House Democratic leaders spent two years trying to keep talk of impeachment out of the headlines to win back their majority.
All it took was a freshman lawmaker, a viral video and a curse word aimed at President Donald Trump to put it right back.
Republican Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., handed Democrats their first controversy of the new term Thursday night when she told a room of liberal activists that Congress would "impeach the m-----------," a reference to Trump that earned cheers from her audience and made the moment a viral sensation online.
Tlaib offered no apologies for her remark, which dominated talk on Capitol Hill one day after Democrats took power in the House and drew criticism from party leaders who said it was not productive. It gave Trump an opening, and he seized the opportunity to portray Democrats as unfairly persecuting him.
"You can't impeach somebody that's doing a great job," he argued in a Rose Garden appearance shortly after a White House meeting with congressional leaders.
Trump said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told him in the meeting, convened to talk about the government shutdown, that Democrats weren't looking to impeach him. A spokesman for Pelosi disputed that characterisation, saying that it was the president who had brought up impeachment and that Pelosi had insisted the meeting was about reopening the government.
The unexpected attention on impeachment was a vivid and early example of the divide between the no-holds-barred style of some newly elected Democrats and the more restrained sensibility of party leaders on questions of policy and tactics in the new Congress - a split that is certain to test Pelosi repeatedly.
Republican Rashida Tlaib told a room of liberal activists that Congress would "impeach the m***********." Photo / Salwan Georges, Washington Post
The leader's strategy in the 2018 midterms was to tamp down impeachment talk, knowing that any mention could energise Trump's core voters. Looking ahead to the 2020 elections, Pelosi and others are concerned that focusing on impeachment too aggressively will galvanise the president's base in districts that Democrats need to hold to keep their majority.
As Republicans seized on Tlaib's remarks, Democratic lawmakers predicted that they will ultimately serve the GOP.
"I never tell members how they should speak or what they should say, but it's hard to ignore the fact that this fuels a narrative that Republicans will use," said Rep. Daniel Kildee, a Democrat who represents a district north of Tlaib's in Michigan. "I understand that she feels strongly about this and she's going to stand by what she said. . . . In the larger picture, it's obviously not helpful."
Tensions between Democratic leaders and incoming freshmen, many of whom are vocal liberals, had emerged before Thursday's swearing-in. Pelosi has responded carefully, defending the leadership's interests while trying to keep the newcomers on her side.
The speaker has not ruled out impeachment proceedings but told NBC's "Today" program Thursday that lawmakers must wait to see what results from the special counsel's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"We shouldn't be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn't avoid impeachment for a political reason," she said.
On Friday, Pelosi described the desire to impeach Trump as "legitimate" but noted that the effort would need Republican support to succeed.
Asked about Tlaib's comments, she said she would not use the same language but declined to criticise the congresswoman.
"I'm not in the censorship business," Pelosi told MSNBC's Joy Reid in an interview. "I don't like that language; I wouldn't use that language. . . . But I don't think it's anything worse than what the president has said."
Tlaib defended her remark on Twitter but awkwardly avoided questions from reporters outside the Capitol. "I will always speak truth to power," she tweeted, with the hashtag #unapologeticallyMe.
Inside the Capitol, Republicans responded with outrage.
"We watched a new freshman stand up, use this language, get cheered by their base, and we watched a brand-new speaker say nothing to her," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said at a news conference. "That action should not stand. Somebody should stand up to it."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., distanced himself Friday from Tlaib's remark, as did Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
"I don't really like that kind of language," Nadler said on CNN, "but more to the point, I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts."
The Judiciary Committee would handle impeachment proceedings if Democrats decided to bring them.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said that the panel's strategy is to "present a case to the American people about what is happening and finding out for ourselves what is happening, and then we see where that takes us."
"You have to get the votes, and we don't have the information yet to be able to convince" enough House members, she said of impeachment.
Democratic leaders have used President Bill Clinton's impeachment by the House in 1998 as a case study, noting that his approval ratings soared to record heights after the vote.
Yet a handful of Democratic lawmakers have been consistent in their support for removing Trump, including Reps. Al Green of Texas and Brad Sherman of California, who refiled articles of impeachment this week.
Sherman distinguished his approach from Tlaib's.
"My style is incredibly respectful of the office of the president and the impeachment process," he said. "I haven't used a single word in two years on this that my 9-, 8- and 7-year-old daughters shouldn't see. . . . I never critique the style of my colleagues, but her style is definitely not my style."
Tlaib, 42, has already drawn significant attention for her 2018 primary win over a crowded field of influential Detroit politicians, and her standing as one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the desire to impeach Trump as "legitimate". Photo / Jabin Botsford, Washington Post
For the former state legislator, talk of impeachment began long before the reception Thursday night hosted by advocates from MoveOn. Tlaib called for Trump's removal throughout her campaign and repeated her views Thursday morning in an op-ed published by the Detroit Free Press.
The piece rejected as "dangerous" the arguments that Democrats should focus on ousting Trump in 2020 and that pursuing impeachment would be politically unwise. "Such a claim places partisan gamesmanship over our country and our most vulnerable at this perilous moment in our nation's history," Tlaib wrote with John Bonifaz, co-founder and president of the advocacy group Free Speech for People.
Democratic leaders are facing pressure on impeachment from many sides.
Nearly two-thirds of voters in battleground districts who supported Democrats said Congress should begin impeachment proceedings, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, a possible 2020 presidential candidate, has put millions of dollars behind ad campaigns urging Democrats to pursue impeachment.
But only about one-fifth of newly elected Democrats said on the campaign trail that the party should immediately initiate impeachment proceedings, according to a Post tally. Americans in several polls rate it as a low priority for the new Congress.
Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, called Tlaib's comments a "very sad way to begin your first day."
"It just goes to show you the true intention of many of the new members coming in," he said. "They have a political agenda to push."