Her mournful countenance made it clear. Nancy Pelosi has at last found herself just where she never wanted to be: leading an impeachment of President Donald Trump that has drawn nary an ounce of bipartisan backing in Congress, has fixed-in-place public support of about 50 percent, and seems all but certain to end in acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate. But Pelosi also seems to have wound up just where she expected to be, and with the full House poised for an impeachment vote by Christmas, she seems resigned to her fate.
“Our democracy is what is at stake,” the House speaker said yesterday, as she ordered House committee chairs to begin drafting articles of impeachment—her words measured, her tone somber, her reluctance palpable in the high-minded language of the nation’s Founders in which she couched her case. “The president leaves us no choice but to act. Because he is trying to corrupt, once again, the election for his own benefit.”
In those last, sly sentences, Pelosi not only invoked the gravest constitutional remedy for presidential misconduct at her command, but also not-so-subtly suggested that if Trump had skated by for welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election, she could not stand idle in the face of his effort to seek Ukrainian interference in 2020. In less fraught circumstances, a phrase like The president leaves us no choice might be a mere political talking point. In this case, it seems that, by Pelosi’s lights, it’s the cold truth.
“Look, there are moral and constitutional and political forces in play, and she held out as long as she could,” says Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican political strategist in California who now teaches at the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley, and Pepperdine University. “The constitutional and political questions have now converged. There’s such an overwhelming amount of information that to not go forward would raise constitutional questions, but would also raise really practical political considerations for her.”
Whether Trump has gulled Pelosi and her party into a raw partisan exercise that will allow him to claim vindication and reelection or a morass that will keep his alleged misdeeds at the center of the news cycle in perpetuity, with harmful results for his political fortunes, is an open question. But for both Pelosi and the president, there would now seem to be no turning back. For better or worse, they are poised to make history together.
In a live televised town hall with CNN’s Jake Tapper last night, Pelosi cast her decision in stark terms. “You cannot violate the Constitution in full view,” she said. “If we were not to proceed, it would say to any president, any future president, whoever she or he may be, Democratic or Republican, that our democracy is gone … the president is king.”
Trump’s pay-for-play phone call with the president of Ukraine, revealed earlier this fall, changed the House speaker’s long-standing reluctance to embrace impeachment almost overnight. As recently as the spring, Pelosi was frank in outlining the apparently no-win situation that she and the Democrats now face. “I’m not for impeachment,” the speaker told The Washington Post Magazine then. “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.” Asked by Tapper if she had failed her own test, Pelosi replied that it was Republicans who had failed to uphold their oath of office to support and defend the Constitution.
It’s become conventional shorthand, in light of the Ukraine revelations, to say that Pelosi could no longer rein in the liberal voices in her caucus who had been pressing for impeachment for months. But that’s an oversimplification. Even the reluctant freshman moderates from Trump-leaning districts who had been loath to call for impeachment changed their views after the Ukraine phone call, as did the Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff of California. “Are you ready?” Pelosi asked her members in a closed-door caucus meeting on Wednesday, like a good lawyer posing a question to which she already knows the answer.
“This brings them no joy, believe me,” former Representative Tom Downey of New York, a longtime Pelosi friend, says of the speaker and her leadership team. She’d prefer to tussle with Trump “over prescription-drug coverage and health care—anything other than this. The outcome is foreordained in the Senate, but she can’t escape her responsibility—and the House’s responsibility—to bring this president to the bar of justice.”
Pelosi herself showed the weight of that responsibility in a strikingly sharp exchange with James Rosen, a reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, who asked her at a news conference after her announcement yesterday about the articles whether she hates the president.
“I think the president is a coward when it comes to helping our kids who are afraid of gun violence,” Pelosi said, walking back to the lectern to answer Rosen, who had posed his question as she was leaving the briefing room on Capitol Hill. “I think he is cruel when he doesn’t deal with helping our ‘Dreamers,’ of which we’re very proud. I think he’s in denial about the climate crisis. However, that’s about the election. Take it up in the election. This is about the Constitution of the United States and the facts that lead to the president’s violation of his oath of office.”
“And as a Catholic, I resent your using the word hate in a sentence that addresses me,” Pelosi continued. “I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is a heart full of love, and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time. So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”
Trump and his conservative allies scoffed at that. “I don’t believe her, not even close,” the president tweeted, while the headline on Glenn Beck’s daily email newsletter read, “Nancy Pelosi’s LEAST sincere presser ever will make your eyes EXPLODE.” (As it happens, I once watched a paying audience in Missouri, during the run-up to the 2012 election, react with puzzlement to Beck’s insistence that he prayed for Barack Obama’s safety.)
But Downey says Pelosi was simply stating a literal truth. “She’s a very old-world Catholic woman,” he says. “She does pray, and she prays for her enemies, and she follows the teachings of the Church.” In the CNN town hall, Pelosi elaborated, explaining that hating a person was verboten in her childhood home. “You might reserve it for vanilla ice cream,” she said, noting her love for chocolate, “but not for a person.”
“The reality is that the president has given her no choice,” Downey adds, echoing Pelosi’s own words. “Of the options here, none of them are good, but the worst option—both in the judgment of history and for the precedential reasons that she’s elaborated—is to do nothing. The House has to say that this is unacceptable, and we’ve exhaustively looked at the facts and we find you to have violated your oath of office, and so you’re going to be impeached. That’s the beginning and the end of our responsibility. To do nothing is to say the behavior is okay, and it’s not okay.”
Just over a year ago, Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary chairman whose committee will draft the impeachment articles, sounded a note of extreme caution on impeachment. “You have to be able to think, at the beginning of the impeachment process, that the evidence is so clear, of offenses so grave, that once you’ve laid out all the evidence, a good fraction of the opposition, the voters, will reluctantly admit to themselves, ‘They have to do it,’’’ he said then. “Otherwise you have a partisan impeachment, which will tear the country apart.”
However reluctantly, Pelosi has now embarked on just such a course, one that will test to the limit how well and how long the seams of the nation can hold.