Was Nancy Pelosi’s Delay Worth It?

The Democratic speaker will send the House’s articles of impeachment to the Senate without much to show for her three-week standoff with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

At long last, President Donald Trump will soon get his day in the Senate’s impeachment court.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement today that she would relinquish her three-week hold on the articles of impeachment that the House adopted last month indicates that a Senate trial is likely to begin shortly after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, later this month. In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi said the House would vote next week on a resolution to formally transmit the two articles across the Capitol and to appoint managers who would try the case against Trump in the Senate.

Her decision ends a standoff with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that yielded few tangible benefits to House Democrats. Pelosi contends that the delay in sending the articles trained the national spotlight on the debate over rules for the Senate trial, boosting their side in the battle for public opinion. But she was unable to force either McConnell or a sufficient portion of his members to commit to calling witnesses, such as former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who Democrats believe would strengthen their argument that Trump abused the power of his office by withholding aid from Ukraine while he pressed its president to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden. “We need to see the arena in which we are sending our managers,” Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, explaining her decision to withhold the articles. “Is that too much to ask?”

Indeed, it was.

Ultimately, McConnell refused to budge on even the most anodyne of Pelosi’s demands—that he disclose the specific rules he planned to propose that would govern the Trump trial.

Pelosi relented after a number of Senate Democrats—and a couple of her own members—seemed to grow weary of the impasse and called on her to send over the articles. Because the Senate did not plan to start the trial over the holiday break, proceedings are likely to begin only a week or two after they would have otherwise. But the biggest victims of the fight might be the five Senate Democrats still running for president: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennet. The delay virtually ensures that while Biden and Pete Buttigieg can camp out in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’ll likely be sequestered in Washington for the crucial final weeks before the first caucuses and primary, in early February.

The trial’s duration is unknown, but it is expected to last a few weeks. That means there’s a good chance that Trump will deliver his State of the Union address in the House chamber on February 4 while he is standing trial for his job in the Senate—a repeat of the scenario that played out in 1999 during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

As I wrote earlier this week, while it’s exceedingly unlikely that 67 senators will vote to convict Trump and remove him from office, some uncertainty remains as to how the trial will proceed and whether the president will suffer Republican defections. Democrats are targeting a group of GOP senators—including Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Ben Sasse—who have been critical of Trump’s handling of Ukraine and whose votes, joined with Democrats, would constitute a Senate majority in favor of conviction. And although those four backed McConnell in his fight with Pelosi over the rules for the trial, they will be under pressure again in a few weeks when the time comes to decide whether the Senate should vote to subpoena witnesses such as Bolton and Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who refused to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Should they join Democrats then, Pelosi’s decision to delay sending over the House articles and picking a fight over the fairness of the trial might look a little better. But as the week wore on, the announcement she made today seemed all the more inevitable—a recognition that whatever leverage the speaker tried to seize in her stare-down with McConnell just wasn’t hers for the taking.