Nancy Pelosi Would Prefer Not to

The speaker’s opposition to impeaching Alex Acosta is the only tenable position she can hold, given her skepticism about impeaching Donald Trump.

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t mincing words about Labor Secretary Alex Acosta: He “must step down” over his role in a past sweetheart deal with the sexual offender Jeffrey Epstein, the Democrat wrote in a tweet Monday evening.

But if he doesn’t? Don’t expect her to do anything about it.

“It’s up to the president. It’s his Cabinet,” Pelosi said Tuesday when asked whether she’d consider launching impeachment hearings against Acosta. “We have a great deal of work to do here for the good of the American people—need to focus on that.”

This is, in one way, a bizarre conclusion to reach. Pelosi believes that Acosta “engaged in an unconscionable agreement” with Epstein.” It is politically beneficial to attack Acosta, since sheltering pedophiles is unpopular. And Pelosi, as the deft leader of a solid Democratic majority in the House, could successfully impeach Acosta. Who knows whether the Senate would convict, but Acosta might well decide to resign before finding out.

Yet Pelosi’s demurral is also the only logically consistent position available to her, since she has made her opposition to impeaching President Donald Trump very clear. Why impeach someone for coddling a sexual abuser but abstain from impeaching someone who, like the president, has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault and harassment himself?

Then again, Pelosi is not averse to logical inconsistencies on impeachment. The speaker has made clear that she believes Trump’s behavior would justify impeachment, most recently in an interview with Maureen Dowd published this weekend. “He every day practically self-impeaches by obstructing justice and ignoring the subpoenas,” Pelosi told Dowd, introducing a baffling phrase to the lexicon. And while she denied having told members of her caucus verbatim that “I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison,” she didn’t disavow the sentiment.

“You can’t impeach everybody,” she said, noting past calls to impeach Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, as well as the successful impeachment of Bill Clinton. And yet, Pelosi told Dowd, Trump “has given real cause for impeachment.” She says he is unfit for office, for which impeachment is a cure. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.

What it comes down to is that Pelosi, like Bartleby the scrivener, would prefer not to. The speaker contends that it’s bad politics, and that it’s better to eject Trump in 2020; and she worries that impeaching him would only solidify his position. But her focus on legislating instead of accountability, as expressed in her answer on Acosta, remains perplexing. There’s something to the idea that Democrats won in 2018 in part on a policy-based platform—not just opposition to Donald Trump. On the other hand, any Democratic legislative agenda is dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Pelosi is not the first speaker whom I have compared to Melville’s character. There’s also her immediate predecessor, Paul Ryan. Despite the many differences between them—party, generation, gender, ideology, eagerness to be speaker—Pelosi and Ryan have taken surprisingly similar approaches to handling President Trump.

Where Ryan tended to shake his head in sorrow or simply pretend he hadn’t heard the latest outrageous thing Trump said, Pelosi is willing to deploy scathing rhetoric against the president. But neither one showed much appetite for concrete exercises of the House’s power as a check on the executive branch. Pelosi has tolerated investigations by Democratic committee chairs, but she has been unstinting in her own skepticism about impeachment. Both have chosen to try to work with the president where they see agreement—on issues like taxes (in Ryan’s case) or infrastructure (in Pelosi’s). Ryan got somewhat more to show for that, though still very little given that Republicans shared unified control of Congress and the White House.

In Dowd’s interview, she asked Pelosi about recent allegations by the journalist E. Jean Carroll, who says that Trump raped her (though she did not use that word) in a department-store dressing room in the 1990s. “I respect the case she has but I don’t see any role for Congress,” Pelosi said. It isn’t hard to imagine a role for Congress, though: Rape is the sort of crime of moral turpitude for which someone might be impeached, though the House could also impeach the president for a broad array of other offenses of which he’s been accused. It’s not that there’s no role for Congress, really. It’s that Nancy Pelosi would prefer not to.