House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that impeaching President Trump would not be worth the ensuing political firestorm has exposed a long-simmering rift in the Democratic Party, upsetting some liberals and triggering a debate about the threshold to try to remove Trump.
But it also shines a spotlight on the California Democrat’s cautious approach to oversight. Pelosi’s allies believe her skepticism about impeachment protects her moderates in swing districts, gives her an exit strategy should special counsel Robert S. Mueller III find no wrongdoing by the president, and could even strengthen her leverage if something serious arises and Pelosi reverses course to impeach him later.
Tamping down impeachment talk also enables Pelosi to keep the spotlight on the Democratic agenda, she told lawmakers in a private meeting Monday night. That’s critical amid Republican efforts to cast Democrats as obsessed with ousting the president, Pelosi allies argue.
“Do we want to drag him down or do we want to lift people up?” Pelosi asked a group of her peers during a Monday night huddle, according to two people familiar with the remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) made a similar point: “We did not run on impeachment. We did not win on impeachment. We are not governing with a focus on impeachment,” he said.
At the White House, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders welcomed Pelosi’s comments.
“I’m glad that she sees what the rest of us see, that there’s no reason, there’s no cause for impeachment. The president’s done an incredible job in his first two years in office. The country is better than it’s been in decades, and we’re actually making progress on a number of fronts,” Sanders said on Fox News.
For now, most House Democrats appear willing to trust Pelosi on the matter. During a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday morning — just hours after Pelosi’s comments became public and despite unease among many liberals — impeachment never came up once, multiple people in the room said. Instead, House Democrats focused on their plan to reduce prescription drugs prices and passing legislation banning discrimination based on gender orientation.
But many House Democrats are privately wondering how long it will last. Already, some Democrats argue that the party should not worry about the political ramifications of holding the president accountable. And those voices could reach a crescendo as Mueller’s report is issued and House Democrats dig into their own investigations of Trump.
Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said that, regardless of Pelosi’s statements, she is drafting an impeachment resolution that she plans to file in the coming weeks.
“Speaker Pelosi and all members of leadership have always encouraged us to represent our districts, and this is something that was very important to my residents and still continues to be,” she said Tuesday. “And so I’m going to move forward, obviously.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re voting on it,” Tlaib added. “It means we’re beginning the process to look at some of these alleged claims, these impeachable offenses.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, agreed, arguing that voters “really are angry about what is perceived to be happening in the White House” and that Congress has an “obligation” to see where the facts lead.
“I don’t think it’s something we decide whether or not it’s ‘worth it,’ ” Jayapal said Monday night. “If it’s a consistent pattern of abuse of power, of obstruction of justice . . . then that to me seems like it will be impeachable.”
The key question for Democrats is whether to proceed with impeachment hearings if Republicans refuse to join in that endeavor. Pelosi told The Post in a magazine interview conducted March 6 that impeachment would be divisive unless “there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.” Otherwise, she said, “I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”
That view has wide support among House Democrats, ranging from Pelosi’s leadership allies to moderate freshmen who unseated Republicans in last year’s midterm elections.
“Impeachment right now is a complete distraction,” said Rep. Karen L. Bass (Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We have a very proactive agenda. . . . Why focus on impeachment when there’s no way it’s going to happen in the Senate?”
To oust Trump after a House vote for impeachment, the Republican-controlled Senate would have to convict the president, an highly unlikely outcome at this point.
“Her statement is pretty much in line with what I’ve always said — let’s not start talking about impeachment before we even know what the evidence is,” said Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), who won a GOP-held district last year. “It does alleviate some of the pressure.”
Even Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is investigating controversies surrounding Trump, told reporters Monday night that “I support Speaker Pelosi.”
“I think Pelosi realizes this: We can’t spend all of our time concentrating on what we’re fighting against,” Cummings said. “We need to concentrate on what we’re fighting for.”
Illustrating Democratic leaders’ desire to turn the page to more substantive matters, the discussion at Tuesday’s caucus meeting centered on the White House budget request and prescription drug prices. Two ex-aides to former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who led intense investigations of the pharmaceutical industry, discussed approaches to controlling drug prices.
Speaking to reporters Monday night, Pelosi noted that some Democrats had wanted her to consider impeaching President George W. Bush in 2007 and 2008 for invading Iraq on faulty intelligence purporting that the nation had weapons of mass destruction.
“I didn’t believe in it then; I don’t believe in it now,” Pelosi said. “It divides the country unless there’s some conclusive evidence that takes us to that place.”
Pelosi said she also wants to keep Democrats’ focus on the party’s legislative agenda.
“We have run on a platform that talked about an agenda to lower health-care costs, by lowering the cost of prescription drugs and saving the preexisting-condition benefit . . . bigger paychecks by building the infrastructure of America, and cleaner government,” she said. “That’s our agenda. That’s our focus. To take our eye off that ball is not worth it. And that’s why I say impeachment is not worth it.”
But other Democrats pointed to the GOP’s refusal to challenge Trump over the past two years. They worry that compelling evidence of wrongdoing from Mueller — who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — would not change Republicans’ minds, and they say Democrats need to be prepared to act on their own.
“I took an oath to the Constitution, not to the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a senior member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “If I feel that I have a constitutional obligation to follow that procedure, then I have a legal and moral obligation to do so — even if no Republican wants to do anything.”
And outside Washington, liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, who is funding ads pressing Democrats to impeach Trump, was aghast at Pelosi’s assertion. The speaker, he said, has “prejudged” the findings in the Mueller report before it has been finished.
“I thought we were waiting for the Mueller report. I thought we were waiting to get the information,” he said Monday, frustration apparent in his voice. “There’s more than enough information to show that this president is the most lawless president. He has easily met any criteria for impeachment, and the question is: Are we going to do the right thing and stand up for the Constitution and American people?”
Republicans cast any move to impeach as Democratic overreach.
“In a land of law and order, the rule of law would be broken. I think Nancy Pelosi is smart to say there shouldn’t be impeachment, because there’s no grounds,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday.
Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in leadership, sought to highlight the divide in the Democratic Party and Pelosi’s management.
“I think she’s dealing with the reality that she’s not in control of her caucus. This is not a path she wants to go down, but she’s not in charge it appears to us,” Cheney said.
John Wagner and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.