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Impeachment pressure escalates as Democrats demand release of whistleblower's Trump complaint

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By Rebecca Shabad and Leigh Ann Caldwell  with NBC News Politics
Image: Speaker Of The House Nancy Pelosi Addresses The Media In Weekly Pres
Pelosi faces mounting caucus pressure to speed up the impeachment inquiry process.   -   Copyright  Win McNamee Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — House Democrats began a potentially pivotal week on Capitol Hill as frustration mounted within the caucus over the slow pace of the impeachment inquiry process against President Donald Trump, and the rank-and-file demanded the release of a recent intelligence community whistleblower complaint against the president.

Pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. to accelerate the methodical investigation into the president and his administration — a pace she has argued is necessary to build a case strong enough to win over public support on impeachment — has dramatically escalated over the past week, after Democrats were told that the whistleblower's complaint would not be released to Congress, as required by law.

On Sunday, Pelosi hinted that Democrats might expedite their investigation, writing in a letter to the caucus that they may be entering "a whole new stage." This came after she told NPR on Friday that she had not changed her position on impeachment.

"If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation," she wrote in the letter sent Sunday.

She added that the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, would need to hand over the whistleblower's complaint to Congress when he testifies about the matter at a public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

"We also expect that he will establish a path for the whistleblower to speak directly to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees as required by law," she said.

Earlier in the day Sunday, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., appeared to shift his approach toward impeachment, breaking with Pelosi's cautious stance, saying that he had been "very reluctant" to go down the path — but with the president's recent actions, "we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here."

"If the president is essentially withholding military aid [to Ukraine], at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit, that is, providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that that conduct represents," Schiff said in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."

While Congress has been blocked from learning the contents of the complaint, The New York Times and other outlets have reported that a phone call between Trump and Ukraine's leader led to the complaint, which The Washington Post reported focuses on a "promise" Trump made.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., noted the evolving tone from House leaders. "There has been a shift," he said on MSNBC's "Kasie DC" Sunday. "And I think Congressman Schiff in particular talking about impeachment is a big deal. I mean, if these allegations are true, it's a clear abuse of the president's office. He is basically soliciting explicitly foreign leader to tarnish a political rival."

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., noted the rising pressure within the caucus for action. "As this continues to build, as we see one activity after another with clear signs of corruption, you are going to see more and more people within the Democratic caucus come to the side of an impeachment inquiry," he said on "Kasie DC."

Khanna said he expected the House Judiciary Committee "will refer something to the House." The panel is currently exploring, as part of its impeachment inquiry, whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president to the full House.

The pressure for action from some Democratic lawmakers was rising fast as the week began. Late Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., criticized Democratic leaders for not yet moving to impeach Trump.

"At this point, the bigger national scandal isn't the president's lawbreaking behavior - it is the Democratic Party's refusal to impeach him for it," she tweeted.

It wasn't the only vocal expression of frustration from within the caucus over the past several days.

Before last week's hearing with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, an impassioned Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told NBC News that Democrats should hold Lewandowski in contempt, and that if they are unwilling to do so, Democrats should stop investigating.

Then on Friday, during a meeting of Judiciary Committee Democrats, two Democratic aides say committee leadership tried to calm members who were angry that the committee didn't hold him in contempt on the spot during the hearing. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., only threatened to do so after Lewandowski stonewalled Democrats' questions for several hours.

More than half of the House Democratic caucus has voiced support for the impeachment inquiry already underway. Nadler used that processto explain why leaders would be unable to also launch a simultaneous impeachment process against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, amid new allegations."We have our hands full with impeaching the president right now and that's going to take up our limited resources and time for a while," he said in an interview last week.

The GOP has largely stayed silent regarding the whistleblower complaint, with several members defending the president, though Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah became the first Republican Sunday to express grave concern about the emerging details of the complaint.

"If the President asked or pressured Ukraine's president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme. Critical for the facts to come out," he tweeted.