WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under increasing pressure from her own party to transmit articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, promised Thursday to deliver the charges to the Senate "soon," while moving to keep splintering Democrats in line.
At her weekly news conference, Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to detail her timeline for picking impeachment trial managers and delivering charges alleging that Trump abused his power and obstructed Congress. According to senior Democratic lawmakers and aides, she has kept even her closest allies in the dark on her thinking, causing concern to spread inside her ranks. The lawmakers and aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank.
But Pelosi stood her ground, bristling at the repeated questions about when she plans to relent and arguing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to provide sufficient detail on the trial process - leaving unaddressed the criticism that has emerged among Democrats.
"You keep asking me the same question, I keep giving you the same answer: We need to see the arena to which we are sending our managers. Is that too much to ask?" she said, referring to the House "managers" who will prosecute the case in the Senate.
"I'm not holding them indefinitely," she added. "I'll send them over when I'm ready. And that will probably be soon."
Pelosi spoke as Congress enters the fourth week of an impeachment stalemate that began Dec. 18, when Democrats impeached Trump. Under the Constitution, the Senate is now charged with holding a trial on his removal, but Pelosi has not taken the separate step of naming managers and sending the articles across the Capitol.
Many senators expected Trump's trial to begin shortly. McConnell predicted during a private lunch Thursday that Pelosi could send the articles of impeachment as soon as Friday - and told his colleagues to be ready for a trial to begin as soon as next week.
But Democratic aides said Pelosi will follow her own gut on the decision, and while some Democrats began questioning her strategy this week - such as moderate Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who said Thursday the time had come to send the articles - there are also clear signs that she largely remained in control.
In one remarkable turnabout, a senior House Democrat - Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington state - called on Pelosi to transmit the articles in a televised interview Thursday morning, only to reverse course within hours.
"I think it was perfectly advisable for the speaker to try to leverage that to try to get a better deal," Smith said on CNN. "At this point it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
Shortly before Pelosi addressed reporters, Smith walked his comments back in a tweet, saying he "misspoke."
"I completely support the speaker's effort," he told reporters later in the day. "She knows a heck of a lot more than I do."
Other prominent members of the Democratic caucus who earlier in the week had suggested it was time for the trial to get underway appeared to defend Pelosi on Thursday. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a brief interview that he understood what Pelosi is doing in fighting for witnesses. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that her earlier comments had been misunderstood and that she supported Pelosi's strategy.
"She's going to send it over when she's ready to send it over," Feinstein said.
Republicans, meanwhile, appeared to revel in Pelosi's predicament, repeatedly quoting those Democrats who had broken with her. McConnell derided Pelosi's "irresponsible games" in a floor speech Thursday and showed no sign of bowing to her wish for a detailed blueprint of the trial.
"Should future House majorities feel empowered to waste our time with junior varsity political hostage situations?" McConnell asked. "They get to start it if they choose, but they do not get to declare that it can never be finished. They do not get to trap our entire country into an unending Groundhog Day of impeachment without resolution."
Republican aides said divisions in the Democratic ranks have emboldened McConnell, who has vowed to start the trial without any deal to hear from witnesses or obtain new documents that the Trump administration repeatedly has refused to provide.
McConnell has also declined to release the resolution that the Senate will vote on detailing the procedures for the trial, as Pelosi has demanded.
"The wall has crumbled beneath her," taunted the No. 3 Senate Republican, John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Pelosi "has zero leverage" and "is trying to make the most out of a very bad situation of her own creation."
Democrats on both sides of the Capitol privately expressed concern about Pelosi's delay and the repercussions for swing-district lawmakers such as McAdams as Republicans blanket TV networks and radio talk shows accusing Democrats of playing politics with impeachment. Pelosi, meanwhile, appeared to remain in sync with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Speaking hours before the senators left Washington for the week without a resolution to the standoff, Schumer repeated a mantra of "witnesses and documents" as he pressed for concessions from Republicans.
"That has been Speaker Pelosi's focus from the very beginning; that has been my focus from the very beginning: getting a fair trial that considers the facts and only the facts," he said.
But some Democrats have started openly questioning whether impeachment was still the focus of the country, especially in light of this week's military exchange with Iran that included the targeted killing of Iran's most powerful military commander, Qasem Soleimani.
"After Soleimani, you don't hear impeachment anymore. So that is not an issue that is on the forefront right now," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, a former ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee.
Pelosi's defenders praised her move to hold the articles, arguing that new revelations unearthed during the holiday break vindicated the tactic. Among the recent developments: Former national security adviser John Bolton suddenly agreed Monday to testify if subpoenaed by the Senate after refusing to cooperate with the House investigation.
"The drip, drip, drip of information is fascinating," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who led a push for the hold-the-articles strategy last month. "I think being deliberate, not rushing it, is absolutely the right thing to do. And I think each day verifies the wisdom."
Trump on Thursday appeared to dash some Democrats' hopes that Bolton could soon appear at a Senate trial, saying he would object to any effort to allow him to testify about his presidential conversations.
"We have to protect presidential privilege," he said. "When we start allowing national security advisers to just go up and say whatever they want to say, we can't do that."
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a moderate Democrat, said that his colleagues trusted Pelosi but that their patience would not be infinite.
"There's just a whole lot of reasons why it has to be sooner than later," he said. "You've got the Senate Democrats who obviously understand their own timeline and their circumstances that we have to be mindful of - the fact that you've got the presidential elections that are moving forward . . . I just think there's a shelf life to this."
A trial would keep in Washington the Democratic senators running for the presidential nomination, limiting any campaigning in Iowa ahead of the Feb. 3 caucuses.
This article was written by Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade, reporters for The Washington Post.