In her first few months (again) as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi has managed two big challenges of the Trump era with great skill. Pelosi forged messy consensus on a resolution condemning all forms of bigotry, in an area where Trumpian extremes (his racism and hate) roiled her conference, demanding an unusually ambitious response to one member’s offenses.
Meanwhile, Pelosi nixed President Trump’s address to Congress during his government shutdown and passed a resolution terminating Trump’s national emergency, in both cases demonstrating a gravity matching the threat posed by Trump’s temperamental and authoritarian excesses.
Now that Pelosi is being widely quoted as coming out against the impeachment of Trump, Democrats are divided over her comments, meaning another such moment will be litigated in coming days.
But Pelosi has not yet found her footing, and one hopes she will soon enough.
“I’m not for impeachment,” Pelosi told The Post’s Joe Heim. “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.”
Some Democrats are pushing back. Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.) noted: “If the facts require us to initiate removing the president, we are obligated to do it.” Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.) criticized Pelosi’s suggestion that Trump is not “worth” impeaching: “The question is whether the republic is worth it.”
Meanwhile, some House progressives insist that the option of impeachment must be preserved. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) noted that she doesn’t read Pelosi’s comments as “designed to shut down the conversation,” adding that this would have to be “aired out” among Democrats.
What Pelosi got right and what she got wrong
In fairness to Pelosi, her comments don’t entirely preclude impeachment later, provided that “compelling and overwhelming” new information arouses “bipartisan” alarm. Politico’s savvy reporters speculate that Pelosi did this to create a holding pattern for Democrats, temporarily insulating them from unceasing questioning on this topic from activists by allowing them to blame Pelosi’s opposition.
But, even if you allow that it was politically necessary, there is a cleaner way to accomplish the same thing, without the downsides.
First, there is no need for Pelosi to declare that she’s not for impeachment in the present, when it would be a lot more salutary to say this is simply premature, and that in the end, the right course of action will be determined by the facts, and leave it at that.
The problem, in part, is that Pelosi is answering the wrong question. It isn’t: Do you favor impeachment right now, yes or no? Rather, it’s: Are you ruling out impeachment hearings, or are you leaving that option open, depending on what emerges?
The crucial distinction here is between the initiation of an impeachment inquiry, and the holding of a final impeachment vote. As Yoni Appelbaum demonstrates, impeachment is a process. Just as during the Nixon years, the first step is congressional investigations (which we’re seeing now), which then might lead to the opening of impeachment hearings. Those would weigh whether newly gathered facts merit impeachment or not, to inform the public of the momentous stakes and complexities involved in this decision.
You might argue that Pelosi’s comments do leave open this possibility. But she still muddled the issue by declaring a personal preference on the outcome, creating the impression that we already have enough information to make that decision, while failing to clarify how this is a process.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Pelosi should support impeachment hearings right now. We have no idea where this will end up. Congressional investigations are digging deep into questions about whether Trump’s business profits violate the Constitution and create foreign policy conflicts of interest, and how far Trump went in his financial dealings with Russia during the campaign and in conspiring with an illegal hush money scheme as president, both of which he concealed from the American people.
Meanwhile, even if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III brings no further charges, we may still learn a great deal more about Trumpian wrongdoing and misconduct (such as obstructing the Russia probe) from his findings, which Congress will likely access. Former lawyer Michael Cohen’s claims of financial fraud have led to investigations by other entities. Of course impeachment hearings can’t be ruled out now.
The goal of ‘bipartisan’ support for impeachment
Pelosi’s suggestion that impeachment hearings can proceed only with “bipartisan” support is also unnecessarily self-constraining. Historian Kevin Kruse points out that majority support for President Richard M. Nixon’s removal didn’t develop until after the impeachment inquiry commenced. This can’t be the threshold for beginning an inquiry.
What’s more, this framing does not reckon with an important pathology of our political moment — the enormous propaganda apparatus behind Trump that is already bombarding Republican voters with disinformation painting all inquiry as illegitimate, likely ensuring they will never support any inquiry. Democrats must weigh whether this disinformation machine should be able to place an inquiry off political limits even if they conclude the emerging facts warrant it.
It’s possible that Pelosi genuinely believes the downsides to the country of hearings absent bipartisan backing militate against them no matter what the facts demand. If so, let’s litigate that, too. It’s also odd to hear the argument that no inquiry should happen simply because the Senate probably would never convict. Impeachment hearings would be carried out to benefit the public and the country, and thus can’t turn on projections of the ultimate outcome.
At bottom, this may turn on a deeper question: whether one believes simply defeating Trump for reelection would do enough to purge the country of the many stains of Trumpism. Though Pelosi has risen to the gravity of the moment on other fronts, she does appear to believe this. But we can’t make that decision until we know how foul the stains really are. As Ocasio-Cortez says, this all needs to be “aired out.”