By MARY CLARE JALONICK and LISA MASCARO Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
Trump told reporters he's not concerned about the impeachment planning, calling it an "embarrassment" to the country. Asked if he believes Pelosi is scared of impeaching him, Trump said: "I don't think she's scared of anything. I think she's a smart woman and I think she knows exactly what she's doing."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler says 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 that is 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 that his committee is moving ahead, Pelosi is reluctant to mention the "I'' word.
In private meetings, Pelosi has urged caution and told the caucus that 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 that when she travels the country, "people are saying it's good to be careful about how we proceed."
Outside groups that spent the month of August flooding lawmakers' telephone lines and showing up at town hall meetings to push impeachment 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."
The confusion was highlighted this week as leadership split on what to call what was happening. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., indicated to reporters that there was not an impeachment investigation — and then issued a clarification saying the House is not considering one "at this time." The caucus chairman, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., tweeted that committee adopted the resolution for the "IMPEACHMENT INVESTIGATION."
Ahead of the committee vote, several freshman lawmakers met with Nadler on Wednesday and expressed concerns about the path ahead. Hoyer's office had encouraged them to raise their questions.
"It's sucking the air out of all the good stuff that we're doing, so that's our concern," said Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, who attended the meeting.
As soon as the committee voted Thursday, the House GOP's campaign committee began singling out Democratic freshmen who voted for the resolution, warning they will "pay dearly for this decision at the ballot box."
With Democrats divided and the 2020 campaign ahead, it's unclear whether the impeachment process will ever move beyond the committee's investigation.
The Republican-led Senate is unlikely to convict Trump and remove him from office.
The GOP's House leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, a close ally of Trump, said there's "no reason' to move forward with impeachment. "This is not something to play with," he said.
Still, the committee has persisted in advancing the issue, keeping questions swirling about Trump's actions in office. Its work is also intended to bolster the Democrats' lawsuits against the Trump administration to force witness testimony and documents as the White House has repeatedly blocked both.
The committee says the resolution approved Thursday is similar to the approach taken at the beginning of the impeachment investigations into Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
The first hearing scheduled under the new impeachment rules is with Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, on Sept. 17 over questions of obstruction of justice. According to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Trump asked Lewandowski to deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting that he limit Mueller’s inquiry.
The committee also intends to hold hearings as it is investigating the spending of taxpayer money at the president's hotels and properties and hush money payments Trump made to kill potentially embarrassing stories about alleged affairs.
Nadler said all of those investigations will inform the decision on whether to move ahead and vote on articles of impeachment.
Republicans expressed their frustration with the entire process.
Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the panel, said the committee "has become a giant Instagram filter ... it's put in there to look like something, but it's really not."
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington and Matthew Daly in Baltimore contributed to this report.