US President Donald Trump abruptly shut down a White House meeting with Democratic leaders Wednesday to vent his fury over ongoing probes into his links to Russia.
Trump showed the door to top congressional Democrats House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer almost as soon as they came in for what was meant to have been a rare bipartisan session on national infrastructure spending.
Moments later, a livid Trump gathered journalists in the Rose Garden to announce that he could not deal with Democrats as long as they mount “phony investigations” that are increasingly leading to talk of what he called the “i-word” — impeachment.
The presidential meltdown doomed what had been flagged as a hopeful moment of cross-party cooperation on fixing the country’s creaking public infrastructure.
The two sides gave completely different versions of what happened.
According to Trump, he blew up the meeting because Pelosi had just beforehand accused him of mounting a cover-up of the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller into his alleged collusion with Russia and alleged attempts to obstruct the investigation.
Mueller said there was no hard evidence of collusion, even if links between the real estate tycoon’s campaign and Moscow did raise eyebrows. But the prosecutor said he could not rule clearly on whether Trump obstructed justice, leaving it to the Trump-appointed attorney general, Bill Barr, to declare there was no obstruction.
The Democrats’ decision to pursue the grey areas of the investigation further — and their discussing of whether or not to launch impeachment proceedings — has enraged Trump.
“I don’t do cover-ups,” Trump told the hastily convened press conference at the White House. “Here is the bottom line: there was no collusion, there was no obstruction.”
Accusing Democrats of harassing the presidency, Trump said the infrastructure plans were doomed for now and seemed to threaten breaking relations with the opposition party, which controls the lower house of Congress.
“You probably can’t go down two tracks,” Trump said, noting that there was the “investigation track” and the “track of let’s get things done for the American people.”
“So get these phony investigations over with,” Trump said.
Shortly after, Pelosi and Schumer responded with their own scathing descriptions of the episode.
“He came into the room. The statement that he made — I won’t even characterize it,” Pelosi said of the aborted visit.
Suggesting that Trump had manufactured the row to avoid having to commit to details on what would be an enormously expensive infrastructure bill, Pelosi said: “He just took a pass and it just makes me wonder why he did that.”
“I pray for the president of the United States,” she added.
Schumer called the dramatic cancellation of the meeting “a pre-planned excuse” and said “what happened in the White House makes your jaw drop.”
Pelosi has said she believes Trump is “goading” Democrats into impeachment as a political tactic. And Trump appeared to relish the Democratic division in a Wednesday tweet: “The Democrats are getting ZERO work done in Congress.”
A growing number of Democrats, incensed by former White House counsel Don McGahn’s defiance Tuesday of a House panel’s subpoena for testimony, have confronted Pelosi and pushed her and other leaders to act.
Democrats leaving the meeting appeared to be taking Pelosi’s words into consideration. Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen, who called for the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, said he could see both sides.
Of leaders’ reluctance, Cohen said “it’s a political concern rather than an actual constitutional one.”
Representative Katie Hill, a freshman from a California swing district, said she wants to let court actions play out a bit, and is undecided on starting an impeachment inquiry.
The more Trump “defies us, the more that it’s becoming an inevitability,” she said. “But I don’t think that the caucus as a whole is there yet.”
Still, Democrats are continuing to escalate their requests for information. The House Judiciary Committee recently voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after negotiations broke down with the department over similar materials.
On Tuesday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler issued subpoenas for more Trump administration officials — former White House communications director Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, a former aide in the White House counsel’s office — for documents and testimony. The committee is expected to vote on contempt against McGahn in June.
McGahn is the most-cited witness in Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation report, recounting the president’s attempts to interfere with the probe. And that makes his silence all the more infuriating for Democrats.
“Our subpoenas are not optional,” Nadler said. “We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.”