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Trump abruptly ends infrastructure meeting with Democrats after Pelosi says he is ‘engaged in a cover-up’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/22/2019 John Wagner, Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis

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President Trump abruptly ended a meeting with Democratic leaders on Wednesday, saying he was unable to work with them on legislation following comments by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he was “engaged in a cover-up.”

Trump made an unscheduled appearance in the Rose Garden shortly afterward and in a meandering 10-minute address said he had left the meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at which they were supposed to talk about working together on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

“Instead of walking in happily to a meeting, I walk in to look at people who said I was doing a cover-up,” Trump said, adding that he can’t work on infrastructure “under these circumstances.”

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Pelosi made her comments earlier Wednesday morning after a closed-door meeting with House Democrats called to discuss ongoing investigations of Trump and his administration. Despite her accusation of a cover-up, Pelosi and all but one of her five present committee chairmen with investigative powers tamped down talk of impeachment proceedings during the meeting.

Speaking to reporters shortly after Trump’s appearance in the Rose Garden, Pelosi and Schumer said they were taken aback by Trump’s behavior.

“To watch what happened in the White House would make your jaw drop,” Schumer said.

Pelosi said Democrats had been prepared to deliver a signature accomplishment to Trump at a time when the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure are ailing.

“For some reason, maybe it was lack of confidence on his part that he really couldn’t match the greatness of the challenge that we have . . . he just took a pass, and it just makes me wonder why he did,” Pelosi said. “In any event, I pray for the president of the United States, and I pray for the United States of America.”

Trump was visibly angry when he arrived in the Cabinet room about 15 minutes late to meet with Pelosi and Schumer, according to people familiar with what transpired. Trump did not shake hands or sit down, and after accusing Pelosi of saying something “terrible,” he headed out without allowing time for a response.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich), who was there to take part in the meeting, said that after directing his anger toward Pelosi, he “said it was over, that he wasn’t going to do infrastructure or anything else until [investigations] were over.”

In the Rose Garden, Trump delivered his remarks from a podium with a sign reading, “NO Collusion, NO Obstruction,” and that displayed statistics about the investigation into Russian election interference by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, such as the number of subpoenas issued and witnesses called.

Calling the investigation “a one-sided, horrible thing,” Trump lashed out at Democrats, investigators and the assembled journalists.

“This whole thing was a takedown attempt at the president of the United States — and honestly, you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for the way you report it so dishonestly,” he told reporters.

The president echoed many of his points in tweets Wednesday afternoon, including one in which he said, “You can’t investigate and legislate simultaneously — it just doesn’t work that way.”

A growing number of rank-and-file Democrats have called for the launch of an impeachment inquiry against Trump as frustrations build over the administration’s stonewalling of congressional probes.

But during Wednesday’s meeting of House Democrats, most of the chairmen who addressed the caucus focused on recent successes in court battles to force the administration to comply with subpoenas and counseled the more measured course advocated by Pelosi, according to multiple people in the room.

The meeting “reflected where most of this caucus is at,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). “Have faith in the courts and have faith in process, and impeachment only if absolutely necessary.”

Addressing reporters afterward, Pelosi said Democrats had “a very productive meeting,” and she called for staying the course on investigations.

“We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts,” she said. “We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up.”

Speaking later at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress, Pelosi questioned the practical value of opening an impeachment inquiry at this point.

“I’m not sure we get more information if we do an impeachment inquiry. But if so, that’s a judgment we have to make,” Pelosi said.

She added: “It’s not just the substance that we’re after. … The cover-up is frequently worse than the crime.”

During the Democratic caucus meeting, House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was the only one of the chairmen to call for moving forward with impeachment proceedings, a stance consistent with her past advocacy for seeking to remove Trump.

While other chairmen said they were outraged by Trump’s conduct, several offered reasons to follow Pelosi’s lead. House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), for instance, warned that some freshmen lawmakers in swing districts could lose races if Democrats are too aggressive in pursuing impeachment.

Ahead of the meeting, Trump aimed a barrage of tweets at House Democrats questioning their priorities as they prepared to discuss investigations into the administration amid the growing calls for impeachment proceedings.

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In his tweets, Trump claimed that Democrats are “getting ZERO work done in Congress” and are instead focused on what he called a continuation of a “Witch Hunt” into whether he sought to obstruct Mueller’s investigation.

“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” Trump wrote in the fourth of his tweets that began before 6 a.m.

Democrats have become increasingly frustrated with the administration’s refusal to cooperate with congressional requests for documents and testimony. That included the White House’s refusal to allow former counsel Donald McGahn to testify at a hearing Tuesday about key aspects of Mueller’s report.

During the caucus meeting, most lawmakers appeared to side with Pelosi, according to people in the room. Even some of those who had advocated opening an impeachment inquiry sounded more measured as they left the meeting.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who spoke up forcefully for an impeachment inquiry in a private leadership meeting Monday, declined to say after the meeting whether such an inquiry should now be launched.

“I just think we need to have a conversation about all the constitutional means that are available to us, and we’re having that conversation,” Raskin said.

One of the most vocal proponents of an impeachment inquiry, Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), rose during the meeting and spoke about the need for the House to ensure that “no one is above the law,” making the case that impeachment proceedings would elevate the seriousness of the House’s response to Trump.

“People understand the gravity of this moment,” Cicilline said afterward. “There was a very candid, respectful discussion about the best way to proceed. I think everyone recognizes that this isn’t just about Donald J. Trump, but it’s about protecting the rule of law in this country and the implications it has for the future of our democracy.”

Pelosi called the caucus-wide huddle amid increased pressure from some of her members to begin an impeachment inquiry. Monday night, a band of frustrated House Judiciary Committee members — including powerful chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — confronted Pelosi on her no-impeachment position and encouraged her to green-light an inquiry.

Pelosi refused, arguing that the caucus is not behind the move and that it would impede other committees in pursuing their investigations.

Pro-impeachment members, however, argue that an impeachment inquiry will enable investigators to more quickly secure documents and witness testimony that the White House has blocked at every turn. Since Monday, about 25 lawmakers have gone public to call for an inquiry to begin.

To ease the pressure and the tension, Pelosi had privately signaled that she will green-light more aggressive investigative measures, according to several lawmakers.

Pelosi, these lawmakers say, is talking about so-called “inherent contempt” in a real way. That includes potentially tweaking House rules to allow chairmen to slap steep fines on Trump officials who ignore subpoenas.

Since taking control of the House in January, Democrats have passed several legislative measures, including bills on health care and ethics reform, that have not been taken up in the Republican-led Senate.

Prospects for an infrastructure deal seemed to dim even before Wednesday’s aborted meeting.

In a letter to Pelosi and Schumer on Tuesday night, Trump wrote that it is his “strong view” that Congress should pass the trade deal his administration negotiated with Canada and Mexico before turning its full attention to infrastructure.

The White House has stepped up pressure on Congress to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement by the summer amid continuing Democratic concerns about parts of the deal.

Related slideshow: 6 things you need to know about how impeachment works (Reuters)

During an appearance on Fox News on Wednesday morning, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders accused Democrats of “dragging their feet” on the trade deal and chastised them for talking about impeachment.

In his morning tweets, Trump continued to question why Democrats were interested in hearing the testimony from his aides and others who were interviewed as part of Mueller’s investigation.

The report did not find sufficient evidence to bring charges of criminal conspiracy with Russia against Trump or anyone associated with his campaign. It did not offer a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.

Attorney General William P. Barr later concluded that there was not sufficient evidence for obstruction of justice, but House Democrats are continuing to pursue that issue.

“After two years of an expensive and comprehensive Witch Hunt, the Democrats don’t like the result and they want a DO OVER,” Trump said in one of his morning tweets. “In other words, the Witch Hunt continues!”

Later Wednesday morning, Trump returned to Twitter to justify blocking the testimony of McGahn, his former White House counsel, to the Judiciary Committee.

“He (Jerry Nadler) wants a show,” Trump said of the panel’s chairman. “He wants to use Mr. McGahn as a prop.”

After leaving his joint news conference with Pelosi, Schumer said Democrats remain willing to work with Trump on infrastructure and other issues. But he questioned whether the president had a serious financing plan for an infrastructure package — which he was scheduled to unveil at the aborted meeting.

“We’re willing to work with the White House for the good of the country on anything that we can as long as we stick to our principles, which we will,” Schumer said. “But we don’t know if they are . . . I think they can’t figure out a way to do infrastructure, and they came up with a very inelegant way to get out of it.”

Later Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), upon entering a GOP meeting at the Capitol, was asked by a reporter whether the morning’s events blew up other agenda items besides infrastructure.

He paused for a couple seconds, smiled and walked away without commenting.

Felicia Sonmez, Erica Werner, Josh Dawsey and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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