Pelosi says Democrats can hold Trump accountable without impeachment hearings
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers Monday there are no plans to immediately open impeachment proceedings against President 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.
‘‘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.
Representative Val Demings of Florida, 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.
According to three officials on the call, House leaders told rank-and-file lawmakers — who were scattered across the nation, back in their districts for a two-week congressional recess — that investigative committees would continue their inquiries.
Underscoring the alternative avenues, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee announced Monday afternoon it had issued a subpoena to compel Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel, to appear at a public hearing in late May. McGahn emerged as a key witness Mueller’s investigation.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi appeared to tap the brakes on impeachment discussions, arguing in a letter to her colleagues that while Democrats would hold Trump accountable for his actions in the Mueller report, they could do so without initiating impeachment hearings.
The California Democrat wrote that Congress ‘‘will scrupulously assert Congress’s constitutional duty to honor our oath of office to support and defend the Constitution and our democracy’’ by investigating the president.
‘‘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,’’ she wrote.
The report has divided Democrats, with several clamoring for impeachment, notably White House candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 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.
Later Monday night on a CNN town hall from Manchester, N.H., Warren renewed her call, arguing that the legislative branch has a responsibility to impeach after the release of the Mueller report.
Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, was among those at the town hall calling for Democrats to steer clear of impeachment and instead focus on ‘‘issues that concern ordinary Americans.’’
‘‘What I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage,’’ he said of beginning impeachment proceedings. ‘‘There has got to be a thorough investigation, and I think the House Democrats will do it.’’
Despite leadership’s effort to tamp down impeachment talk, they did not rule it out. 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.’’
‘‘While our views range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment, we all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth,’’ Pelosi said in her letter to lawmakers, trying to strike a note of unity.
Pelosi’s comments come as several of her Democratic chairmen suggested on the Sunday talk shows that impeachment 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, suggesting Democratic leaders have decided now is not the time to start such proceedings.
Even House Financial Services Chairwoman 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 of clarifying that she is not pressuring lawmakers to join her effort.
Waters spoke of her latest effort to subpoena a bank that lent money to Trump despite his bankruptcies.
At one point on the evening call, a lawmaker questioned whether House Democrats could censure the president. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold 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.
Before the Mueller report, Pelosi had argued that impeachment was too divisive and politically costly and that Trump was ‘‘not worth it.’’ She also argued 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 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.
Pelosi in her 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.
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.
Material from the New York Times was used in this report.