Leaders of the House Democrats backed off the idea of immediately launching impeachment proceedings against President Trump in an urgent conference call Monday evening amid a growing rift among the party's rank-and-file members, presidential contenders and committee chairs on the contentious issue.
Fox News is told by two senior sources on the private conference call that even House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, an anti-Trump firebrand, told fellow Democrats that while she personally favored going forward with impeachment proceedings, she was not pushing for other members to join her.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team were clear there were no immediate plans to move forward with impeachment, Fox News is also told. Well-placed sources said it was a spirited 87-minute call involving more than 170 Democrat members, including House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff and House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings.
"We have to save our democracy," Pelosi said, according to the sources. "This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about saving our democracy. If it is what we need to do to honor our responsibility to the Constitution – if that’s the place the facts take us, that’s the place we have to go."
Pelosi asserted that more investigations were needed: "We don’t have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts.”
Waters' hesitation and Pelosi's remarks signaled clearly that, for the time being, any impeachment effort would struggle to gain steam. Just last week, Waters, D-Calif., took a far more aggressive tone, charging that "Congress’ failure to impeach is complacency in the face of the erosion of our democracy and constitutional norms."
Waters also has called Attorney General Bill Barr a "lackey," saying he was not being "respectful" to Congress. Barr held a news conference presenting Special Counsel Robert Mueller's conclusions and has referred bluntly to the FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign as "spying," rankling Democrats even as he said the important issue was whether the spying was properly predicated.
But on the call Monday night, Waters took a more muted tone and said she was simply saying what she personally thought -- not demanding impeachment proceedings.
Congress is currently on a two-week recess, and representatives are scattered across the country.
The brewing fractures among Democrats were evident on the Sunday talk show circuit, as Schiff, D-Calif, told "Fox News Sunday" that the impeachment question presented a "very difficult decision" that would take "the next couple of weeks" to determine.
“I'm not there yet, but I can foresee that possibly coming,” Cummings, D-Md., said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Democrats would be wise to instead focus on the upcoming presidential election.
“Obstruction of justice, if proven, would be impeachable,” New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” adding his committee would “see where the facts lead us.”
Nadler issued a subpoena on Monday for documents and testimony from former White House Counsel Donald McGahn, who resisted Trump's calls to fire Mueller, according to the special counsel's findings.
On the conference call, Nadler discussed the subpoena and announced that McGahn will be the first witness in a new series of public hearings based on the Mueller report and Democrats' other related document requests.
Nadler said the hearings will aim to provide the public with a robust understanding of what’s at stake in these matters and an opportunity to hear from the key witnesses who could speak directly to questions of obstruction, abuse of power and corruption that may have been committed by the president or his allies.
Meanwhile, prominent progressive freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president in 2020, wholeheartedly embraced the impeachment push.
Pelosi recognized the intra-party split in a letter to Democrats on Monday, ahead of the conference call.
“While our views range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment, we all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth,” Pelosi wrote. “It is also important to know that the facts regarding holding the president accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings.”
Pelosi added: “Whether currently indictable or not, it is clear that the president has, at a minimum, engaged in highly unethical and unscrupulous behavior which does not bring honor to the office he holds."
During the call, Pelosi urged colleagues to read the letter carefully.
Mueller's 18-month-long probe found no evidence the Trump team conspired illegally with Russians, and debunked numerous conspiracy theories that mainstream media outlets had advanced on the topic. Democrats quickly pivoted to focus on whether the president had illegally obstructed the Russia investigation -- a question Mueller chose to allow Barr, the Justice Department, and Congress to address.
Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told "Fox News Sunday" that it was unfair for Democrats to expect that Mueller could ever "exonerate" Trump on obstruction.
"You do not apply a standard of exoneration to anyone," Giuliani told Chris Wallace after saying the standard was "warped" and that the Mueller report was full of "lies" told by disaffected Trump aides.
"Whether it’s a president, an impeachment," Giuliani said, "you can’t exonerate. Exoneration means proving a negative."
Fox News' Alex Pappas, Chad Pergram, Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.