The Memo: GOP seizes on Pelosi's position on impeachment

Republicans are seizing on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Omar controversies shadow Dems at AIPAC Five things to watch as AIPAC conference kicks off MORE’s (D-Calif.) comments pumping the brakes on impeaching President TrumpDonald John TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' MORE — and their reaction could exacerbate Democratic tensions on the issue.

Some supporters of the president argue that Pelosi’s comments, in a Washington Post interview, are tantamount to admitting there is insufficient evidence to launch impeachment proceedings.

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Other pro-Trump voices give Pelosi grudging praise for — as they see it — acknowledging the political reality that an impeachment effort could easily backfire on Democrats, much as the GOP drive against then-President Clinton harmed congressional Republicans in the 1990s.

“I think she is aware of the political mistake it would be to go after Trump,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “There is no way the Senate is going to do anything and [Democrats] would look like a bunch of left-wing extremists.”

Another Trump supporter, Brad Blakeman, picked up on Pelosi’s comment to the Post that impeachment would divide the country and “he’s just not worth it.”

“When the leader of the Democratic Party states that it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it,” said Blakeman, who was a member of the senior staff in President George W. Bush’s White House. “It’s not because she’s giving him a pass. It’s because there are no high crimes and misdemeanors. They are just deflated that there’s nothing there.”

The fact that Pelosi’s words were met with such a warm welcome from pro-Trump quarters will only add to Democratic unease.

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The Speaker has a difficult needle to thread. Firebrand members of her conference and a sizable segment of the Democratic base loathe Trump, see him as ethically unfit to be president and want him ousted as soon as possible.

More moderate and pragmatic figures, including most of the congressional leadership, have been leery of impeachment proceedings, in part out of fears that such an effort would play badly with centrist voters.

In particular, there are worries that Democrats could be painted as trying to defeat Trump out of a sense of vengeance, having failed to do so at the ballot box in 2016.

People close to the president are seeking to deepen Democratic tensions.

Kayleigh McEnany, the national press secretary for Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, released a statement Tuesday pressing Democrats to say if they “agree with the Speaker” that Trump should not be impeached, or were willing to “risk fracturing the country by bowing to the radical elements in their party who want to disenfranchise the American people and overturn the legitimate and lawful result of the last election?”

Pelosi’s remarks left room for interpretation, however. She was clear that she did not favor impeachment at this point, but she appeared to leave the door ajar for such a move down the line.

“Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path,” she told the Post.

It is possible that the investigation led by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, or any one of the several Democratic-led congressional probes into Trump, could produce something “compelling and overwhelming” enough in Pelosi’s mind to justify a push for impeachment after all.

Pelosi could also be playing her own political games, telegraphing reluctance now, only as a pretext to making a stronger case for impeachment later.

Meanwhile, other voices in her conference keep pushing for a harder line. 

Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators Harris to make hard Texas push, recruits key O'Rourke aide: report Pelosi on Trump impeachment: 'You're wasting your time' without GOP buy-in MORE (D-Texas) told reporters on Tuesday that he would continue to seek Trump’s impeachment, arguing that “it’s really not even about the president as much as it is about what he’s doing. It’s about his behavior that is harmful to society.”

The left’s biggest new star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Romney helps GOP look for new path on climate change Overnight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars MORE (D-N.Y.), said she personally believes Trump should be impeached, though she stressed in an interview with Bloomberg that she did not interpret Pelosi’s comments as an effort to “shut down the conversation.”

Instead, Ocasio-Cortez said, “if we disagree, we have a responsibility to air out our arguments as to why and to take that into consideration.”

More cautious voices in the Democratic Party note that, for now, support for impeaching Trump remains a minority opinion.

In a Monmouth University Poll survey conducted between March 1 and March 4, adults were asked whether Trump should be “impeached and compelled to leave the presidency.” Forty-two percent of respondents were in favor and 54 percent opposed.

A survey Quinnipiac University Poll conducted among registered voters on the same dates produced a wider gap, even though it only asked whether Congress should “begin the process” to impeach and potentially remove Trump. 

It found 35 percent in favor and 59 percent opposed — a finding virtually unchanged from the last time Quinnipiac polled that question, roughly three months before.

Independent observers also question whether an impeachment effort risks complicating Democratic efforts to win back the White House in 2020 — not only because it could provoke a backlash but also because it could suck up so much of the available political oxygen.

“If they fail to remove him, they just distract everybody’s attention,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

Referring to the divisions within the Democratic Party, Reeher added, “It’s a discussion between some of the Democrats who may have a better sense of strategic thinking about the election and the ones who think there are good reasons to be going forward with impeachment, [for whom] it’s the principle of the thing.”

In this respect, at least, Republicans believe time is on their side. 

Blakeman, the Bush administration veteran, argued that the closer the 2020 election looms, the less plausible it becomes for Democrats to try to impeach Trump.

“They don’t have time to do impeachment and the 2020 elections on a dual track,” he said. “Either they are going to beat him at the ballot box or they are going to go into a dead-end politically. … They don’t have time.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.