One of the most eye-opening pieces of news over the past week came in an interview published last weekend in the New York Times in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed that she was worried Donald Trump wouldn’t honor a Democratic win in 2020 unless it was decisive. She told the Times she believes the only way to ensure Trump goes is to beat him “big” next year, exactly the way Democrats did in 2018 when she also worried that Trump would contest results if they were too close.
“If we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he’s not going to respect the election,” Pelosi recalled thinking in 2018. “He would poison the public mind. He would challenge each of the races; he would say you can’t seat these people,” she added. “We had to win. Imagine if we hadn’t won — oh, don’t even imagine.”
Heading into the presidential cycle, Pelosi continues to be burdened by the idea that a too-close election would result in Trump refusing to leave office peacefully. “We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that.”
For the record, I believe the House of Representatives is duty-bound to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump given the conspiracy he engaged in to defraud the American public through hush-money payments, his abuses of power detailed in the Mueller report, and his frontal assault on congressional oversight and our constitutional system of checks and balances.
Like many Americans, I am now watching Pelosi like a hawk, looking for signals about her intentions and strategies. From my point of view, she has made a subtle shift over the past couple months from focusing solely on the politics of 2020 to actively weighing both the politics of and the duty to impeach. Impeachment, I believe, initially mattered to Pelosi only in terms of what effect it might have on Democratic chances of prevailing in 2020. Avoiding it was clearly the safest political bet and that appeared to be the driving factor behind Pelosi’s impeachment is ‘off the table’ approach.
But Trump’s total obstruction of Congress and the comportment of Attorney General William Barr appears to have taken its toll on Pelosi’s original outlook. The day after she watched clips of Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which Barr scoffed at Democratic questions, obfuscated on Trump’s behalf, and claimed he had never misled Congress, Pelosi looked gaunt at her weekly press conference, almost haunted by Barr’s recklessness.
“The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That’s a crime,” Pelosi declared, after telling reporters she had lost sleep over his testimony. Since then, impeachment seems to have risen in prominence in Pelosi’s mind in its own right as a matter of duty to the country while still being inextricably bound to both 2020 and the preservation of the republic. Anyone who is serious about the preservation of the republic must, at the very least, hold the politics of 2020 alongside the prospect of impeachment.
Thus Pelosi has gone from Trump’s “just not worth it” in March to late-April’s “If the fact-finding takes us there, we have no choice” to this week’s framing of near inevitability: “The president is almost self-impeaching.” None of this feels fast enough, overt enough, aggressive enough for most Democrats, and ultimately it may not be. On the other hand, it might—history will have the last word on whether Pelosi successfully steers the nation through this precarious political moment. But I think Pelosi is weighing several main considerations at the same time, none of the mutually exclusive: her oath of office, being leader of her caucus, and public opinion, all with an eye toward peacefully transitioning Trump out of office. Even if Pelosi believes her constitutional duty is to initiate impeachment proceedings, she realistically must keep her caucus unified and doing that is at least related to public opinion.
Pelosi is probably the best vote counter in the country, bar none, and beyond the politics of 2020, she might not have the votes right now to impeach in the House. Splitting her caucus at this moment in time would be disastrous—it would undermine her leadership, let Senate Republicans off the hook entirely and shamelessly embolden Trump. So instead of jamming impeachment down the throats of Democratic members from more swingy or conservative districts, she’s somewhat gingerly nudging the caucus—and the public—in that direction. And while many people were incensed by Pelosi’s comments earlier this week that Trump was “goading” Democrats to impeach him in order to solidify his base, she completed that thought with, “We can’t impeach [Trump] for political reasons and we can’t not impeach him for political reasons. We have to see where the facts take us.”
Though I do not agree with everything Pelosi does or says by any means, I do have a decent amount of faith in her leadership, her ability to understand the politics of the country, how that relates to the contours of her caucus, and the duty she has to uphold the Constitution. In the lead up to 2018, I wrote some political pieces that I think have aged pretty well, but I also pushed heavily at times for Democrats to more forcefully confront Trump’s corruption in their 2018 campaigns. I’m not ashamed of that, but ultimately, I believe Pelosi’s laser focus on health care as Democrats’ top priority won the day and put our country in position to have a fighting chance against the cancer that has infected our country.
Now, Pelosi and her leadership team are coalescing around a strategy of “bundling” contempt citations and voting on them all at once to highlight the totality of Trump’s stonewalling, rather than wasting floor time to do them all piecemeal. This will also save floor time that can be dedicated to passing legislation aimed at, for instance, protecting people with pre-existing conditions. In the meantime, former White House counsel Don McGahn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and IRS chief Charles Rettig could all join Attorney General Barr as “contempt” contenders if they refuse to cooperate with Democratic subpoenas. And although progressive members of the caucus are consistently agitating for faster action, a consensus appears to be developing in the caucus that Trump, by his blatant disregard for a co-equal branch of government, is leaving Democrats no choice but to impeach. In fact, Democrats are actively studying Article 3 of the Watergate impeachment articles, which charged Nixon with violating his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws based on his refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas.
While none of this is happening with the rapidity most of us want, it does appear headed toward the unavoidable initiation of impeachment proceedings. It’s an action that each member of the Democratic caucus will have to sell to their constituents back home. When they do, they will be able to say, we need the facts in order to uphold our oaths of office and we were left no choice but travel this path to get them. That seems like a sellable message that could potentially bring a healthy majority of the country along for the ride, and that healthy majority is critical to removing Trump from office. If Democrats do ultimately vote to impeach Trump and then Senate Republicans inevitably refuse to convict, the bulk American voters must be in a place to view the GOP vote as a betrayal of the public will. If close to 60 percent of Americans side with Democrats on that point, it would help cement Trump’s fate in 2020 and hopefully in decisive fashion.
All that being said, if you are angered or frustrated by progress that’s too slow, find a way to channel it. If there’s one thing I learned above all else from covering the LGBTQ movement, it’s that it takes all of us to make change happen—the insiders, the outsiders, the politicians, and public will. None of them succeed at making historic change without the others, and public engagement is essential.