1. Can Pelosi hold off the cavalry?
It leaked out this week that Pelosi has said she wants to see Trump “in prison,” rather than impeached. If you think it’s a coincidence this leaked out, I have some oceanfront property in Minnesota to sell you. This was rather clearly the latest example of Pelosi ratcheting up her rhetoric in an effort to mollify the impeachment crowd.
And the entire episode reinforces the very real and growing challenge Pelosi faces in doing just that. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is pushing her to consent to an impeachment inquiry. The No. 3-ranking House Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), has said he believes Democrats will ultimately impeach (and then backed off his comments). Some top Democratic presidential candidates are jumping aboard the impeachment train, as have about 60 House Democrats.
Pelosi has said she doesn’t want to do this, but there could come a point at which it’s somewhat out of her hands. Her party is largely deferring to her, but that may not last forever. If Democrats truly believe Trump committed crimes and is fomenting a constitutional crisis, this is the method available to hold him accountable. And setting strategic interests aside, some of them clearly feel like not using this tool is an abdication of their responsibilities.
Pelosi is appealing to their heads, but the Democratic Party often acts according to its heart.
2. Would they have the votes?
A very undersold point in this entire saga is this: It’s not even clear that Democrats could impeach Trump if Pelosi signed off on it. Yes, there are many Democrats who haven’t called for impeachment yet who would quickly support their leaders, but there are many others with significant reasons to resist.
To impeach Trump, Democrats would need votes from a number of members in districts that supported Trump in the 2016 election. In fact, the median House district voted for Trump by more than three points, and Republicans in 2020 are targeting 13 Democratic-held districts that went for Trump by at least six points. Democrats can afford only about 18 defections, assuming the only Republican to vote for impeachment would be Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.)
Part of the reason Pelosi is holding off impeachment is undoubtedly to prevent those members from taking such a difficult vote, unless it’s truly unavoidable and/or necessary.
“There does not appear to be support for it now,” Nadler said this week. “We will see. The support may develop.”
3. Would it actually hurt the Democrats?
The conventional wisdom has it that this would almost definitely fail to remove Trump from office, and that from there it really only has a downside for Democrats. The historical example of the Republicans’ 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton is the one you’ll hear about over and over again.
But some — including yours truly — question that conventional wisdom. While Clinton’s impeachment certainly hurt Republicans in 1998, at least on the margins, there are some key differences this time around. One is that the Clinton impeachment process began the month before the election. Two is that Clinton was already hugely popular. Three is that the allegations against Clinton had to do with private conduct, while the one against Trump has to do with official proceedings. And given that the GOP won back the presidency in 2000, there’s an argument to be made that there is plenty of time for any impeachment blowback against Democrats to dissipate before November 2020.
Do read Ron Brownstein’s piece on this from Thursday, and know that this calculation is hugely important to House Democrats’ ultimate decision.
4. Could it carry certain benefits?
Okay, let’s grant that there is significant peril in this — along with that it will almost certainly never result in Trump’s removal. Is there, practically speaking, anything to be gained?
One argument is that merely holding impeachment proceedings could shine a spotlight on the findings of the Mueller report, which the vast majority of Americans haven’t read and perhaps don’t understand. Maybe laying out the obstruction of justice evidence, piece by piece, on national TV, could actually change people’s opinions. It may not lead to Trump’s removal, but what if it hurts his 2020 reelection prospects? Opinions about the whole matter have been stubborn, but it’s certainly possible it could hurt Trump among the small universe of swing voters.
The other practical benefit this could carry is a legal one. Some Democrats believe they are more likely to win their subpoena fights if they actually pertain to impeachment proceedings. The Trump legal team has argued that the House has no “legitimate legislative purpose” to investigate Trump, but this would seem to bolster the case that the House needs the information and testimony it’s seeking.
“I see a strong sentiment in the Judiciary Committee majority that an impeachment inquiry is warranted for substantive reasons,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told my colleague Greg Sargent, “but also that, procedurally, it is necessary to avoid a series of legal minefields conservative courtrooms.”
Some have argued that Democrats could open impeachment proceedings without necessarily voting to impeach — a kind of middle-ground approach that could mitigate any political blowback and the need for tough votes in the larger House.
5. Does Pelosi really oppose impeachment?
There is a school of thought that says perhaps Pelosi doesn’t really oppose impeachment, but is putting on a show and, when she ultimately does support impeachment, it will make her decision land with greater weight.
I’m skeptical, but it’s certainly possible that she’s less dead-set against the idea than she lets on, because she knows you can’t stop this thing once the wheels are set in motion. I guess we’ll see in the weeks and months ahead how hard her resolve actually is — and how much her fellow Democrats are willing to defer to her.