses have led some Democrats to rethink the strategy.
"We have a duty to investigate whether the misuse of government resources for personal and political ends goes beyond Ukraine," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He later added: "We have an obligation to just see how deep this sewage flows."
In a boost for House Democrats on Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that Congress can seek eight years of Trump's business records from his accounting firm, a decision in one of several legal battles that begun months before Pelosi initiated the impeachment inquiry.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Congress' broad investigative powers and rejected the president's bid to block lawmakers from subpoenaing the documents.
Within a one-day span, The Washington Post reported that Trump sought to enlist then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the fall of 2017 to stop the prosecution of a Turkish Iranian gold trader represented by Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor is Trump's personal attorney.
The Financial Times reported that Michael Pillsbury, one of Trump's China advisers, said he had received potentially negative information on Hunter Biden during a visit to Beijing. Pillsbury later offered conflicting accounts and, in an interview with The Post, said, "Most everything I learned was already public or well-known."
The contradictory comments from Pillsbury followed Trump's public request last week that China investigate the former vice president's son.
In solely focusing on Ukraine, Democrats could miss the opportunity to build a stronger case against the president - one that has the potential to sway Senate Republicans who will decide whether to convict Trump if the House votes to impeach.
"We're basically getting like three new impeachable offenses a day, so it suggests that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg on what's happening," said Daniel Pfeiffer, a former Obama strategist who hosts "Pod Save America" and who has been pushing Democrats to expand their probes.
Multiple senior Democratic officials tracking the impeachment inquiry said there is no plan to broaden their investigation to include Trump's unorthodox request to Tillerson, which the former secretary of state rejected and considered illegal. Nor are Democrats readying a new impeachment probe of Trump's request last week that China dig up dirt on Biden, which one official said was a public declaration and didn't need to be investigated.
On the conference call, Pelosi resisted suggestions from two lawmakers to expand the probe beyond Ukraine.
"The speaker was pretty clear that she continues to believe that we need to make sure that we're keeping this focused," said one Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. "There are a lot of rabbit holes to go down here, but we need to resist that temptation."
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, urged members of the caucus to keep their language on impeachment simple and direct, arguing that "Trump abused his power and put himself above the law when he asked the Ukrainian president to interfere in the U.S. election."
After months of Trump stonewalling Congress, House Democrats have had a series of successes. In addition to the appeals court decision, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, bucked the White House's no-cooperation pledge and gave a deposition to House investigators Friday. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, will answer questions from congressional committees next week.
The White House has pressured Pelosi to hold a formal House vote for an impeachment inquiry, a dare to which the speaker has no intention of responding, according to senior Democrats close to the speaker - at least not now.
Rather, Democrats are doubling down on their Ukraine probe at lightning speed, scheduling additional closed-door depositions with Trump officials, including former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, and issuing new subpoenas to Trump associates for documents.
On Thursday, they sent one compulsory measure to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who Trump said encouraged him to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Recent reports, the Democratic investigators wrote, have "raised significant questions about your efforts to press Ukrainian officials to change the management structure at a Ukrainian state-owned energy company to benefit individuals involved with Rudy Giuliani's push to get Ukrainian officials to interfere in our 2020 election."
Democrats also subpoenaed two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, for documents pertaining to how they worked to connect Trump's attorney to Ukrainians claiming to have damaging information on the Bidens. Both men were arrested on campaign finance charges Wednesday night amid allegations that they schemed to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians in a bid to affect U.S.-Ukraine relations.
House Democrats have speculated that Trump's pressure on Ukraine was not a one-off situation - particularly after his comments to China. The New York Times also reported last week that Trump recently pushed the Australian prime minister to "help Attorney General William P. Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation."
For now, Democrats plan to use those headlines to further substantiate their call to impeach Trump, even if they don't investigate them as part of the inquiry. Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., a deputy whip on Pelosi's leadership team, said Trump's China comment, for example, "certainly strengthens our case that this president is abusing his power in a way that is really dangerous for America."
To be sure, Pelosi's caucus appears largely behind her move to concentrate impeachment efforts on Ukraine - at least so far. Moderate Democrats sought the narrow strategy because they argue that the Ukraine controversy will register with voters in their competitive districts in a way that other scandals will not.
Many rank-and-file Democrats also fear that trying to investigate too much will undermine what they consider a strong case against Trump.
Even some of the most liberal House members, such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, back Pelosi's Ukraine-focused strategy. Jayapal argued that the caucus needs to "stay focused on what is easiest to explain," even as she said she was open to the notion of incorporating additional elements into the impeachment inquiry.
"It seems like every day we're finding out a new thing," she said, noting that caucus members would discuss the scope when they returned from a two-week recess next week. "That's the conversation that will be going on and the balance we'll be striking: We want to stay focused in on a simple message, and there might be one or two places where it's actually bolstering the case of Ukraine to talk about the other situations."
One factor contributing to the desire to concentrate on Ukraine is time. House Democrats hope to vote on articles of impeachment before the holidays so they can pivot back to policy matters in 2020 ahead of the election. Expanding the impeachment inquiry would no doubt complicate that timeline.
But some in the Democratic Party are questioning that logic given the damage the impeachment investigation is doing to Trump. Since Democrats launched their inquiry in late September, support for Trump has dipped and backing for impeachment has increased. A recent Post poll found that even GOP backing of ousting the president was on the rise, with 28 percent of Republicans supporting the impeachment inquiry and 18 percent saying they support removing Trump from office.
"This is the first time it feels like Democrats have been able to be truly on offense since we took the majority in 2018, and so walking away from that prematurely for the sake of an arbitrary deadline seems like a mistake to me," Pfeiffer said. "The way this has played out the last few weeks, the way you've seen the poll numbers move on impeachment, it's very clear that there is tremendous interest in what is happening here and it's very clear that that interest is not good for Trump."
In the Senate, one Democratic official suggested the party could benefit from a longer impeachment probe, as several vulnerable Republican senators would be forced to deal with a drawn-out process months before their elections.
Reports about Tillerson being pressured to interfere in an ongoing investigation at the behest of Trump and Giuliani could be a rich target for Democrats. While Trump has blocked numerous administration officials from testifying, Tillerson, who was ousted by Trump, has been willing to participate in previous Democratic inquiries, even secretly answering questions for the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the spring. Should Democrats call him to testify, he could be a fruitful witness.
This article was written by Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade, reporters for The Washington Post.