Is it impeachment if Pelosi doesn't say so?

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., makes preparations for his panel's first impeachment-related vote Thursday as he defines procedures for upcoming investigations on President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite ~ Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Bristling over the "I" word, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped short Thursday of saying the House is ready to launch an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump , even as Judiciary Committee Democrats set the stage to do just that.

Pelosi has been a moderating force in her divided caucus, as liberals push to impeach and centrist Democrats are wary of fixating on Trump. She's been consistent in her restraint. But in having it both ways, opening the door to impeachment while not leading the charge, she was giving space for different opinions but leaving Democrats with a mixed message.

By approving ground rules for impeachment hearings Thursday, the Judiciary Committee sparked the questions anew.

"If we have to go there, we'll have to go there," Pelosi said Thursday about the impeachment investigation. "But we can't go there until we have the facts."

Pelosi cut off repeated questions on the topic during her weekly press conference. She said she was done discussing it.

"People are impatient about it," she conceded. "We can't go any faster than the facts."

She said, "We're still on the same path."

The approach from Pelosi and her leadership team comes as the Judiciary Committee pushes ahead with its first impeachment hearings this fall, backed by more than half the House Democrats who want some sort of an investigation.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said there's no uncertainty about what his committee is doing: It's an impeachment investigation, no matter how you want to phrase it.

As the committee voted Thursday to approve guidelines for impeachment hearings, Nadler promised an "aggressive" fall schedule, starting with next week's public session with Trump aide Corey Lewandowski.

"Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature," Nadler, D-N.Y., said earlier as he opened the meeting.

"But let me clear up any remaining doubt: The conduct under investigation poses a threat to our democracy. We have an obligation to respond to this threat. And we are doing so."

Impeachment has divided Democrats who control the House, a split becoming even more pronounced ahead of the 2020 election as the party measures the weight of its oversight responsibility with the mood of public opinion.

Democrats on Nadler's committee, including some of the most liberal members of the House, have been eager to move forward with the process. But moderates, mostly first-term lawmakers who handed their party the majority in the 2018 election, are concerned about the committee's drumbeat on impeachment especially in districts where Trump remains popular.

Given those divisions, Nadler and Pelosi have been talking about impeachment very differently. While Nadler has been clear his committee is moving ahead, Pelosi is reluctant to mention the "I" word.

In private meetings, Pelosi has urged caution and told the caucus the public isn't there yet on impeachment.

At the same time, Pelosi has quietly signed off on the committee's moves and said Thursday she supports its work.

She said Thursday when she travels the country, "people are saying it's good to be careful about how we proceed."

Outside groups spent the month of August flooding lawmakers' telephone lines and showing up at town hall meetings to push impeachment. They find Pelosi's approach out of step with the party's priorities.

"It's just an absurd position," said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and president of Defend the Republic, a messaging group around the issue. He is a former campaign aide to Hillary Clinton.

Petkanas said the "discombobulation of some of the leadership messaging is disappointing," but not a blow to the efforts to push Judiciary Committee Democrats to act. "It kind of doesn't even matter what she calls it, they're doing the thing."

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