Nancy Pelosi says she's the only one who can navigate impeachment and Donald Trump for House Democrats.Erin Schaff / The New York Times / Redux

Nancy Pelosi really does not want to impeach Donald Trump—and she’s prepared to take all the heat from her party and from the new House Democratic majority she’s hoping to lead, unless she sees something wildly different emerge.

But she said she won’t let Robert Mueller define the decision.

“Recognize one point,” Pelosi told me during an interview in the conference room of her minority-leader suite in the Capitol late Friday: “What Mueller might not think is indictable could be impeachable.”

Pelosi said people should pray for the country as long as Trump is in charge. She’s not sure of his mental condition. She thinks he’s degraded the Constitution and American values. She says the intelligence assessments are indisputable in showing that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. She thinks the firing of Jeff Sessions and the appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general in a clear move against the Mueller probe “is perilously close to a constitutional crisis.”

That’s not enough, she said.

“You have to have evidence, evidence of the connection. Everything’s about the connection,” Pelosi explained.

In other words, it comes down to a topic the president has notably refrained from tweeting about for weeks: collusion.

Maybe there’s something else in his tax returns. Maybe there’s something that’s beyond the special counsel’s scope. Maybe there’s something Trump has yet to do. “That’s why we want to see the documents,” Pelosi said. “Because we’re seeking truth. We’re seeking truth for the American people about the integrity of our elections, and honoring the Constitution.”

Her opponents are working overtime to block her from getting enough votes on the floor to be speaker, counting on all the new members who said during their campaign that they wouldn’t vote for her not to flake.

“Any member that pledged to vote against Pelosi or for a change in leadership during their campaign and then flips will be a political dead man or woman walking within an hour of being sworn in,” one of the House Democrats involved in the opposition effort told me Saturday. “And if they think Nancy Pelosi cares about them, they should go talk to the dozens of members she made walk the plank during the cap-and-trade bill [in 2009] that the Senate didn’t even take up for a vote. This is all about her, and not them.”

That all sounds nice, Pelosi’s allies point out, but Republicans across the country tried to make her a killer issue in House campaigns, and they lost anyway.

To Pelosi and her allies, navigating Trump is the strongest argument for another term as speaker, despite all the veteran and new members who say they don’t want to vote for her, and all their colleagues who privately share that dislike but aren’t ready to act on it. She has the experience and the staff, sure, but that’s only part of it. The caucus will be divided and antsy, and she’s the only one who won’t have to care that people in the Capitol, those in the White House, and the public will hate her for the decisions she makes. As far as she sees it, anyone who’s going to hate her for that hates her already, and she’s at the stage of her career—she’s taken to using the word transitional as she campaigns for what will probably be just one more term at the helm—when it doesn’t matter to her.

So on impeachment, Pelosi says she’s looking for whatever evidence to be so irrefutable that Republicans would join the effort. She says that’s about protecting the integrity of the country, not letting impeachment become just another politicized process—but it’s also a deliberate poison pill that would almost stop impeachment from ever happening. She knows what it would take for Republicans to come along. She wants the bar set that high.

Impeachment wasn’t a big topic during any of the midterm campaigns, but it is a big worry among Democratic operatives and politicians in Washington. The fever among the base to take down Trump is so high, they worry, and the president’s eagerness to overreach and pick fights is so core to who he is, that it can seem like they’ll go right from reading Mueller’s expected report to filing articles of impeachment.

To most Democrats anxiously analyzing the political landscape, there couldn’t be a dumber way to throw the 2020 election to Trump. Look what brought them all the House wins that are still piling up day by day, they say, plus all the governors races that went their way and what’s seeming like an at-worst two-seat net loss in the Senate. It wasn’t playing into Trump’s talking points, but stressing health care, infrastructure, and the way the Trump tax cuts were tilted to the wealthy.

No new leader, no matter who, could absorb what is about to explode, they say. “I just don’t see anyone else being able to serve in that role and push back against Tom Steyer, push back against the two or three or 10 articles of impeachment that get filed,” a House Democrat told me a few days ago. “She’s the only one who can do that. She needs to do that long enough, until the Mueller report comes out … at which point that will determine what happens next.” This House Democrat was not eager to talk publicly about Pelosi or impeachment, but acknowledged that both are going to be issues moving forward.

I asked Pelosi why she thought she could stop the newly emboldened Democrats from chasing impeachment or from tacking left over the next two years.

“Because I’m a liberal. I’m a San Francisco liberal,” she said. Later, she proudly pointed out that she was reelected to her own seat with 87 percent of the vote on Tuesday, and said, “I am such a target of the left, it’s almost funny.”

So that gives you the credibility to say no? I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.

Pelosi does not buy the argument, voiced most prominently by Steyer, that Trump has already clearly committed impeachable offenses through obstruction of justice and violation of the emoluments clause, among other things.

“What you have is a president who has declared war on the Constitution publicly this week. If that’s not obstruction of justice, what is obstruction of justice?” Steyer said, when told Saturday of Pelosi’s comments. Despite pointing out that he has deep respect for her, he said, “My blood just popped out the top out of my head.”

He also noted that his online impeachment petition now has more than 6.2 million signers, with 5,000 more who joined it over Friday night alone. With the incumbent party racking up as many losses as it did on Tuesday, even with a low 3.7 percent unemployment rate, Steyer argued, that’s a referendum on Trump that Democrats should act on.

“There’s always a short-term reason to do the wrong thing,” he said. He said the thinking on waiting any longer is like saying “‘The bully said he’s going to beat us up, but if we give him 50 bucks, he’ll leave us alone. Let’s just give him the 50 bucks.’ He’s going to be back for 100 bucks tomorrow.”

Pelosi argued that Bill Clinton’s impeachment was “so bad, it was so wrong, and they had no right to do it, and it disrupted the public confidence in what we do,” and often likes to point out that she had evidence that George W. Bush had lied in the run-up to the Iraq War that she chose not to impeach him on. Her model is Watergate, when eventually the Republicans joined in. Bring it up, and she even does a little impression of Richard Nixon making the “V” sign, with her head down.

The lesson Pelosi draws from the past two years isn’t that she needs to get in the trenches against Trump, but that she has to turn the country against him, talk about results, how to be unifying. “They care about the Mueller investigation and they want us to take care of it, but they want to see what we’re doing for them. And just to come here to do that as our primary purpose, I just don’t think is the right thing to do,” she said.

The next two years in Washington will be all about spinning a stalemate. With the Democrats and the Republicans splitting the House and the Senate, and with Trump clearly believing that his best political strategy is to reach into the depths of his base rather than reach out, nothing is going to get done. Trump will argue that he was trying to make things happen but that Democrats stood in his way, and the Democrats will argue that the president never did anything but big talk and tweets.

“He’s going to make a decision about whether he’s going to support bipartisan legislation, whether it’s comprehensive immigration reform, whether it’s Dreamers, whether it’s gun safety,” Pelosi said, laying out some of the issues she’s expecting to put forward to dare the president not to move on. “We feel like there is support in the House.”

Since election day, Pelosi has been in touch with Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, and Elijah Cummings, the incoming chairs of the Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight Committees, respectively, which will be the core of the House Democrats’ aggressive investigation of the administration. She’s also brought in the chairs of other committees, like Financial Services to track potential money laundering and Homeland Security to look into election integrity. Staffers have been meeting weekly since early last year, coordinating strategy and communications in the minority, and those meetings will now be amped up as they try to find connections between oversight and proactive policy moves on climate and other legislation.

In recent months, a separate group has been convening with its counterpart among the Democratic Senate committee staff, running scenarios on Trump and preparing contingency plans to activate if and when he makes a move. They had planned around the assumption that Trump would fire Sessions on Thursday, so were ready when the news came on Wednesday. They have a rough plan of action if Trump fires Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, with statements and actions and moves lined up from former United States attorneys general, current state attorneys general, and academics.

All the while, Pelosi is counting votes. Two years ago, when the last big challenge to her leadership arose, she predicted that she’d get two-thirds of the caucus against Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, and she got exactly that. This time around, given how many new members will be arriving in Washington and the general sense of exhaustion with having to be attacked for having her around, her margin looks tighter.

Except that it’s not at all clear that there’s anyone to actually challenge her. Ryan is looking at running for president, but has not ruled out taking another swing at her. Seth Moulton, a congressman from Massachusetts who is eager with his criticism of her, told me in the spring that he thinks he’d be bad at the job. Others tend to grumble to one another in private strategy sessions, but then duck talking openly about taking on Pelosi.

Most assume she will be speaker. But two retrenched possibilities have started to circulate.

Some see the chance that Pelosi will work the caucus for the next couple of weeks, see that the votes aren’t materializing in the way she’s confident they will, and decide to pull out. Then the race wouldn’t be against her, and would immediately open up. Among the names that get thrown around as replacements then are Cummings, the congressman from Maryland who is the chair of the Oversight Committee; Schiff, the TV-proficient chair of the Intelligence Committee, who’d be able to call on the support of his fellow Californians; and Hakeem Jeffries, the 48-year old African American congressman from New York, who’s currently running for the caucus-chair position being vacated by his fellow New Yorker, defeated Congressman Joe Crowley. Cheri Bustos, a congresswoman from Illinois who spent the year training candidates all over the country and who is currently running for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair, is also seen as someone who might slot in.

Pelosi dismisses the possibility of pulling the plug as flatly as she does the other idea going around: Some say she’d serve only about a year of a term as speaker and then step down ahead of the 2020 elections—and they would hope she’d convince her rivals and fellow leaders Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn to go with her. That way, they say, she wouldn’t be around to star in GOP campaign commercials like she did all last year, and whoever had a problem from voting for her as speaker could point to a more recent vote for someone else.

“I’ll be a full term. I’m not here for a year. If I were here for a year, I’d go home right now,” Pelosi said.

So I asked her what “transitional” means, since she’s been saying that’s how she now sees herself.

“I’m not going to declare myself a lame duck over a glass of water,” she said.

It’s been more than a year since Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had dinner at the White House with the president, and all three walked out saying they’d struck a deal on protecting the Dreamers, people brought illegally to America as minors who’d then grown up their whole life here. There was a lot of coverage. Aides made sure to feed reporters the colorful factoid that it had been over Chinese food, famously Schumer’s favorite. They all made excited comments.

Nothing happened. The deal never came to be. The deadline came and went. Trump started blasting the Dreamers again. The bigger immigration bill that Republicans said they’d make happen over the summer fell apart, too.

I asked Pelosi what insight that had given her into dealing with Trump. She made what seemed like a subtle dig at Schumer, who’s approached Trump as the deal maker. “We have to talk to him through the public rather than over Chinese food,” she said.

That’s the other part of Pelosi’s pitch to be leader again: With Trump getting bolder and with the 2020 presidential race starting any minute now, there isn’t any time for a new person to build relationships, and she would be the one who could best marshal forces within the caucus and outside allies. She talked about her skills at communication and harnessing new powers like social media. Frustrated younger members and staffers argue that she has not been as good for them on television as she needs to be, and that a younger leader would be better in connecting with the younger voters who are powering Democratic victories. As for the experience argument, they say, what that has added up to is the leadership overseeing Democrats being in the minority in the House for 21 of the past 25 years.

She says her attention is on Trump.

“Anybody who saw his press conference the other day would know that we have to pray for our country very deeply. Pray for him, too, but for our country,” she said.

So does she think Trump is stable?

“I don’t know,” she said. “You can’t make a diagnosis over TV, they tell me.”

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