WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee on Friday asked a federal judge to enforce congressional subpoenas seeking grand jury information related to the special counsel investigation, taking steps in the direction of possible impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told reporters the legal request signaled that the panel is pursuing an impeachment investigation, although neither the committee nor the full House has formally voted for launching proceedings.

“Because Department of Justice policies will not allow prosecution of a sitting president, the United States House of Representatives is the only institution of the federal government that can now hold President Trump accountable for these actions,” the petition said. “To do so, the House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article I powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity – approval of articles of impeachment.”

Nadler and his fellow Judiciary Democrats repeatedly emphasized that its filing was just a first step in a process that could eventually lead to articles of impeachment, but refused to say whether it would be the ultimate outcome.

“We are considering the malfeasances of the president, we’re considering what remedies we can do, including the possibility of articles of impeachment,” Nadler said.

The committee asked Judge Beryl Howell to force the Justice Department to turn over grand jury information related to the nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump obstructed the probe. Howell is chief judge for the U.S. District Court for District of Columbia.

Nadler first shared his plans during a CNN interview, two days after appearances by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller before his panel and the House Intelligence Committee that did not yield any blockbuster revelations and failed to generate the kind of momentum toward impeachment some Democrats were seeking. Nadler firmly disputed that critique of Mueller’s performance.

“Some have argued that because he was reluctant and seemed older than some remembered him, his work is somehow diminished,” said Nadler, who argued the hearing produced a “great change” on the issue of impeachment, but said Democrats need to continue building a public case about Trump’s transgressions.

“The evidence has got to be so solid and out there that impeaching the president wouldn’t tear the country apart,” said Nadler, whose committee has jurisdiction over impeachment proceedings.

The party remains divided over whether to impeach Trump while Republicans made clear they think the investigations should end.

As of Friday, 101 Democrats had voiced support for launching an impeachment inquiry, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has continued to counsel a more deliberate approach.

“We will proceed when we have what we need to proceed, not one day sooner,” she told reporters at her weekly news conference.

Pelosi was also dismissive of suggestions that she is trying to “run out the clock” with her reluctance to start impeachment proceedings, saying, “Let’s get sophisticated about this.”

Rep. Douglas Collins, R-Ga., the top Republican on the committee, immediately criticized Nadler’s decision.

“Democrats want to convince their base they’re still wedded to impeachment even after this week’s hearing, but a baseless legal claim is an odd way to show that,” he said.

A Judiciary Committee spokeswoman said Pelosi had signed off on the language in the filings, and Nadler said the committee “could not have brought these lawsuits without the help and support of Speaker Pelosi.” Behind the scenes, multiple lawmakers and senior aides say the relationship between the speaker’s office and Nadler’s committee has soured amid the impeachment disagreement.

The lawmakers and officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

During the Friday news conference, Nadler said he also would go to court next week in a bid to enforce subpoenas for testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn. The Justice Department has resisted turning over those confidential files – despite a subpoena – and McGahn also ignored a compulsory measure to testify at the instruction of the White House.

Nadler said favorable court orders on those matters would “open the floodgates” for enforcement of other subpoenas he considers key to ongoing investigations of Trump that have been stymied by the White House’s refusal to cooperate. The panel has struggled for months to hold high-profile hearings and to produce major revelations in part because of White House stonewalling.

At the news conference, Nadler’s colleagues offered a range of assessments on the extent to which the court filings – which the panel authorized weeks ago – signaled a new phase of an investigation that could lead to impeachment. Some suggested the committee remained on the same course that had been previously charted while others characterized the court action as a watershed moment.

“We’re crossing a threshold with this filing, and we’re now officially entering into an examination of whether or not to recommend the articles of impeachment,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.

Nadler said the committee was “in effect” now conducting an impeachment inquiry, but stressed that it differs from that because other outcomes are possible – including not impeaching at all.

For months, Nadler and his committee members have pressured Pelosi to begin an impeachment inquiry, arguing a formal vote would bolster their case in court. She has refused to budget without public support. On Friday, the committee offered a different argument to try to boost its chances in the courts.

“We don’t need it,” said one Judiciary Committee lawyer about a vote to begin an impeachment inquiry, directly contradicting what Judiciary panel members repeatedly have argued. “We don’t think it would impact us any different[ly].”

Nadler, who has privately argued for impeachment but who has not publicly supported it, said impeachment would be necessary if the Trump administration defies any court orders enforcing House subpoenas.

“No administration has ever defied a court order,” he said. “There would have to be an impeachment, without question.”

He also said he disagrees with some colleagues who have suggested time is running out on impeachment, given elections are next year, and that an inquiry would need to be launched by next month to stand a chance of being successful.

“In effect, the Mueller report only came out this week,” Nadler said, arguing that most Americans had not read the redacted 448-page report made public in April.

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The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.