Nancy Pelosi fends off impeachment wave — for now

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMoulton drops out of presidential race after struggling to gain traction Conservatives push Trump tariff relief over payroll tax cuts Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence 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 TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? 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 CummingsGOP Oversight report says Interior head met with group tied to former clients Nadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Nikki Haley voices 'complete support' for Pence MORE (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said afterward.

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Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersNadler asks other House chairs to provide records that would help panel in making impeachment decision Bank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades F-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever 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 TonkoLawmakers criticize EPA draft rule for curbing rights to challenge pollution permits House Democrats push automakers to rebuff Trump, join California's fuel efficiency deal Overnight Energy: Democrats seek help in appealing to conservatives on climate | Whistleblowers say Interior sidelined scientists | Automakers strike fuel efficiency deal with California in rebuff to Trump 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 SchumerJewish Democratic congresswoman and veteran blasts Trump's 'disloyalty' comments Schumer says Trump encouraging anti-Semites Saagar Enjeti: Biden's latest blunder; Krystal Ball: Did Schumer blow our chance to beat McConnell? 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 ShalalaRepublican Salazar seeks rematch with Shalala in key Miami House district House passes temporary immigration protections for Venezuelans Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens 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 MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony 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 HuffmanDemocrats see window closing for impeachment Appetite for Democratic term limits fizzling out The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps 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 YarmuthWhite House won't move forward with billions in foreign aid cuts Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week Trump signs two-year budget deal 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 ButterfieldDemocrats call for increased security after 'send her back' chants The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment 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.