WASHINGTON — As House Democrats geared up for their first impeachment hearing last month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi huddled in her office with her leadership team, downplaying expectations.

Don't expect these hearings to trigger a massive shift in public support toward ousting President Donald Trump, Pelosi, D-Calif., told her colleagues the night before the hearing, according to Democrats familiar with her warning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the encounter frankly.

Those words of caution — delivered as House Intelligence Committee members prepared in the Capitol basement for the next day’s hearing — reflected the innate skepticism that has influenced her every move as she has guided her Democratic majority through a tumultuous moment in the nation’s history.

Even after a whistleblower complaint and the White House release of a damaging transcript compelled Pelosi to launch the investigation she had long resisted, she has treated impeachment as a political liability and sought to redirect public attention to the pocketbook issues she considers responsible for her majority.

But with a five-minute nationally televised address Thursday morning, she has become the reluctant face of the impeachment effort, donning a role she never wanted at a time when she’d rather be talking about anything else.

"I'm really sorry the president made this necessary by his complete disregard for the vision of our founders," she told reporters Thursday. "An impeachment is not a pleasant experience. It can be divisive. We don't take any glee in this at all. It's heartbreaking. But the president gave us no choice."

The speaker’s discomfort was on full display, starting with her morning address, in which she gravely announced her decision to move forward with impeachment with the cautionary words of the Founding Fathers. Two hours later, she was rattled when a reporter asked whether she hates Trump — a question meant to elicit a response to a frequent GOP attack, but one she instead took as a personal slight.

Exiting the news conference as she was addressed, Pelosi turned around, walked up to the journalist — James Rosen of Sinclair Broadcast Group — and proceeded to wag her finger with scorn.

"As a Catholic, I resent you using the word 'hate' in a sentence that addresses me," she said. "Don't mess with me when it comes to words like that."

To Republicans eager to paint Democrats as out-of-control partisans, the forceful rebuttal was a sign of the speaker losing her grip.

“It’s caused them to lose sight of why they got the majority,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said of impeachment and Pelosi’s outburst. “I think things are starting to unravel.”

Trump, in a tweet, said she had a "nervous fit."

But the exchange quickly went viral among liberal social media users, who praised the 79-year-old speaker’s sharp tongue, and inside her own caucus, Pelosi continues to enjoy widespread esteem as she has labored to keep the impeachment inquiry on a narrow, rapid track while trying to focus public attention on key Democratic agenda items.

The latter effort has been difficult amid the impeachment furor. In recent weeks, she’s twice marched to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to protest his refusal to bring gun-control and immigration bills up for a vote — a form of theatrics that during normal times might garner significant coverage.

During a private huddle with her leadership team Wednesday night after the House Judiciary Committee hearing on impeachment, Pelosi encouraged her fellow leaders to emphasize their policy agenda after informing them of her decision to move forward with articles of impeachment.

She took her own advice Thursday, announcing a vote on a sweeping bill to curb the rise in prescription drug costs — a key plank of the Democrats’ policy platform — before using the first seven minutes of her weekly news conference to discuss bills dealing with insider trading, gender pay equity, violence against women and a minimum-wage hike before dealing with the topic du jour.

Pelosi spoke with an unusually weary rasp — a consequence, friends and aides said, of a whirlwind weekend visit to Madrid, where she led a delegation of 14 lawmakers to a global conference on climate change amid the domestic rancor. Several lawmakers who joined Pelosi on the trip said her mood — solemn and serious of late in Washington — drastically changed: Thousands of miles from impeachment, occupying the role of statesman, she was full of cheer.

“She’s juggling chain saws and kittens and doing it seemingly with perfect composure,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who joined the delegation. “It would be hard to characterize this as anything but reluctant. This is not where she wanted to be, even a couple months ago.”

Huffman and others said impeachment was not a frequent topic of discussion during the overseas trip, and Pelosi brushed off requests for comment — adhering to the political norms that Trump has so often flagrantly ignored.

"When we travel abroad, we don't talk about the president in a negative way, and we save that for home," she told a reporter who asked about impeachment at a Monday news conference.

Pelosi took calls during the trip from House General Counsel Douglas Letter, who is handling legal aspects of the impeachment probe, and during the nine-hour flight home from Madrid on Tuesday, Pelosi secluded herself in an airplane cabin to read the final draft of Schiff’s report on Trump and Ukraine, according to an aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.
Susan Walsh / AP
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

The moment her feet hit U.S. soil, about 4 p.m., she was back to work, the aide said — ordering staff members to line up her first meeting for 4:15 p.m. with additional appointments through the evening.

Pelosi’s evolution on impeachment has become a key talking point for her critics. During an interview with The Washington Post in the spring, the speaker said Trump is “just not worth” impeaching and laid out a series of requirements that Democrats needed to move toward ousting him — bipartisan congressional support, as well as clear public approval.

When Pelosi changed her mind on Sept. 24 and backed impeachment amid news that Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, she had neither — something House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and other GOP leaders have pointed out repeatedly.

"Those three issues she laid [out for impeachment] have failed," McCarthy said Tuesday, gesturing toward a large poster bearing Pelosi's March remarks to The Post. "There's nothing 'compelling,' there's nothing 'overwhelming' and the only 'bipartisan' vote we have had in this House is not to move forward with an impeachment inquiry."

But even the most skeptical members of Pelosi's caucus said this week she had no choice but to move ahead.

“I don’t believe she wanted to initially engage in this to this degree, but frankly, the president forced our hand with that phone call and the whistleblower coming clean,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition who voted against Pelosi for speaker. “So now, let’s just get it done. The American people are tired.”

Pelosi also has cast the constitutional clash in terms of defending an ally against Russia, calling the concerns raised by the whistleblower complaint the “aha moment” and repeating a phrase that she used in challenging Trump face-to-face at the White House in October.

"All roads lead to Putin," she told reporters.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., a longtime friend and political ally of the speaker, said Pelosi knew overwhelming public sentiment was not there — bolstering her skepticism even after the Mueller report found multiple instances of potential obstruction of justice by the president. But when the Ukraine allegations “fell into our lap,” Eshoo said, Pelosi knew instinctively that the public sentiment would change.

"It's like a nuclear sub," Eshoo said of Pelosi. "It is just a bit under the surface, and it keeps moving, and it has the best radar on it, it's not going to make mistakes. That's Nancy."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA officer who was among the “national security freshmen” who pushed Pelosi toward supporting an impeachment inquiry, praised her handling of the process. From the beginning, she said, she asked Pelosi to ensure that the investigation was done in a strategic, efficient and serious manner, and she said Pelosi has followed through.

“I really can’t stand anything that celebrates this moment we’re in, because if you’re from a place like Michigan — swing state, you know, where your neighbors have different political views than you do — that tension is seeping into our everyday lives and no one’s happy about it,” she said. “I think she has set an important tone.”

Slotkin added that Pelosi has kept the moderate freshmen at the top of her priority list, making sure their bills are passing the House and tending closely to their political needs. Slotkin pointed to one of her top priorities — allowing patients to have immediate access to prescription drug prices from their doctors’ offices. The House passed the bill Oct. 29, two days before the House formalized its impeachment probe.

“I always remind people of that — my signature piece of prescription drug legislation that I’m most proud of . . . passed in the middle of this zoo,” Slotkin said.

These days Pelosi, a history major in college, spends much of her time quoting the founders of the nation in her bid to justify her move to embrace impeachment. Occasionally she favors the Bible. On Thursday morning, before lashing out at the news conference, she read verses from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah to her whip team in the Capitol basement — a warning about corrupt kings.

"Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters. Don't take advantage of the homeless, the orphans, the widows," she read. "Doom to the leader who builds palaces but bullies people, who makes a fine house but destroys lives."

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane contributed to this report.