‘I don’t know I want to be that definitive’: Pelosi impeachment opposition catches Democratic leaders off guard

As Democrats digested news, most wrote off Pelosi’s comments as nothing new

The House Democratic leadership team in a group photo in the Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol late last year. Front row, from left, Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. Back row, from left, Joe Neguse, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., David Cicilline, D-R.I., Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Katie Hill, D-Calif. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House Democratic leadership team in a group photo in the Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol late last year. Front row, from left, Katherine M. Clark, D-Mass., Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Cheri Bustos, D-Ill. Back row, from left, Joe Neguse, D-Colo., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., David Cicilline, D-R.I., Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Katie Hill, D-Calif. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 11, 2019 at 6:38pm

Updated 8:13 p.m. | House Democratic leaders on Monday were initially caught off guard by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments to The Washington Post declaring her opposition to impeaching President Donald Trump. But as the evening wore on, most Democrats wrote off her remarks as nothing new.

“I didn’t see it. I don’t know what she said, but I’ve got a feeling it’s the same thing I’ve been saying,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said, referring to his past statements that he did not think Democrats should make a judgement on impeachment before seeing special counsel Robert Mueller III’s report.

When Roll Call told Hoyer that Pelosi was more definitive in her interview with the Post, noting she was making news in saying she’s not for impeachment because it’s too divisive, Hoyer was surprised. 

“Well, I don’t know I want to be that definitive,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I’ve said all along it depends what information comes out, but neither of us have been for impeachment at this point in time.”

Most Democratic leaders, speaking with reporters as they headed to their weekly leadership team meeting in Pelosi’s office Monday, said either that they had not seen the speaker’s comments to the Post or that they wanted to wait to comment until after speaking with her at the meeting. That included House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark and Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, one of two freshman class representatives to leadership.

None of the leaders seemed to have received a heads-up that Pelosi was going to come out in opposition to impeachment. Some were skeptical that her comments were intended to be a definitive decision on the matter.

“I’m not sure she’s ruled it out,” Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman David Cicilline said. “I’ve not seen the comment. That would be hard for me to believe it.”

Cicilline repeated his view that impeachment is fact-driven and thus Democrats need to wait on Mueller to complete his report, saying the facts will be interpreted by all 435 members of the House.

“It is never appropriate to proceed with impeachment for political reasons. It is never appropriate not to proceed with impeachment for political reasons,” the Rhode Island Democrat said. “This determination will be driven solely by the facts. If the facts require us to initiate removal of the president, we are obligated to do it. If the facts don’t support it, we won’t.”

Speaking later, Jeffries said Pelosi did not explain her comments during the leadership meeting but he felt she hasn’t closed the door on impeachment.

“Based on her written words, I think she opened the door to proceeding down the impeachment road to the extent that compelling and/or extraordinary circumstances presented themselves at the conclusion of these investigations,” the New York Democrat said.

Pelosi’s exact comments to the Post were: “I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: 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, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

ICYMI: Pelosi focuses on HR1 and the anti-Semitism resolution in weekly presser

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Dems still see opening

Democrats were quick to ignore the “this is news” part of Pelosi’s remarks and seize on the little daylight that she left open for impeachment — the “unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”

“I think she said she’s not for impeachment, absent certain conditions, and I largely agree with her statement,” said California Rep. Ted Lieu, a co-chair of the DPCC and member of the Judiciary Committee, the only panel with jurisdiction to bring forth articles of impeachment. 

“We’re doing our investigation,” Lieu said of the Judiciary panel. “We’re going to subpoena witnesses, get documents. And we’ll see if we get evidence that is compelling and bipartisan. I think it’s too early to tell, but I think her sentiment is correct.”

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler also said Pelosi wasn’t saying anything new in her call for overwhelming bipartisan support to move forward with impeachment.

“I’ve stated my position: It has to be enough evidence to think you’d get substantial support from the opposition voters,” the New York Democrat said. 

And like Pelosi, Nadler acknowledged that standard would be hard to meet.

“We’re not nearly there yet,” he said. “We may or may not get there.”

Asked about Pelosi’s comments, Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings said, “I have full faith and confidence in the speaker. She is a phenomenal leader.”

Interpreting the speaker’s comment as a vast departure from what she’s previously said would be “making something bigger than what it is,” the Maryland Democrat said. 

Cummings said congressional investigators are learning new information every day and that if those investigations are done “properly” — which he defined as with integrity, transparency, with accountability,  effectiveness and efficiency — the public will have the picture they need to make their own decision.

“Everybody knows that impeachment has to be a bipartisan thing,” he said. “I think the speaker sees that.”

Distraction from agenda

As Pelosi explained her comments to reporters Monday, she did not definitively rule out the prospect of impeachment. But she did reiterate her personal opposition because of its divisiveness. She said she feels impeachment is a distraction to the Democrats’ “For the People” policy agenda: lowering health care prices, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and cleaning up corruption in Washington.

“That’s our agenda; that’s our focus. To take our eye off that is not worth it,” the California Democrat said. “And that’s why I say impeachment is not worth it.”

Still, the speaker left a minor opening to using maneuver, depending on the conclusions of the Mueller report.

“If that is so complicit that there’s a bipartisanship that is a message to the president, so be it,” she said. “President Nixon was not impeached. Republicans finally saw the light.”

Told that it sounded like she wasn’t expecting a conclusion that would prompt such bipartisanship, Pelosi said, “I have no idea, nor should I have any idea what the Mueller report will say.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, speaking with reporters before the leadership meeting, surmised what Pelosi effectively confirmed — that she wants to dismiss all the impeachment speculation so that Democrats can focus on their policy agenda.

“We are currently having hearings on bringing down the cost of health care but that gets no attention because … you’ve got Michael Cohen testifying — and all of that just sucks up all of the energy and all of the air in the room,” the Illinois Democrat said. 

Pelosi “wants to get the work done,” Bustos added. “I have traveled all over the country with her. I can tell you what she says — whether it’s behind closed doors or in front of them, she says we have to focus on results. And I have a great appreciation for her saying that, because that works in any congressional district in America.”

To Bustos’s point, Pelosi did speak about the importance of results in the Post interview, addressing a question about whether she sees aspects of herself in young progressive freshman members of Congress such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar.

“What I see, and I say this to them: I was you. I used to carry the [protest] signs pushing strollers. … And as an advocate, relentless, persistent, dissatisfied always,” she said. “But when you cross over the threshold and come to Congress, you can bring those enthusiasms, those priorities, your knowledge, your vision, your plan. But you have to want to get results. You have to get results. Then, you were trying to impact others making decisions. Now you are that person.”

And as Bustos mentioned, considering that politics and the Democrats’ policy agenda, unlike impeachment, plays well in every congressional district, Pelosi hinted at 2020 political motivations in the Post interview.

“This election is very important. I don’t think he’ll be re-elected,” the speaker said of Trump.“But it is important for us to elect a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate and Democratic House.”