WASHINGTON — Impeachment was always going to hang heavily over the 116th Congress. But less than 12 hours into Democratic control, a freshman House Democrat’s exuberant, expletive-laden promise crashed the bipartisan bonhomie of opening day and thrust President Trump’s fate to the forefront of a divided Washington.
In a speech to liberal activists at a bar near the Capitol on Thursday night, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan promised profanely to impeach Mr. Trump, drawing wild cheers. The applause from the crowd convened by MoveOn.org might as well have stood in for millions of liberals across the country, who helped hand Democrats the House majority in part to punish the president for flouting legal and ethical norms.
But in her choice of words, Ms. Tlaib flouted other norms, drawing rebukes from Republicans and worried words from more senior House Democrats.
“People love you and you win,” Ms. Tlaib told the crowd. “And when your son looks at you and says: ‘Momma, look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t.’ Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”
By Friday morning, when Ms. Tlaib’s remarks splashed across the internet and prompted a presidential reply, they had become more of a headache for Democratic leaders. Republicans, who on Thursday offered a hand of “friendship” to the ascendant Democrats, pounced at an earlier-than-expected opening to paint the majority as a power-hungry bloc intent on destroying Mr. Trump’s presidency.
“Is this the behavior that we are going to find with this new majority party in Congress?” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, asked at a news conference called for the express purpose of drawing attention to the remarks. He repeatedly singled out Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, asking why she had not censured Ms. Tlaib.
Mr. Trump jumped in early.
“How do you impeach a president who has won perhaps the greatest election of all time, done nothing wrong (no Collusion with Russia, it was the Dems that Colluded), had the most successful first two years of any president, and is the most popular Republican in party history 93%?” Mr. Trump asked on Twitter. In another post, he said Democrats wanted to impeach him only because they could not win in 2020.
Democratic leaders found their studious handling of the matter already fraying.
“I don’t really like that kind of language,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — where any impeachment inquiry must begin — 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.”
Ms. Tlaib’s comments laid bare uncomfortable divisions within her party, and she made no apologies for them, proclaiming that “I will always speak truth to power” and fashioning her own hashtag, #unapologeticallyme.
But her exuberant outburst most assuredly did not reflect Democratic talking points. Ms. Pelosi and her chief deputies have repeatedly made the case that it is too early to consider a grave remedy like impeachment. Even as Mr. Trump’s legal perils have deepened — and federal prosecutors in New York appear to have gathered evidence implicating him in a campaign finance crime — Democrats have said they want to wait to see the findings of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the president, his campaign and Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.
The Constitution grants the House the power to impeach executive branch officials for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” but what constitutes such crimes has traditionally been defined by the majority party of the House. A vote to impeach takes a simple majority in the House, but it takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict and remove a target from office.
Mr. Nadler, Ms. Pelosi and other party elders believe Mr. Trump is threatening the country’s democratic institutions. Privately many harbor suspicions that he obstructed justice, collaborated with the Russians in 2016 or both. But they also argue that an impeachment that does not have a reasonable shot of winning a conviction in the Senate will backfire and strengthen Mr. Trump in the 2020 campaign. In the meantime, they are planning to open a bevy of investigations into accusations of wrongdoing around the president, his campaign and his administration.
Still, Ms. Pelosi defended Ms. Tlaib on Friday at a town hall hosted by MSNBC at the speaker’s alma mater in Washington, Trinity University.
“I’m not in the censorship business,” Ms. Pelosi said. “I don’t like that language, I wouldn’t use that language, but I wouldn’t establish language standards for my colleagues.”
She said that the comments were “nothing worse than the president has said.”
In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, before she won the speakership, Ms. Pelosi stuck to the script and said that she could not rule out impeachment, but would wait for Mr. Mueller.
“We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason,” she said. “So we’ll just have to see how it comes.”
Ms. Tlaib is far from alone among House Democrats. Representatives Brad Sherman of California and Al Green of Texas formally introduced an article of impeachment on Thursday, charging that Mr. Trump had obstructed justice in firing James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director. Others are expected to follow.
“I continue to believe that obstruction of justice is the clearest, simplest and most provable high crime and misdemeanor committed by Donald J. Trump,” Mr. Sherman said in a statement. “I hope that the articles of impeachment are the subject of hearings before the Judiciary Committee early in 2019.”
But captured on video, Ms. Tlaib’s comments, from a high-profile freshman, took off in a way that those by Mr. Sherman, a relatively little-known backbencher, did not.
Ms. Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, stood by her remarks on Friday. She implied the country was facing a constitutional crisis wrought by Mr. Trump.
But in the Capitol on Friday, Ms. Tlaib repeatedly ignored questions by reporters asking her to elaborate on the remarks.
Many of Ms. Tlaib’s new colleagues expressed sympathy for her sentiments, even as they said the House should proceed differently.
“Donald Trump is going to be impeached whether it is by the ballot box or Congress,” said Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California and a member of the Intelligence Committee. “It will just be a matter of which one comes first.”
But, Mr. Swalwell added, Democrats need to avoid making “a martyr” out of Mr. Trump by affording him “a fairer investigation than he deserves.”