Nancy Pelosi raised more than a few eyebrows earlier this year when, the same day she became speaker, she appeared to open the door a crack to impeaching President Trump. Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been reluctant to entertain the idea, but now that the 2018 election was over and Democrats had the power to do it, maybe she was coming around?
Turns out, not so much. In an interview with The Washington Post Magazine, Pelosi says flatly that she opposes impeachment. Her comments are the strongest indication yet that Democratic leaders intend to let voters — and not impeachment hearings — decide this issue in 2020. But while that’s probably the safest and most politically prudent course, that doesn’t mean her party will accept it.
“I’m not for impeachment,” Pelosi told The Post. “This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: 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.”
She added about Trump: “And he’s just not worth it.”
Notably, Pelosi isn’t saying that we should wait to see what the evidence says — whether via special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or the newly launched investigations run by House Democrats. She’s saying she opposes impeachment, full stop. That’s a clear shift, as she herself acknowledges. She wanted this to register as her shutting the door.
This was always the most likely outcome — and makes sense for a host of reasons. We saw in the late 1990s how badly impeachment could reflect upon the impeaching party. Even as it was accepted that Bill Clinton had engaged in an affair in the White House, lied under oath and obstructed justice, people still stood by him.
And this situation lends itself nicely to passing the buck, given that Trump faces reelection next year. The longer Democrats run the clock — even while investigating Trump — the easier it would be to say that this should just be left to voters. Will removing Trump from office in early 2020 be necessary if it can just be done in a less messy fashion in late 2020?
That said, this very reasonable approach may not be acceptable to members and voters who believe that Trump should be held accountable — and now. Polls show about three-quarters of Democratic voters favor impeachment already. Nearly half the country believes Trump has committed crimes while in office. Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made waves in January by telling supporters that the House should “impeach the motherf-----." Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) has introduced articles of impeachment. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) has said there is “direct evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 campaign, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said it’s clear that Trump has obstructed justice.
Neither Schiff nor Nadler advocate impeachment yet, but what if the evidence becomes damning?
Complicating matters is the recent unrest in the Democratic Party. After leaders attempted to move forward with a rebuke of freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) last week over comments that some of them labeled “anti-Semitic,” the base bucked, and the resolution was weakened. While Pelosi looked a strong leader after beating back opposition to her return as speaker after the 2018 election, her grip on the party doesn’t appear so strong anymore.
Indeed, what might be most interesting about Pelosi’s comments is the date of the interview: March 6. That means, even as the Omar stuff was playing out, Pelosi decided to lay a marker and assert control over the impeachment situation.
At least for now, key figures such as freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) haven’t tried to force the issue. Ocasio-Cortez said last week that she still believes Trump has committed impeachable offenses, but she added: "I defer to the chair. I defer to party leadership.”
We’ll see whether that holds. Pelosi’s ability to tamp down impeachment fever could be one of the most significant battles of her speakership. And these new comments are a line in the sand.