Shortly after she’d left a fiery White House meeting, during which the president had threatened to stop working with her on all legislative matters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was asked to speculate why she, more than others, seemed to fluster President Trump.
“He recognizes the unity of our caucus and that is a very big deal,” she told the crowd at the Center for American Progress’ annual Ideas Festival. “I think he sees the fact that we are united as something he has to contend with, to deal with… That unity gives me leverage.”
The comment drew knowing applause from those in attendance—a mix of policy types and party donors who uniformly worship at the altar of Pelosi. But the intended audience was not them. It was her fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill.
In recent weeks, the party unity that Pelosi prizes internally and deploys politically has come under immense strain as a growing number of lawmakers have demanded more aggressive oversight of the Trump administration, including the consideration of articles of impeachment. The pressure had grown acute enough in recent days that Pelosi’s staff decided to convene a caucus meeting on Wednesday morning to address it.
The task of calming nerves was supposed to fall to Doug Letter, the House Democrat’s general counsel. But he was busy dealing with one of the party’s growing list of lawsuits against the Trump administration. And so, the speaker turned it over to relevant committee chairs to lay out the investigative progress they’d made to soothe their more anxious colleagues.
According to those in attendance, the chairs did an effective job. Though lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke up afterward to relay fears that the party may look back and realize it did vanishingly little at a political crisis point, others encouraged lawmakers to trust Pelosi’s more deliberate process. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) stressed that while the House Judiciary Committee had been “dissed” by the administration, other committees had seen success. More than one speaker argued that impeachment would not prove to be the elixir that its supporters envisioned.
“Even this impeachment inquiry is the same fucking process,” said one senior Democratic aide. “You will still end up in the courts.”
Approximately 10 members spoke in addition to five committee chairs. Overall, it was described as a non-contentious affair. And yet, when it was all over, it wasn’t hard to detect signs of lingering frustration.
“The president is behaving in a way that leaves us very few options,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), adding that Democrats needed to ignore speculation that Trump wants them to launch impeachment—an idea that Pelosi herself has publicly entertained.
“Thinking two, three moves ahead about what the political implications are,” said Kildee, “in 10 or 15 years I’m not gonna be able to explain that to my grandchildren. That we have a lawless president who’s completely out of control and I start to explain what our tactics were—our obligations go much deeper than that.”
Pressure on Pelosi to act more swiftly has been building for weeks, as Trump has defied congressional subpoenas, withheld the full version of the Mueller Report, and instructed current and former top aides to not testify before relevant committees. But despite Pelosi’s best efforts to convince fellow Democrats to stay the course, the itch has only grown more pronounced.
On Wednesday, Pelosi and her top allies trotted out a new set of arguments designed to make the case that a rush to impeachment carried far more political peril than its champions realized. They pointed to a recent slate of judicial victories that would—if upheld—compel the administration to hand over contested documents (one such victory came hours after the caucus meeting had convened).
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told the CAP audience that there was a “valid argument to be made” that if Congress didn’t move to impeachment proceedings, it would legitimize Trump’s conduct in office. But, he added, there was an equally valid concern that Trump could emerge from the impeachment proceeding with an acquittal. “Then,” Schiff explained, “you have an adjudication that this conduct is not an impeachable offense.”
And Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the Democratic caucus chair, made a strikingly political case that impeachment would prove, for now, counterproductive. The problem, he argued, was not that congressional Republicans would oppose it but that congressional Democrats would.
“At the end of the day, by our count, there have been 20 members who have expressed a desire to proceed to an impeachment inquiry. An additional seven members have said, ‘throw him out, he should be impeached, we need to get rid of him.’ That’s a total of 27 members,” Jeffries told The Daily Beast. “Nobody counts better than Speaker Pelosi. There are 239 members of the House Democratic Caucus. Nobody counts better than Speaker Pelosi.”
By day’s end, leadership aides felt confident that the morning meeting, along with the subsequent blow up at the White House—in which Trump said he would not work with Democratic leadership unless they dropped all investigations into his administration—had convinced impatient Democrats that the president was unsettled and that their strategy was working.
Trump himself felt moved Wednesday night to rebut Pelosi’s claim that he’d had a “temper tantrum,” tweeting: “I was purposely very polite and calm, much as I was minutes later with the press in the Rose Garden. Can be easily proven. It is all such a lie!”
Even those lawmakers who have long embraced the idea showed reluctance on Wednesday to criticize Pelosi’s approach.
“She made her argument, it’s an argument,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who was among the earliest in the party to push for Trump’s impeachment.
But privately, some lawmakers have begun to wonder how much patience there is within the caucus for Pelosi’s methodical approach. One House Democrat scoffed at Jeffries’ insistence that there were only 27 members who wanted impeachment considered. “Far more,” the member said. “It seems like people are getting there, one at a time.”
Inside the halls of the CAP conference, the political pressures that Pelosi faces were evident. Jeffries’ speech, which focused on Democratic health care priorities like prescription drug price reform, received as much audience applause as Schiff’s address on the fallout of the Mueller probe. But the reporters in attendance were far more attentive to the latter than the former, virtually panting on Twitter when Schiff riffed about the dangers of an unchecked presidency.
“If they do continue to completely stonewall the Congress,” Schiff said, “that really raises the ante. Then maybe we need the most vigorous response to that, even if it doesn’t prevail.”
Pelosi and her team have prided themselves on not getting swept up in the fetishes of the national press corps, noting that they won back control of the House in 2018 on a platform that emphasized protections for people with preexisting conditions while cable news obsessed over Russia. But, increasingly, it’s not just the media that’s been buzzing about impeachment but Pelosi’s own members, including several swing-district freshmen who have, to this point, largely resisted calls to start proceedings.
On Wednesday, one of those freshmen, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), told reporters he’d have “more to say” about impeachment soon, but strongly hinted which way he was heading.
“It’s not an issue we can or should shy away from,” he said. “At the end of the day, if we do our duty and the Senate doesn’t, the shame will be on the other side.”