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Pelosi says Democrats can hold Trump accountable without impeachment hearings

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Washington Post photo by Bill O'Leary

WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers Monday that there are no plans to immediately open impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, rejecting calls from several Democrats to initiate steps to try to oust the president.

In a rare Monday night conference call, the California Democrat stressed that the near-term strategy in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller's report is to focus on investigating the president and seeing where the inquiries lead. Members of Pelosi's leadership team reaffirmed her cautious approach, according to four officials on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

"We have to save our democracy. This isn't about Democrats or Republicans. It's about saving our democracy," Pelosi said.

But Pelosi's message did not go over well with several Democrats, who argued that Congress has a duty to hold Trump to account with impeachment despite the political blowback Pelosi has long feared.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, argued that as someone with more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, she thought the House had enough evidence to proceed.

"While I understand we need to see the full report and all supporting documents, I believe we have enough evidence now," Demings said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said the party has a duty to openly discuss the downside of not impeaching Trump for his actions and the precedent it could set for the future.

Mueller, in the 448-page redacted report released last week, identified 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump but he did not find that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

The report has divided Democrats, with several clamoring for impeachment, notably White House candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., while others argue such a step is futile with the GOP controlling the Senate. Several Democrats maintain that impeachment would embolden Trump and his Republican backers ahead of the 2020 election.

Despite leadership's effort to tamp down impeachment talk, they did not rule it out completely. In fact, after some of her members spoke up, Pelosi clarified that "if it is what we need to do to honor our responsibility to the Constitution - if that's the place the facts take us, that's the place we have to go."

"I wish you would just read my letter because it, I think succinctly, presents some of the reasons I think - whether it's articles of impeachment or investigations, it's the same obtaining of facts," she said to her members. "We don't have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts."

The nearly 90-minute call with lawmakers scattered around the country during the congressional recess came just hours after Pelosi appeared to tap the brakes on impeachment discussions. She argued in a letter to her colleagues that while Democrats would hold Trump accountable for his actions in the Mueller report, "it is . . . important to know that the facts regarding holding the president accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings."

"Whether currently indictable or not, it is clear that the president has, at a minimum, engaged in highly unethical and unscrupulous behavior which does not bring honor to the office he holds," Pelosi wrote.

She added: "As we proceed to uncover the truth and present additional needed reforms to protect our democracy, we must show the American people we are proceeding free from passion or prejudice, strictly on the presentation of fact."

The speaker's caution comes despite an impeachment push by some 2020 presidential hopefuls and even some of her Democratic chairmen, who suggested on the Sunday talk shows that it might be an option.

But as they briefed lawmakers on the call Monday night, those same chairmen appeared to push that notion to the side for now, suggesting Democratic leaders - who spoke privately before the call - have decided it is not the time to start such proceeding.

Even House Financial Services Chairman Maxine Waters, who last week warned that "Congress' failure to impeach is complacency in the face of the erosion of our democracy and constitutional norms," did not push the matter. Instead, the California Democrat, a vocal Trump critic who is probing the president's business practices before he won the 2016 election, made a point on the call of clarifying that she is not pressuring lawmakers to join her effort.

Waters instead spoke of her latest effort to subpoena a bank that lent money to Trump despite his bankruptcies. Just minutes before the call, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., subpoenaed former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who was a central witness in Mueller's probe of whether Trump obstructed justice.

Nadler also spoke on the call about his own next steps in investigating Trump.

According to an official on the call, leadership tried to emphasize that impeachment is not a political decision and that they would let the chairmen do what they need to keep investigating Trump. But Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., challenged that assertion, telling leadership "don't shy away from the notion that impeachment isn't political.

"It is political," he retorted.

But leadership had allies. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the leader of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said he was committed to ensuring Trump doesn't get reelected, but also wondered if the party would guarantee the Republican's second term with an impeachment push.

Himes asked for impeachment data from leaders so Democrats knew where the country was on the issue. Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., agreed.

According to a recent survey, toughly 6 in 10 Democrats said Congress should begin impeachment hearings in a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted after Attorney General William Barr's initial letter to Congress about the investigation's findings but before the release of the final report. But the same survey found the public overall leaned against impeaching Trump, with 41 percent saying Congress should begin hearings while 54 percent said they should not.

At one point on the call, a lawmaker brought up a question about whether House Democrats could censure the president. Nadler explained how it has no legal effect but would just be a simple expression of disapproval.

Nadler said it was an option, though did not endorse it explicitly.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., one of the most liberal members in leadership, said no option, including impeachment should be taken off the table. She asked leadership to give lawmakers messaging about how House Democrats can both push for economic issues they ran on while also holding up the rule of law by checking Trump.

Despite Democratic leadership's move to down play the prospects of impeachment at this time, they did not rule it out completely. Officials following the House probes closely say that's intentional.

Should Pelosi declare "no impeachment"flat out, she would likely undercut her chairmen's bid to sue the Trump administration for the full Mueller report, including grand jury information. To get those documents, impeachment would likely have to be on the table, lawyers say, justifying the House move to get such information.

Pelosi would also risk the ire of the far-left, which has typically viewed her as an ally of their cause.

Before the Mueller report, Pelosi had argued that impeachment was too divisive, politically costly and that Trump was "not worth it. "Pelosi also set a high threshold for taking up impeachment, arguing it would have to be bipartisan.

But Republicans following the Mueller report's release have largely gone silent, even as Mueller detailed the Trump campaign welcoming Russia's interference in the 2016 election and Trump's effort to thwart the investigation.

Mueller, however, did not establish conspiracy and did not answer the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, appearing to kick the issue to Congress. Attorney General William P. Barr said the president did not obstruct justice.

Republicans control the Senate and even if the Democratic-led House voted to impeach Trump, it would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict the president and remove him from office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Monday dismissed the notion of impeachment.

"Well, look, I think it's time to move on. This investigation was about collusion, there's no collusion, no charges brought against the president on anything else, and I think the American people have had quite enough of it," McConnell said when questioned during a stop in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Pelosi in her Monday letter took a shot at the GOP for its muted reaction to the Mueller report.

"It is also clear that the congressional Republicans have an unlimited appetite for such low standards," she wrote. "The GOP should be ashamed of what the Mueller report has revealed, instead of giving the president their blessings."

Pelosi also called on the GOP-controlled Senate to take up campaign finance legislation that passed the House earlier this year, which included sweeping ethics changes. On Sunday, the president's legal team argued that it was acceptable for the Trump campaign to seek to benefit from Russia's hacking of the Clinton campaign.

"[I]n light of the President's defenders arguing in defense of receiving and weaponizing stolen emails, we continue to press our Republican House counterparts to take up our pledge to refuse to use stolen, hacked, or falsified information in campaigns because the American people deserve honest debate," Pelosi wrote.

Meanwhile, White House officials taunted House Democrats as they considered their next steps.

"If they have to get a conference call together to figure out where they're going from here, they shouldn't be in office in the first place," said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on "Fox and Friends." "I think it's quite sad that they've got to have a conference call with all of their members to figure out what they're going to do with themselves now that the Mueller report is out and proven that there was no collusion and no obstruction."This article was written by Rachael Bade, Karoun Demirjian, and Jacqueline Alemany, reporters for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's John Wagner contributed to this report.