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Opinion Nancy Pelosi is walking a careful line on Trump. How much longer will it work?

Nancy Pelosi. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg News)
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As we’ve been chronicling, Democrats have been struggling to get their message right when it comes to whether the Mueller revelations merit an impeachment inquiry. At first, they sounded overly political and calculating, which seemed to suggest they believed they could wiggle out of it by claiming the politics are too daunting.

But after some blowback, on the Sunday shows Democrats engaged the question much more seriously, in a manner that suggests they grasp the magnitude and momentousness of the dilemma they face.

Now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent a new letter to the House Democratic caucus, one that illustrates the seriousness they are bringing to this internal debate but also the ways in which this dilemma will likely intensify going forward.

Here’s one key portion of Pelosi’s letter:

While we do not have the full report and the underlying exhibits, including the grand jury testimony, two of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions stand out: one, the “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in our elections; and two, the President’s repeated efforts to thwart cooperation with the independent prosecutors in their pursuit of justice. ...
As to the President’s conduct, we will scrupulously assert Congress’ constitutional duty to honor our oath of office to support and defend the Constitution and our democracy. That includes honoring the Article I responsibility of the legislative branch to conduct oversight over the other branches of government, unified in our search for the truth and in upholding the security of our elections.
While our views range from proceeding to investigate the findings of the Mueller report or proceeding directly to impeachment, we all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth. It is also important to know that the facts regarding holding the President accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings. As we proceed to uncover the truth and present additional needed reforms to protect our democracy, we must show the American people we are proceeding free from passion or prejudice, strictly on the presentation of fact.

Notably, Pelosi acknowledges that there’s genuine pressure to proceed “directly to impeachment" (though an impeachment inquiry would not constitute such a step). Also notably, Pelosi points out that fact-gathering designed to hold President Trump accountable can proceed “outside of impeachment hearings,” which constitutes a declaration that the caucus for now will pursue those outside avenues, but without ruling out proceeding to such hearings later.

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Taken with that last sentence, Pelosi is signaling that she believes this approach will persuade voters that Democrats are motivated solely by where the facts lead, whereas an immediate impeachment inquiry would appear rushed and political. This does not have to mean impeachment hearings will never happen, though it might.

To understand what such a middle-ground solution might look like if done judiciously, read this piece by congressional scholar Norm Ornstein. He proposes “a coordinated and in-depth examination of the Mueller report by the House”:

What we need is for the Judiciary, Intelligence, and Homeland Security Committees to conduct a series of deep dives into the areas of communication and coordination between Trump and his campaign with Russians and their surrogates, such as WikiLeaks; the multiple categories and areas of obstruction of justice that Robert Mueller outlined; the threats to our intelligence operations and our justice system from Trump and his operatives; and the moves by Russia to interfere in and influence our elections used by Trump and unchecked by Republicans.
Other committees, such as Ways and Means and Banking, need to be ready to do the same thing as more information emerges from the SDNY and the New York attorney general, among others, about Trump’s financial dealings, including with the Russians, and about Russian money laundering. The witnesses need to include Mueller and [Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein, of course, but also the range of figures mentioned in the report, and also a range of experts in areas such as ethics, constitutional violations, intelligence operations, and election administration and security.

Ornstein’s bottom line:

All of this is, in my view, a necessary predicate to the formal impeachment inquiry that could then follow. If done well — even as the House brought up measures to shore up the Affordable Care Act, to protect children from family separation, to improve the lives of working families, to begin to address infrastructure needs and clean energy, along with oversight of failures in disaster relief, border activities, college-loan policy, and corruption in many departments — then impeachment would look powerfully more like a logical and necessary step, less like a vindictive, partisan move.
Democrats should not jump the gun on impeachment. But it would be a serious dereliction of duty if they did not move now to set the stage for what should happen when the time and setting are right.

All this is similar in orientation to what impeachment scholar Philip Bobbitt outlined to me, and it makes a tremendous amount of sense. The balance here is all about using the Mueller report’s release to initiate a second wave of investigations that takes seriously the notion that Trump’s now-established corruption and misconduct very well may constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but without immediately billing this as “impeachment hearings.”

But here’s the thing: At some point, Democrats will have to make the final call on whether to launch such an inquiry, or not. And it’s hard to imagine the case for doing so getting that much stronger than it already is.

This is not to say that this approach doesn’t have great value all its own. It does. It could very well fill in a great deal of still-lingering gaps in our understanding of this whole story. It could very well inform fence-sitting swing voters who might have been temporarily confused about what Mueller really found by Attorney General William P. Barr’s deliberate efforts to, well, confuse them about what Mueller really found. (It won’t persuade Republican lawmakers to change their posture, needless to say.)

And it’s possible that this approach could make it substantially more obvious that an impeachment inquiry is justified. But what if it doesn’t? What if it only makes it marginally more obvious? In such a scenario, the case for such an inquiry will continue to be very strong, as it currently is, but it will not have received a massive boost.

If Democrats are hoping to gain major new breakthroughs that make this decision an overwhelmingly obvious and politically untaxing one — or, by contrast, hoping that the pressure for an impeachment inquiry wanes once the shock of Mueller’s revelations wears off and once Democrats undertake another wave of oversight that persuades Americans they’ve done what’s required of them — well, it seems unlikely that either of those will happen. Which means it’s unlikely that this dilemma is ever going to get that much easier.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump plausibly committed impeachable offenses. A leading expert explains how.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: What House Democrats should do now

Jonathan Capehart: Impeach Trump? Here’s how and when.

George Conway: Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him.

Randall D. Eliason: The Mueller report is not an impeachment referral

Max Boot: To impeach or not to impeach? That is now the question.