The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats, in California, confront deep divisions over how to handle increasing calls for President Trump’s impeachment

At the California Democratic Convention on June 1, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said "President Trump will be held accountable for his actions." (Video: Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was just moments into her speech Saturday when a man shouted out from the back of a convention hall stuffed with thousands of delegates to the state Democratic Party convention.

“Impeach Donald Trump!” he screamed, uttering a battle cry Pelosi has rebuffed, despite growing demands from her party’s activist wing.

“President Trump will be held accountable for his actions,” she said. The I-word never left her lips.

Less than an hour later, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) stepped to the same podium to deliver a very different message. “We need to begin impeachment proceedings!” the presidential candidate bellowed. The crowd roared.

The party’s deep divisions, refreshed when last week’s remarks by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III raised new questions about whether Trump had committed impeachable violations, played out time and again during the first full day of the weekend convention as they have across the nation.

Democrats’ dueling messages highlighted the dilemma confronting the party’s congressional leaders and presidential hopefuls: how to balance the demands of a fervently anti-Trump activist base without alienating the more moderate voters who helped hand them the House in 2018 and could deliver the presidency in 2020.

Saturday was the first of two days that in total will feature speeches by 14 Democratic presidential candidates in the self-styled home of the Trump resistance. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) electrified the crowd with a fiery address that appeared to take a swipe at former vice president Joe Biden, who did not attend. Three of the candidates are scheduled to speak Sunday, rounding out the largest gathering of 2020 presidential contenders to date.

Among activists, fury with Trump reached the boiling point after Mueller reiterated Wednesday that he could not clear the president of obstructing justice in his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s defiant attitude toward congressional oversight has stoked further anger.

“That’s adding salt to the wounds,” said Maria Elena Durazo, a Democratic National Committee vice chair and California state senator.

It has also opened a fissure between Democratic congressional leadership and the party’s White House hopefuls, who were once largely united in opposition to impeachment. After Mueller’s comments, the list of presidential candidates calling for impeachment grew, even as House Democratic leaders stood firm.

Pelosi and her top lieutenants are seeking to persuade Democrats that the best action is to stay the course they have charted — to continue to investigate Trump and rely on the courts to intervene when they are stonewalled by the administration.

“Our investigations are breaking through the Trump administration’s coverup to get the truth. We want the truth for the American people,” Pelosi said Saturday. She noted two recent court victories and Mueller’s public statement.

“Why is it that the president won’t defend our democracy?” she asked. But rather than appease activists, her words prompted some in the crowd to chant “Impeach!”

“I tell you, this is like coming home for me,” Pelosi joked, in reference to San Francisco’s cutthroat politics.

Warren, who was among the first of the major presidential candidates to come out in favor of impeachment proceedings, did not mention the word in her address.

She did, however, offer a line used by several of the speakers, including Pelosi, when she called for a party that “believes no one is above the law, not even the president.”

On Friday, Warren unveiled a new plan to ensure that a sitting president can be indicted on a charge of criminal conduct. A Justice Department finding that a president cannot be indicted played a role in his refusal to accuse Trump of criminal acts, Mueller has said.

The senator from Massachusetts, who has been climbing in the polls, also attracted attention with a sharp critique of unnamed figures in her party she deemed unwilling to think big and take dramatic steps to improve the country.

“Some say that if we just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses. But our country is in a crisis. The time for small ideas is over,” Warren said. The crowd booed at her allusion to caution and offered Warren the biggest applause of the day.

The comments appeared to be a dig at Biden, who has vowed to work with Republicans he contends are a different breed than the president. He has predicted that Republicans will have an “epiphany” on bipartisanship after Trump leaves office.

Biden, the leading candidate in the polls, was far away on Saturday, scheduled to be in Ohio to speak at a dinner hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes LGBTQ rights.

Like Warren, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke also spoke Saturday but did not bring up the topic of impeachment. In a gesture of deference to the heavily Hispanic state Democratic Party, he started his address by speaking in Spanish.

“We have a president who seeks to further divide,” said O’Rourke, holding up California and the dozens of lawsuits it has filed against the administration as a strong example of how to stand up to Trump.

At a forum near the convention, sponsored by the liberal group MoveOn, presidential candidate and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said that the country was facing a crisis and that the president would keep flouting the law unless he were stopped. The tug-of-war over potential impeachment is perhaps best exemplified by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was scheduled to speak Sunday. While he represents the most liberal facets of the party on policy, the presidential candidate has long warned that pursuing impeachment could overshadow the issues Democrats are hoping to underscore as the 2020 election approaches.

“The House of Representatives should move toward impeachment proceedings,” said Booker, who first embraced that stance on Wednesday after Mueller’s statement.

But following Mueller’s statement, Sanders said at a campaign stop in Nevada that Congress “should begin impeachment inquiries” to “determine whether or not Trump has committed impeachable offenses.”

At the same time, he did not abandon his concerns, saying it would be challenging for Democrats to walk down that road and also champion the issues they hope will help propel them to victory in 2020.

Democratic candidates for the House found a formula for success in 2018 with a focus on what they called “kitchen table” issues such as health care and economic matters rather than campaigning on more polarizing topics.

Some party strategists see a road map for similar success in 2020 and fear that possible impeachment proceedings and an appeal based on animosity toward Trump will not only overshadow their policy platforms but could turn away suburban swing voters who sided with them in the midterms.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who has both taken on Trump and sought to work with him since his 2018 election, sought to navigate the divisions after his morning address.

“We’re in the middle of a process,” Newsom told reporters, defending Pelosi’s cautious approach to potential impeachment. “This is the not the end of a process.”

Asked if Trump should be impeached, Newsom gave a long-winded answer that referred to Pelosi’s comments and to what he just said. He would not say yes or no.

A short time later back in the convention hall, however, billionaire environmentalist and party donor Tom Steyer demanded that Democratic leaders embrace calls for impeachment — but his remarks were drowned out by music meant to signal the end of his speech.

“This is one of those things where you don’t get to duck,” Steyer, a longtime advocate of impeachment, said in an interview.

David Weigel contributed to this report.