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For some Democrats, the real dirty word is 'impeachm---'

Analysis: A lawmaker's profane pledge to remove the president from office has spotlighted the party's internal debate over trying to dump Trump outside the ballot box.
Image: Rashida Tlaib
U.S. House Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) takes the oath of office in a ceremonial swearing-in at the start of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 3, 2019.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — It didn't take long for newly empowered House Democrats to lose control of their message on the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump: less than a day.

A day which began with the spotlight on the incoming Democratic majority ended with it focused on how those members remain splintered over the merits, the politics and the timing of attempting to remove the commander in chief from his job.

The views range from freshman Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib's colorful promise on Thursday that Democrats "are gonna impeach the motherf---er" to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's careful formulation in a "Today" show interview hours earlier that "we shouldn't be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn't avoid impeachment for a political reason."

That gap is powered by the competing desires of many Democratic voters to see the president driven from office and the varying degrees to which their elected representatives see that as a worthy, plausible and timely goal.

"There are people who believe the evidence is there and there are people who don't really care if the evidence is there," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said, adding that he's in a third camp that thinks the House should not act capriciously with "one of the most awesome powers" in the Constitution and is "not unmindful" that the Republican-led Senate would not vote to convict Trump anytime soon.

The discussion has put Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in an uncomfortable spot — caught between the urgent demands of the Democratic base, the risk of a backlash if they are seen to be politicizing a solemn process, the reality that it would take at least 20 Republican votes in the Senate to convict Trump and the deliberate nature of the impeachment process.

That tension could be seen in Pelosi's response to Tlaib's remarks.

"I do think that we want to be unified and bring people together," Pelosi told MSNBC's Joy Reid in an interview Friday morning. "Impeachment is a very divisive approach to take and we shouldn’t take it ... without the facts."

But rather than reprimand her junior colleague for the substance or tone of the remarks, Pelosi said the desire to impeach Trump is "legitimate" and that the profane name the Michigan lawmaker used for Trump is "nothing worse than the president has said."

Pelosi, like most Democrats who spoke to NBC News Thursday, said they would not have used the same language as Tlaib.

Trump himself was harshly critical of Tlaib — saying in a Rose Garden press conference that she had "dishonored" both her family and "the United States of America" — but dismissed the significance of the threat.

"We even talked about this today" at the White House as he met with congressional leaders. "I said, 'why don't you use this for impeachment?' And Nancy said, 'we're not looking to impeach you.' I said 'that's good, Nancy, that's good.' But you don't impeach people when they're doing a good job."

Other Republicans were quick to jump on Tlaib's comments and present them as representative of a Democratic Party trying to score political points rather than make policy.

"I thought it was vulgar," Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the chairwoman of the Republican Conference, told NBC News, adding that the charge to impeach Trump is "pretty indicative of the level of seriousness we're seeing" on issues like the fight over Trump's border wall. Democrats are engaging in "real partisanship and game-playing," she said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warned that it will be difficult for Republicans to work with Democrats on policy matters if Democrats are focused on ousting Trump.

"How do you work with anybody if this is what they really have planned?" McCarthy said. "Where are their priorities?"

That's a problem senior Democrats are wrestling with in real-time, as many of their constituents — and some of their colleagues — are demanding action on impeachment sooner than later.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., said he wouldn't condemn Tlaib for expressing what she's hearing from voters in her district every day.

"There are many in the country who want an expedited process," he said. But, "any reasonable person should conclude that waiting for the Mueller probe to conclude is the best course of action."

The debate won't stay centered on Capitol Hill — it will soon be a hot topic out on the trail for the growing field of contenders for the party's 2020 presidential nomination, no matter what their take on the issue.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who is considering a presidential run, said Democrats will remove Trump from office "whether it's at the ballot box or by Congress" and that it will be a race to see which comes first.

"I think we should give him a fairer investigation than he deserves," Swalwell said. "If this was Donald Trump justice, Donald Trump would be impeached already."

But he said "the last thing" he wants to do is make Trump a political martyr.

For Himes, there's a similar, but perhaps deeper, fear.

"I worry that there could be very, very clear evidence of impeachable offenses and the Congress is unable to act," he said. If Trump walked down Fifth Avenue and killed someone, he said, "most Republican senators would not vote to convict."

CORRECTION (Jan. 6, 2018, 3:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article included a caption that misidentified the origins of the Quran Rep. Rashida Tlaib used in her swearing-in ceremony. She used a personal Quran, not one that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson.