House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – battle tested from showdowns with President Donald Trump and intra-party squabbles within her own caucus – is about to take on what could be her toughest test yet.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has concluded his nearly two-year investigation into the President and his campaign, but for House Democrats, the fallout from the report – its apparent vindication of the President on the question of Russian collusion paired with more concerns about why Mueller did not reach a conclusion on the question of obstruction of justice – marks a crossroads.
Pelosi now will have to manage her rank-and-file members who hail from disparate corners of the country, and are facing down vastly different political realities back home. Some outspoken freshmen landed in Washington prepared to be a foil for the Trump administration, invoking impeachment as a rallying call to signal alliance with the base. Other more conservative members – more than 20 of whom won districts Trump won in 2016 – are deeply sensitive to how impeachment could imperil their next elections where focus on kitchen table issues like health care and government catapulted them to Washington.
“I think everyone needs to slow their roll on this whole thing,” Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, a freshman from California, said on CNN Monday, adding later “until we get the full report released and until we get all of the underlying information that surrounds that, I don’t think we should be jumping to any conclusions.”
It’s not a task that Pelosi’s colleagues worry she won’t be able to handle.
After all, Pelosi has already been tested in navigating intra-party battles this year, from division over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s polarizing comments about Israel to disagreements over how to handle the government shutdown. While Democrats are relishing their new majority, it also comes with more exposure to internal strife.
“She’s literally running circles around Donald Trump, and she’s doing it in heels and with style and with grace and with a lot of different personalities,” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos. “We are going to stay focused on getting the nation’s work done.”
Focusing her caucus
In the days leading up to the release of Attorney General William Barr’s four-page memo on the topline conclusions of Mueller’s report, Pelosi sought to keep her caucus in step. On Saturday, Democratic leaders called an emergency, caucus-wide call where Pelosi emphasized the one thing that should unite her party in the weeks ahead: Democrats need to see the Mueller report.
“Right now, we are in the mode wanting to know the truth, wanting the facts so that our chairpersons and members of the committees can take a look into this going forward,” Pelosi told her caucus on the call Saturday. “I thank the chairmen for their leadership on all of this, the members of the committee for their cooperation, all of our caucus for unity in seeking the truth for the people.”
A focus on getting the Mueller report and a collection of the underlying evidence gives the Democratic Party weeks or even months – depending on the fight from the Trump administration – before they’d have to seriously confront a question of impeaching the President as a caucus. So far even liberal members are focusing their reactions to Barr’s summary on the need for the fuller report.
“Earlier this month, we voted unanimously in the House of Representatives to call for a full public report of Robert Mueller’s investigation,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman who famously used an expletive earlier this year when calling for Trump to be impeached. “We cannot do our jobs as representatives without the full report.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said after a 22-month investigation, Mueller “was not able to exonerate the President from the charge of obstruction of justice” and she wants to know why.
“The attorney general has made it clear – through his broad support for sweeping presidential power and authority and his past criticism of the special counsel’s inquiry – that he is not an unbiased participant. It is, therefore, even more urgent that Congress immediately receive the full report and all the underlying documentation and evidence so that we can make our own determinations,” she said in a statement.
And while Pelosi is publicly focused on obtaining the full report, behind closed doors she’s telling Democrats she also wants to move on. That’s the message she sent to her leadership team during a Monday night meeting, saying their caucus should focus on their agenda and their message, according to two sources. She and her top lieutenants view the matter as a distraction and believe they should focus on pocketbook issues, the sources said.
Pelosi has been preparing for this moment. Earlier this month, the speaker laid down a marker against impeachment. In an interview with The Washington Post, Pelosi said the process was too politically risky to move ahead with and that Trump ultimately wasn’t “worth it.”
“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,” Pelosi said in the interview with the Post. “He’s just not worth it.”
That’s also the sense of some moderate Democrats who face the toughest re-election battles next year.
“I think it’s time that we wrap this thing up in a sense,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who hails from a swing district in New Jersey. “Get the full report that enables us to do that … and then we move on.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York and a member of party leadership, said Pelosi’s impeachment strategy has been vindicated.
“She had always been correct – and that’s why the overwhelmingly majority of the House Democratic caucus backed her position when she first uttered it,” he said.
“Now of course the wisdom of her perspective is now being revealed for others who may have criticized her,” he added. “Not within the House Democratic family, but on the sidelines.”
On Monday, relevant chairmen sent a letter to Barr requesting the full report and the underlying documents with a deadline of April 2.
The fight for the report is expected to consume Capitol Hill for weeks and drag on as Mueller’s team consults with the Department of Justice about what can even be disclosed to the public. Democrats have also called for Barr and Mueller to appear before relevant committees, another sensitive and potentially fraught negotiation.
“I do believe we’re going to have to hear both from Attorney General Barr, one of those committees, and we’re going to have to hear from Robert Mueller, ultimately,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia. “What were you thinking? What was the rationale behind this? What did you mean when you wrote this or you wrote that? But before we can do that, we’re going to have the full report.”
The reaction and fallout over Mueller will again shine a light on the difficult spot Pelosi finds herself in of managing the different factions within her party – including the vocal group of progressive freshmen, some of whom won their campaigns promising impeachment.
Tlaib earlier this month announced she will formally file her impeachment resolution to start the process by the end of the March. An aide to Tlaib tells CNN they hope to unveil the resolution this week, but at this point it’s unclear if Tlaib will proceed as planned.
Meanwhile, Pelosi is attempting to keep the party focused on what they’re more likely to accomplish in Congress via legislation.
Democrats will move forward this week with a busy agenda that checks off some of their campaign promises and party priorities – not to mention a veto override vote on Tuesday involving the President’s goal to build more border wall (the veto override is not expected to pass, however).
Also on Tuesday, Pelosi will join with other Democratic leaders to unveil legislation they say will protect people with pre-existing conditions and lower health care costs. And the House will vote this week on a measure aimed at further closing the pay gap between men and women, as well as a resolution rejecting the ban on transgender service members in the military.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Alex Rogers contributed to this report.