Nancy Pelosi wants you to know that the House Democratic leadership has not committed to impeaching President Donald Trump—notwithstanding the muscle she’s thrown behind the inquiry, or tomorrow’s vote on how its next stage will proceed.
“We have not made any decision to impeach,” the House speaker insisted during a meeting with a small group of columnists earlier this week.
But Pelosi nevertheless left little doubt that’s where the process is headed. She said flatly that she believes the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation has already accumulated enough evidence about Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to justify such a decision. “I do think we have enough,” she said. “We’ve had enough for a very long time … but as long as there is corroboration, we might as well get some more. And then we’ll see.” She was equally unequivocal that the core charges against Trump—that he withheld congressionally appropriated military aid to try to force Ukraine to investigate a political opponent—reach the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” required for impeachment.
“If this president were to get away with this, forget about it all,” she said, sitting in a conference room in her suite of offices in the Capitol. “We might as well not even run for office. You don’t need this branch of government if he’s going to overturn the power of the purse, if he is going to overturn all of the other checks and balances, the power of inquiry.”
Pelosi has never been quick to cry “Impeach!” She pointed out that she dismissed demands from some House Democrats to pursue impeachment against George W. Bush over the Iraq War in the final two years of his presidency. More recently, she rebuffed demands from her party’s liberal wing to impanel a full-scale impeachment effort following Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report about Trump and Russian interference in 2016. But now that she’s begun an impeachment inquiry, she betrays no doubt about seeing it through. Impeachment promises to be an ordeal, especially against a president so volatile, combative, and willing to twist the truth. Approaching that heaving sea, Pelosi projected resolve. “When we decide if we are going to go forward, we will be ready, and we will be ironclad,” she said, referring to potential votes on articles of impeachment. It sounded less like a boast than a statement of fact.
Without detailing specific plans, Pelosi left the clear impression that the impeachment process will conclude sooner rather than later, and its focus will be more narrow than broad. She refused to answer when asked directly whether any eventual articles of impeachment will cover issues beyond Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and the administration’s defiance of subpoenas from the committees investigating them. Some House Democrats have advocated for articles that address everything from family separations to emoluments. “No one should infer from what we’re doing that there is an imprimatur to do emoluments if it’s not” listed among Democrats’ justifications for impeaching Trump, Pelosi said. (She was careful to say, too, that if Trump’s team has “exculpatory testimony they want to present” on Ukraine, House Democrats are open to it: “We pray that that will be the case—something we don’t understand about how he interprets the Constitution.”)
Though Pelosi is vague on just how much longer the inquiry will go on, she expressed concern about Americans’ appetite for a lengthy process. “How much drama can the American people handle?” she asked. “Where does the law of diminishing returns set in? Where is the value added not worth the time?”
As those comments demonstrate, Pelosi seems focused on trying to win over public opinion on the impeachment process—and the Democrats’ broader governing agenda. Even as she dismissed the complaints from House Republicans about the investigation, she repeatedly returned to the theme of finding ways to reach voters now skeptical of Democrats. In the internal Democratic debate over whether the party’s future depends more on mobilizing its own core supporters or recapturing swing voters who took a flier on Trump in 2016, she clearly leans more toward the latter. This preference seems to inform not only how she’s approaching the House inquiry, but also how she’s assessing the party’s policies.
She is openly dubious of the left’s top priority in 2020: the push to establish a single-payer health-care system that will replace private health insurance. It would be better for Democrats to “begin with where we have agreement,” she said. “Let’s not start with: ‘You have private insurance—forget about it.’” She wants to begin by bolstering the Affordable Care Act, adding a public competitor to private insurance, and restoring provisions in the law that Trump has weakened. “Maybe Medicare for All is a destination,” Pelosi said. “But it’s certainly not a starting point.”
Pelosi was reared in a Baltimore political family—her father was a Democratic representative from Maryland and later the city’s mayor—in an era when Democrats proudly considered themselves the party of the working class. That history was evident when she talked about the two parties’ coalitions, recoiling at the notion that education levels have become one of the central dividing lines. It worries her, she explained, when she hears that Democrats now rely on voters with more education, while Trump voters are deemed “uneducated.” “They’re not uneducated,” she said with sudden passion. “They’re educated and alive—fighting our wars, raising our families, building our country. Just because they don’t have a college degree doesn’t mean they are not educated.”
Even as Pelosi said she wants to generate the greatest possible public support for any action the House takes, she seemed sanguine about what that means in a country so persistently divided. In recent months, Pelosi hesitated on impeachment, partly out of fear it might threaten the 31 House Democrats, many of them first-termers, in districts that voted for Trump in 2016. But in the interview, she clearly signaled that she would be comfortable moving forward toward a vote without much more, if any more, public support than the investigation has already generated. “Over 50 percent [support] is very good,” she said, referring to recent polling. “And perhaps we will get [higher].”
Yet her expressed desire to create a process that minimizes division seems to reach its limit at her concern about Trump’s connections to Russia. In the interview, she repeated what she told Trump at his last meeting with congressional Democratic leaders in the White House, causing him to erupt in fury. It’s a line of argument that similarly enrages his supporters.
“In saying that he wasn’t going to send the military assistance to Ukraine, who benefits from that? The Russians. Then … he did what he did in Syria—who benefits from that? Putin. What he said earlier about NATO—who benefits from that? Putin,” she said. “That’s what I was saying the other day [in the meeting]: ‘All roads lead to Putin.’” She added, ominously if vaguely: “There is something wrong here about this Putin thing—there’s something wrong.”
I cut in, asking Pelosi exactly what she was implying about Trump. The exchange was striking enough to recount in detail.
Brownstein: “He’s called you a traitor. He’s said that you and [Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam] Schiff are guilty of treason. Is he guilty of treason? Is he undermining American national-security interests in the interest of serving a foreign leader?”
Pelosi: “Well, we’ll see. But what I’ll say is this: I don’t know if he’s guilty of treason. But I do know that he projects. Everything that he says—‘She’s in meltdown’ means that he’s in meltdown. Everything that he says, understand that he’s projecting his own recognizable [weakness].”
Brownstein: “But when you say, ‘All roads lead to Putin,’ what does that mean? Does that mean that you believe he is acting at the behest of Putin? Do you think he is trying to advance Putin’s interest?”
Pelosi: “I don’t know. All I know is the three things I mentioned in the room [with Trump], plus [a] fourth, the obstruction of our election … He is absolving Putin of any responsibility there … It’s just curious … I said early on: ‘What is it that the Russians have on the president—politically, personally, or financially?’”
Brownstein: “But just to be clear, do you think there is reason to question his loyalty to the United States?”
Pelosi: “I’m not going to that place.”
Pelosi’s words were careful, but it’s easy to forget how unimaginable they might have been at any previous point in American history. She did not directly accuse the president of acting at Russia’s behest, but she didn’t exactly absolve him of the accusation either.
It was one of many moments during the interview that reflected Pelosi’s sense that Trump had carried Washington to a moment that historians will view as a hinge point not only for the American presidency, but for the nation. As she’s done before, Pelosi paraphrased a stirring line Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense during the American Revolution: “The time hath found us.”
“We think the times have found us now,” she said. “Not any one of us, but all of us, all of you. The times have found us to protect this Constitution of the United States with three co-equal branches of government as a check and balance on each other.” With open House hearings, a floor vote to impeach, and a Senate impeachment trial now all on the horizon, the next few months will measure how many Americans see this confrontation the same way.