House Dems avoided adding Mueller findings to impeachment

House Democrats engaged in a vigorous behind-the-scenes debate about whether to charge President Donald Trump with obstruction of justice as part of an article of impeachment, but ultimately decided that doing so would become a more difficult message to sell and could cost votes on the floor, multiple Democratic sources involved in the discussions tell CNN.

At a closed-door meeting Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team debated about adding an article of impeachment on obstruction of justice related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, but it was recognized in the room that they would lose some Democratic votes. The idea was broached of even seeing that article of impeachment voted down, but there was little support for going that route, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

“The leadership made the calculation that less is more,” said a senior Democratic aide. “And getting into a confusing investigation that we didn’t do ourselves would lose impact.”

Several Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee pushed hard to include the language, arguing that not charging Trump with obstruction of justice would excuse Trump’s allegedly illegal behavior.

But a source familiar with the matter said that Democrats didn’t want to jeopardize the overall impeachment effort, and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee ultimately got behind the decision to allude to the Mueller allegations in the articles as part of a reference to a pattern of Trump’s behavior.

The abuse of power article says that Trump’s actions were “consistent” with Trump’s previous “invitations of foreign interference in United States elections.” And the obstruction of Congress article says Trump’s actions were consistent with his past obstruction — though it doesn’t explicitly reference Mueller.

“These actions were consistent with President Trump’s previous efforts to undermine United States government investigations into foreign interference in United States elections,” the article says of Trump’s alleged obstruction of the Ukraine impeachment inquiry.

Several freshmen moderate Democrats only got behind the impeachment inquiry after questions were raised over whether Trump sought to leverage the power of his office to push Ukraine to probe his political rivals. And in recent days, some of them — including New York Reps. Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi — indicated they would likely oppose an article focused on the Mueller findings.

Ultimately, Democrats chose to push forward on the two articles in a bid to keep their caucus mainly united, other than two Democrats — Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota — who previously voted against moving forward with the impeachment inquiry and are signaling they’ll vote against the articles.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, one of the six chairmen who announced the articles on Tuesday, said adding an obstruction of justice charge to the impeachment articles would have been a “mixed bag of tricks.” Because it didn’t have broad consensus in the caucus, the New York Democrat said, it could have been tough to get the votes needed.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler sent a letter to House Democrats Tuesday afternoon that said the introduction of the impeachment articles “will not end the work of House committees to pursue ongoing investigations into Presidential misconduct, and those will proceed despite unprecedented obstruction.”

“Some of these investigations relate to the Articles of Impeachment and may gather additional information for use in a Senate trial, adding to the already overwhelming case,” he wrote.

Separately, Democratic sources say that Nadler privately advocated for obstruction of justice as an article of impeachment, which would have included evidence from the Mueller probe. There were multiple individuals, including committee chairs and members of Democratic leadership, who also agreed with a separate article of impeachment, the sources said.

Ultimately, Pelosi backed the two articles that were unveiled Tuesday.

Multiple Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee say that the conversation they had privately with Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University law professor, during a Saturday prep session helped convince them that narrowly crafted articles focused on Ukraine was the best path.

Similarly, in recent days, Pelosi has called Trump’s handling of Ukraine “bribery” — something specifically referenced outlining the constitutional powers of impeachment. But House Democrats looked into the issue and found that the precedent for charging a President with bribery vague and confusing, so they decided ultimately to leave that out.

The decision to keep the articles narrowly focused on Ukraine could win over some key Democrats from swing districts, like freshman Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, who only got behind the inquiry after raising national security concerns about the President’s conduct with Ukraine.

“I’ll have to read them specifically, to weigh in specifically on exactly how they’ve written the charges,” Sherrill said. “But certainly, the charges are narrowly defined and exactly what I was most concerned about.”

Asked if adding obstruction of justice as part of an article would have been problematic for her, Sherrill said: “I certainly think that what they are discussing now … are the things that I was specifically concerned about.”

House Judiciary Committee Democrats said they weren’t concerned that articles were narrowly tailored because the House was putting its strongest case forward.

“I think we’ve charged the President with the highest abuse that we can think of, which is the abuse of power, the obstruction of congress,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington. “And the basis of the pattern — which, you know, the Mueller report was about what he did as a candidate — but the pattern of inviting foreign interference in the 2016 election is in each of the articles.”

Jayapal added: “Everything that happened in Mueller was terrible. But like I said, Ukraine is even more egregious, because he’s sitting here and continuing to do it, so we want to give the Senate the strongest possible case that they can have.”

Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, said both articles represent a pattern of abuse, and there was broad consensus in the Democratic caucus to support them.

“There’s no higher crime than the highest crime of abuse of power, that our founders contemplated as the basis of impeachment,” Cicilline said. “There’s no higher crime than dragging a foreign government in to corrupt our elections.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.