Pelosi’s initial reluctance to move forward suggests she knows what’s at stake. She intends to counter President Trump’s incessant and erratic tweeting about a “Witch Hunt” and “treason” with a strategy that is evenhanded and fully appreciative of the gravity of the moment. She knows that, while impeachment is an inherently political process, the public will recoil if it appears as though Democrats are waging a political campaign. Even as recent polling reveals that support for impeachment and removal has risen quickly, all Democrats will be smart to mimic her steadiness as they step forward, serious in their manner, strategic in their direction.
What we are about to witness is a balancing act for both parties: Pelosi needs to move the process expeditiously — but the process needs to be seen as fair, not just fast. The charges must be clear, and the evidence needs to prove beyond any doubt that any proposed punishment fits the severity of the crime. Democrats will do themselves no favors if they fail to hold the president accountable; but they should be wary of overstepping as well. Republicans may fear conservative voters will punish them for criticizing Trump. But the GOP could lose everything if their party is seen to be marching in lockstep with a president who violated his oath.
Pelosi has never been keen to explain her strategy in public; you don’t get to be speaker by oversharing. But because this is an impeachment inquiry — not an actual impeachment — the key for Democrats at this stage will be to focus their efforts on fact-finding, not yet making a case for conviction. Particularly in these early days, our posture needs to be about bringing sunlight to a murky reality, not convincing the public that it should support any given outcome. Over time, more facts will come out. And when they do, they could lead investigators in any number of directions.
If by mid-November, the evidence makes a clear case that Trump has used the power of his office to coerce a foreign government and advance his electoral interests, impeachment will undoubtedly be in order. In the unlikely scenario that this is all smoke and no fire, Congress would be wise to set the matter aside. But if investigators determine that the president should be admonished without being evicted from the White House, the House has a third option at its disposal: The House can sanction and censure the president, as the Senate did President Andrew Jackson nearly 200 years ago.
Republicans could have taken the censure route in 1998 against President Bill Clinton. Instead, they got greedy, becoming obsessed with political retribution. Their hatred of Clinton twisted their judgment and left them to lose five seats in midterm elections that, by historic patterns, should have been a boon for the GOP. That’s a lesson for everyone: voters have a role here, too. Ignore them at your peril.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been more conspicuously closemouthed than Breitbart and Fox News would have you believe. Some members are privately appalled by the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There is no telling how many might support some kind of accountability if the Democrats conduct the proceedings fairly and equitably.
Pelosi is deftly navigating treacherous waters. Instead of splitting the inquiry among six committees, she has thrown her clout behind Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. That move promises to keep the inquiry focused on grave questions of national security and the invitation to foreign intervention in U.S. democracy.
If the House impeaches the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) shuts the proceeding down, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) should demand a vote to censure the president instead. A count-by-count set of censure votes would be a difficult challenge for many Republicans. Each would have to make a stomach-churning choice between whitewashing despicable behavior and offending the president’s most ardent supporters.
No one is above the law. If other administration officials are implicated in the high crimes and misdemeanors, they too should face the appropriate consequences. But in these early days, Democrats will do themselves and the country the greatest service if they merely ensure the investigative process remains thorough, judicious and fair. There’s no shame in applying the lessons of 1834 and 1998 to today’s circumstance. And there’s no virtue rushing to judgment, no matter how much we believe Trump is running roughshod over the country.