Nancy Pelosi fends off impeachment wave — for now

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCalifornia Democrat in swing district calls for Trump impeachment inquiry California Democrat in swing district calls for Trump impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments MORE (Calif.) seems to be winning the Democrats’ internal impeachment fight — for now.

Facing a small surge in Democrats pushing this week to begin impeachment proceedings against President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE, Pelosi appears to have blunted the momentum, arguing for her favored focus on tough investigations and a string of court battles with the White House.

To make the case, Pelosi on Wednesday convened a special, members-only meeting at which she recruited the leaders of top committees to address the caucus with a simple message: It’s too soon to impeach.

“My message was stay the course we’re on,” Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks MORE (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said afterward.

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Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersFive memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (D-Calif.), a fierce impeachment supporter, is also backing Pelosi’s strategy of aggressive investigations. Waters, who heads the House Financial Services Committee and addressed the caucus Wednesday, reiterated her calls for Trump to be removed. But she isn’t pushing that narrative too hard, and she’s hailing Pelosi for guiding a feisty caucus through a difficult debate.

“She’s been handling it very well,” Waters said. “It’s a tough job.”

The message has been adopted by the vast majority of rank-and-file Democrats, who are lining up behind Pelosi’s disciplined approach to Trump oversight.

“We’re doing what we need to do — drilling down on all the information,” said Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoBipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Bipartisan senators propose forcing EPA to set drinking water standard for 'forever chemicals' Overnight Energy: Measure would force EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in water | Emails show Trump official consulted climate deniers | Democrats urge Puerto Rico to reject debt deal for power company MORE (D-N.Y.). “That takes time, but hopefully we’ll get that resolved ASAP.”

In fending off the impeachment wave, Pelosi has struck a delicate balance between public messaging and real-world tactics. 

On one hand, she’s taken sharp jabs at Trump — even dropping hints of impeachment — that resonate with a liberal Democratic base that wants Trump gone yesterday.

On the other, she’s actively opposing the formal launch of the impeachment process, wary of the political perils of taking such a severe step without first securing public support behind it. Pelosi was on Capitol Hill in 1998, when Republicans impeached former President Clinton without popular backing, only to see Clinton’s star soar, and she doesn’t want to make the same mistake of empowering Trump.

That strategic model was on clear display Wednesday, when Pelosi — after leading the closed-door meeting that threw cold water on impeachment — went immediately to the microphones and accused Trump of having “engaged in a cover-up.” She was referring to the administration’s near-blanket refusal to cooperate in a long list of Democratic investigations.

Hours later, interviewed at a Center for American Progress event, she amplified the charge, adding that it “could be an impeachable offense.”

Trump was infuriated by the comments, essentially canceling a long-scheduled White House meeting on infrastructure with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerEx-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw MORE (D-N.Y.).

Yet Pelosi has given no signal she’s ready to launch an impeachment inquiry anytime soon. And that’s won cheers from most of her caucus.

“We’re going to fulfill our constitutional responsibilities, but we need to have the facts,” said Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaAnnual 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2020 race Annual 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2020 race Democrats face voters clamoring for impeachment MORE (D-Fla.). “I’m not suggesting an impeachment — I lived through an impeachment.”

Shalala, who served as head of the Health and Human Services Department under Clinton, said she’s warning her Democratic colleagues — particularly the freshmen who are new to Washington — against jumping on the impeachment bandwagon before there’s much more public support for the concept.  

“Impeachment is a huge step, and it’s a judgment call. And we need all the facts before we even consider it,” she said.

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To be sure, there’s a small but vocal group of Democrats sounding the impeachment bell — one that’s roughly doubled in number over the past three days. The heightened interest in tapping impeachment as an investigative tool is primarily rooted in the White House’s refusal to cooperate with a long list of ongoing probes being conducted by the Democratic-led committees, including those related to special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s report on Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 elections.

Launching an impeachment inquiry, supporters say, would eliminate one of the White House’s central arguments for refusing to provide information: namely, that Congress has no legislative purpose in attaining it.

“It strains credulity to think they could question a legitimate legislative purpose if there’s a pending impeachment inquiry,” said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? MORE (D-Calif.).

Some Democrats say that, to a certain extent, the debate is one over semantics, since the ongoing investigations are essentially seeking to uncover the same potential wrongdoing that an impeachment inquiry might.

“It looks to me like what the relevant committees are doing is actually what they would do if they were having an impeachment inquiry anyway,” said Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthWho are the House Democrats backing Trump impeachment? Who are the House Democrats backing Trump impeachment? Overnight Health Care: Biden infuriates abortion-rights groups with stance on Hyde Amendment | Trump tightens restrictions on fetal tissue research | Democrats plan event to scrutinize Trump's mental health MORE (D-Ky.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a de facto member of Pelosi’s leadership team.

Still, Yarmuth is supporting an immediate move to impeachment proceedings, predicting such a move is ultimately “inevitable.”

Others who support Pelosi’s cautious strategy are also running out of patience — a dynamic that might lead to the breaking of the impeachment dam that Pelosi has so far managed to prevent.

“We have got to reassure our constituents that we are engaged, that we are holding this president accountable. But the clock is running out on us,” said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldNancy Pelosi fends off impeachment wave — for now House Democrats press leaders to start Trump impeachment WHIP LIST: Number of Democrats backing Trump impeachment inquiry rises MORE (D-N.C.).

“If we’re going to act through the courts, if we’re going to begin an impeachment inquiry, we must do it pretty soon,” he added.