I wrote Monday — and I still believe — that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to all but close the door on impeaching President Trump is smart politics. Impeachment is a messy business with potentially more downside than upside. Even if Democrats removed Trump, they’d still have a President Pence. And Pelosi (D-Calif.) has a ready-made argument for why impeachment is unnecessary: The voters can simply decide all this in a 2020 campaign that has already begun. It all makes complete sense.
But practical political considerations are one thing; the standard that Pelosi set for impeachment is another. In describing her opposition to it to The Post’s Joe Heim, she said 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. And he’s just not worth it.
Shortly after Pelosi made those comments, she got some backup from two key Democratic leaders, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). Both run committees that are spearheading the House’s investigations of Trump, and both echoed her standard for impeachment as being something that needs to be bipartisan.
“She laid down a number of conditions — it has got to be bipartisan, the evidence has to be overwhelming — which is what I’ve been saying,” Nadler told CNN’s Manu Raju. Added Schiff: “If the evidence isn’t sufficient to win bipartisan support for this, putting the country through a failed impeachment isn’t a good idea.”
But let’s think about what that means, practically speaking: It means Democrats are effectively giving the Republican Party veto power over whether Trump should be impeached. They are saying that, even if the evidence is damning in their minds, unless Republicans agree, they shouldn’t move forward. Their impeachment standard isn’t so much the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” but rather “high crimes and misdemeanors that Republicans agree upon.”
It’s theoretically possible that something would emerge — either from these House investigations, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation or the Southern District of New York — that could build that bipartisan consensus. But Trump and his allies have built a firewall against all that. They have convinced a strong majority of the Republican Party (71 percent) that Mueller’s investigation is a witch hunt. The Republican Party has largely shrugged off Trump being implicated in a bona fide crime — Michael Cohen’s campaign finance violations. And the idea that Republicans will be swayed by Democrat-led investigations moving forward is pretty fanciful.
Impeachment, it has often been said, is a political solution to presidential wrongdoing — not a legal one. The Constitution’s standard for impeachment is very much open to interpretation, because “high crimes and misdemeanors” isn’t defined. The public didn’t want to remove Bill Clinton from office, even though he committed what Kenneth Starr determined to be 11 impeachable offenses, including lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Even a proven crime by Trump — or multiple ones — may not rise to the level of impeachment.
But to leave that determination concerning a Republican president up to Republicans is to effectively cede the power Democrats won in the 2018 election to hold Trump accountable. “You don’t impeach Trump for him, you impeach Trump for the Constitution,” argued Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who has already introduced articles of impeachment against Trump.
The backlash to Pelosi’s stance has thus far been limited. But what happens if evidence emerges that looks completely damning to the Democratic base — but not to Republicans? That’s when Pelosi’s extremely high standard for impeachment would really be tested.