WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday ruled out censuring President Trump as an alternative to starting an impeachment proceeding against him, and said that if Democrats conclude he should be charged under the Constitution for misconduct, impeachment was the only option.
“Censure is a way out — if you’re going to go, you’ve got to go,” Ms. Pelosi said at a breakfast meeting with reporters. “If the goods are there, you must impeach.”
But Ms. Pelosi made it clear that she did not currently support opening an impeachment inquiry against the president, despite the small but growing number of Democrats in her ranks who have said it is time to take that step.
The issue has become a political flash point among Democratic activists and an increasingly tricky balance for Ms. Pelosi to strike. While she maintains that Mr. Trump has engaged in criminal behavior and obstruction of justice, she argues that impeachment should be avoided at least until Democrats can uncover more evidence of wrongdoing and make an ironclad case against Mr. Trump.
“Every day, we see more, so why would we stop with a less-strong case?” Ms. Pelosi said. “If you’re going to go down this path, you have to make sure that the public has an understanding of why, and that when the president — if the president is impeached, that the Senate understands that they either honor the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and if they don’t, the public will hold them accountable for not holding the president accountable.”
Ms. Pelosi said some Democrats had privately told her that they supported censuring Mr. Trump, which would involve a vote on the House floor to reprimand him, but she believes the move would have little effect.
“That’s a day at the beach for the president, or at his golf club, or wherever he goes,” she said.
More than 60 of the 235 House Democrats publicly support impeaching Mr. Trump, including more than half of those sitting on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction to initiate the proceedings. Most of them are from Democratic districts where voters are overwhelmingly favor such a move, but in the past few days two lawmakers who hold seats that are considered competitive — albeit in Democratic-leaning districts — have come out in support of opening an inquiry.
If the trend continues, Ms. Pelosi’s effort to hold off the drive toward impeachment could become more complicated, although people close to her maintain that she would feel no compulsion to change her stance unless it became clear that a House majority supported the step. On Wednesday, she reiterated that she felt “no pressure” from her colleagues to do so, nor was she pressuring them to hold back. But she also seemed to concede that tamping down on impeachment fervor within her ranks had grown more difficult in large part because of Mr. Trump’s conduct.
“Every day the president puts more grounds forward that says he is obstructing justice, and that has affected members,” Ms. Pelosi said. “It’s self-evident that he is obstructing justice. He’s ignoring subpoenas.”
As she spoke, Hope Hicks, Mr. Trump’s former communications director at the White House and a witness in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, was making her way to Capitol Hill for closed-door testimony to the judiciary panel.
While the committee’s members had hoped to question her about episodes of possible obstruction of justice, many of their attempts were thwarted by her personal lawyer and a White House attorney who repeatedly objected to questions about her time in the West Wing. Some Democrats on the panel said they might have to take her to court to compel her to answer.
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