WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday morning is expected to feature an empty chair — and a full measure of Democratic rage.
Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel, plans to defy a House subpoena under order of the White House and skip a hearing meant to spotlight President Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation. The committee will convene the hearing anyway, though without the man Democrats had hoped could serve as a star eyewitness as they seek to build a case before the public.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the panel’s chairman, said Monday night that his committee would vote soon to recommend the House hold Mr. McGahn in contempt of Congress. The full House, he said, would decide whether to take the dispute to court or impose other possible penalties.
But it is not clear if that will be enough to quell Democratic anger at the stonewalling by Mr. Trump and his administration, who in the month since the release of the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, have shut down virtually every request and subpoena from House lawmakers investigating the president. In the case of Mr. McGahn, the president ordered him not to appear, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that the Constitution gives close personal aides to a president “absolute immunity” from congressional subpoenas trying to compel them to testify about their official work.
A group of influential and outspoken Judiciary Committee Democrats were expected to go public with new calls for the panel to open a formal impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump. An investigation of that nature would streamline disparate House inquiries and lend greater powers to the committee in its fight against the executive branch, their reasoning goes.
“If they continue to pull the plug on congressional investigations and thumb their noses at congressional power, they leave us very few choices,” said one of the committee’s members, Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, in an interview.
On Monday night, Mr. Raskin was one of a handful of Judiciary Committee members who pitched the idea to Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a closed-door meeting of House leadership. He was joined by Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a more senior member of the committee, and Representative Joe Neguse of Colorado, a more junior one. They count other members of the committee as supporters.
After Ms. Pelosi lamented to members of her leadership team that the battles with the president were overshadowing Democrats’ legislative agenda, Mr. Raskin argued that opening an impeachment inquiry could help solve the problem by centralizing fights with the White House over documents, according to three people in the room for the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
The new push comes a few days after a House Republican, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, became the first lawmaker of his party to endorse impeachment.
Ms. Pelosi, who has long tried to move her caucus away from impeachment, was cool to Mr. Raskin’s idea. She asked Mr. Raskin if he was suggesting the four other investigative committees just close up their work, the people said, and pointed out that Democrats had won an early court victory on Monday in a dispute over a House subpoena for Trump financial records.
Pressed in another private meeting if she was making a political calculation in tamping down impeachment talk, Ms. Pelosi insisted the answer was no, according to one of the people.
“This isn’t about politics at all,” she said. “It’s about patriotism. It’s about the strength we need to have to see things through.”
Speaking with reporters late Monday night, Mr. Nadler appeared to be on Ms. Pelosi’s side, at least for now, trumpeting the court victory and speaking about the processes already in motion. But he was also being lobbied by members of his committee to try to move the speaker’s position.
The Judiciary Committee has already voted to recommend that the full House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt for his defiance of another subpoena asking for Mr. Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence. But the House has yet to take up the contempt citation, and with Congress leaving town this week for the Memorial Day holiday, it is unlikely to until June, delaying an eventual court case to try to pry the material free.
A contempt recommendation against Mr. McGahn could also take time. In a three-page letter to Mr. McGahn late Monday, Mr. Nadler argued that the Justice Department’s legal opinion would not hold up in court and did not, for that matter, preclude Mr. McGahn from appearing before the committee.
He also reiterated his view — which legal experts have endorsed — that the president’s claim of executive privilege over the full Mueller report and underlying evidence is likely to crumple in court.