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caption: President Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, demanding that the House formally vote on an impeachment inquiry before responding to lawmakers' requests for documents.
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President Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, demanding that the House formally vote on an impeachment inquiry before responding to lawmakers' requests for documents.
Credit: AP

Trump Demands Full House Vote On Impeachment Before Complying With Lawmakers

President Trump demanded on Friday that the full House must vote on Democrats' impeachment inquiry, arguing that he needn't further comply with Congress' requests until it does.

Updated at 1:19 p.m. ET

Trump told reporters at the White House that he's sending a letter to that effect to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. He suggested his accommodation of congressional requests from this point forward might depend on her response.

"The lawyers say they've never seen anything so unfair," Trump said. "The lawyers say they've never seen anything so unjust."

The White House contends that for impeachment to be legitimate, all members in the chambers must have a chance to support or oppose it.

So far, although Pelosi has declared that an "impeachment inquiry" is underway, the full House has not yet voted to launch one.

The House does not need a vote in order for lawmakers to conduct an impeachment investigation, but a vote could give Republicans more power in the Democratic-led inquiry.

It would also force lawmakers in both parties to go on the record for or against the inquiry as headlines fly thick and fast about the Ukraine affair.

While Republicans so far oppose the impeachment investigation, some GOP lawmakers have said the Ukraine allegations are worthy of an investigation and they could also face a tough choice if put to a vote by the full House. Some moderate Democrats have yet to take a position.

Trump was also asked Friday whether he'd go along with the prospect of Democrats' subpoenas for documents or other materials as they look into his administration's dealings with Ukraine.

"I don't know, that's up to the lawyers," he said.

The president has gone back and forth about what he'll release or how transparent he says the administration might be. His announcement about his letter of protest to Pelosi on Friday suggested that he might now consider the gate closed until Congress acts.

When does impeachment become impeachment

Democrats, led initially by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York, argue that they've been acting on impeachment business for months.

Nadler has said as much in his hearings, and attorneys for House Democrats also have invoked impeachment in their separate legal contests with attorneys for Trump over documents and witnesses.

Pelosi said on Wednesday that there is no need for a full House vote.

Trump's demand represented the latest tactical skirmish within the broader political war over impeachment, which has sucked all the oxygen out of official Washington and largely sidelined all other business between the administration and Congress.

Trump and Pelosi both have said, at different times, they thought Washington should still attempt to negotiate over other legislation — potentially involving prescription drug costs or new gun restrictions — but for now the shadow of impeachment seems to have blotted out nearly everything else in the capital.

Trump's challenge also is an attempt to force Pelosi to truly test which of her moderate members, some of whom were elected last year in districts that Trump carried in 2016, are prepared to go on record in support of impeachment.

"Most of them, many of them, don't believe they should do it," Trump said on Friday. The president said that if Democrats move ahead, "I really believe they're going to pay a tremendous price at the polls."

The speaker had her own warning earlier this week.

Pelosi told reporters in a news conference that she hasn't ruled out a vote, and believes a vote in the full House would be problematic for the minority, too — because it would create a record of where lawmakers stand about Trump's desire for political help from foreign governments.

"That is not anything that is excluded, and, by the way, there are some Republicans that are very nervous about our bringing that bill — that vote — to the floor," Pelosi said.

Theory of the case

The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, has emphasized that in his view, Pelosi's statements about impeachment carry no legal weight on their own.

What's more, Collins argues, what he calls a "real" impeachment would permit more of what he called "due process" for the House minority. As it stands, normal procedure in the chamber means that majority Democrats can convene hearings, call witnesses and issue subpoenas. Minority Republicans can't.

If the ongoing House impeachment is real, for Collins and Republicans, they too would get those powers and be able to mount an equal defense of Trump.

Another ally of Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Friday that Democrats in the House can't hide behind Pelosi if in fact they're serious about impeaching Trump.

Graham alluded to an apocryphal story about the president of the Continental Congress who, in 1776, is said to have signed his name to the Declaration of Independence so boldly that the King of England would be able to read it without his spectacles.

"We need a John Hancock moment from House Democrats before moving forward on impeachment," Graham said. "It is past time for House Democrats to put their names on the line as supporting or opposing an impeachment inquiry."

Road ahead unclear

Impeachment in the House, if it proceeds, would amount to the equivalent of an indictment for Trump, which would then necessitate a trial in the Senate over whether he keeps his office. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside, according to the Constitution.

Republicans control the Senate, and Trump emphasized on Friday how much he expects that support to endure.

"We'll get it to the Senate, and then we win," he said.

Democrats can see the arithmetic of a Senate impeachment vote as clearly as Trump and Republicans, so it isn't clear how far along Pelosi and her members are prepared to drive this offensive.

The speaker resisted calls from liberals within the party to impeach Trump for months, anxious about preserving Democrats' viability in moderate districts and with general election voters in the 2020 election.

But that was before the revelations about the deepening Ukraine affair: Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, potentially in exchange for military assistance already authorized by Congress or engagement with the president.

Those developments moved enough House Democrats that Pelosi opted to move with them.

More documents in the Ukraine case emerged late Thursday, including text messages in which senior U.S. diplomats debate the propriety of the Trump camp's strategy to pressure Ukraine over the Biden investigation.

Democrats argue that Trump has abused his power.

Now Pelosi and Democrats must decide whether to press on no matter what and hand the case to the Senate — even though Trump and Republicans believe they would be strengthened by a party-line vote that they argue would amount to a vindication — or stop short with a vote of censure or other action within the House.

Complicating the political strategy for both sides are changing polls results on impeachment, some of which suggest more Americans may now support it.

Then there are arguments offered by Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a presidential candidate. She has suggested the House has a duty to impeach Trump over his actions and force Republicans in the Senate to go on record defending the president.

Although many Senate Republicans have been muted in their response to the headlines about Trump's dealings with Ukraine, and his newer call for China also to investigate Biden, the red wall protecting the president still seems intact.

Republicans told NPR that the next few weeks would likely determine whether that bulwark holds — or whether cracks may begin to form.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis contributed to this report. [Copyright 2019 NPR]