Writing implements used to sign bills or executive orders are often handed out as keepsakes, and Pelosi followed a Washington tradition Wednesday when she used pen after pen to write tiny portions of her signature on articles of impeachment — then gifted them to members of Congress.
But the moment also raised eyebrows and outraged Trump allies, with many saying the Democratic leader undermined her past efforts to frame impeachment as a solemn constitutional duty rather than a political victory. Last month, Pelosi swiftly tamped down cheers in the House Chamber as lawmakers voted to charge the president with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, accusing Trump of pressuring a foreign leader to damage his domestic rivals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the commemorative pens Thursday as evidence of the bias he and other Trump supporters have long alleged in the impeachment process. He has been battling with Democrats over the terms of a trial in his Republican-dominated chamber.
“This final display neatly distilled the House’s entire process into one perfect visual,” McConnell said of the black pens emblazoned in gold with Pelosi’s signature, that “literally came in on silver platters.”
“It was a transparently partisan performance from beginning to end,” he said.
The pen controversy blew up as Republicans continued to deride the impeachment process they describe as Democrats’ attempt to undo the 2016 election. Trump himself has denied any improper behavior, often calling his phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to an explosive whistleblower complaint “perfect.”
Until this week, Pelosi had delayed sending articles of impeachment to the Senate, hoping to secure trial testimonies that Republican leaders opposed. Democrats say hearing from top Trump administration members, such as former national security adviser John Bolton, could give crucial insights as they try to prove Trump sought to leverage a White House meeting and military aid to get Ukraine to open his desired investigations — including a probe of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
U.S. leaders have used souvenir pens for important legislation for decades, sometimes stretching their signatures over dozens of writing tools so that supporters can keep a piece of history. President Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have used more than 75 pens when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as Time reported in 2010 after President Barack Obama used more than 20 to approve landmark health-care legislation.
Trump embraced the tradition not long before Pelosi’s signing on Wednesday, handing pens out to assembled officials as he signed a trade deal with China.
But some drew a distinction between policy developments and a milestone in the impeachment process that Pelosi has said brings her no joy.
“We are used to seeing signing ceremonies handing out pens at moments of celebration,” CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash said on the network. But she added that “the House Speaker has bent over backward to say publicly and privately this is a somber, this is not a time for celebration.”
“This is history, and the people who are involved want to mark the moment, but I didn’t expect to see that,” Bash said of the pen handout.
Bash’s fellow political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson agreed in the same segment, calling Pelosi’s distribution of pens “a little jarring.”
“I think it was a little off-message for someone who has tried to set a very serious tone,” she echoed.
Republican lawmakers, White House officials and conservative commentators pounced on the moment’s optics.
“Nancy Pelosi’s souvenir pens served up on silver platters to sign the sham articles of impeachment. … She was so somber as she gave them away to people like prizes,” tweeted White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tweeted that she had walked by after the signing ceremony and that “Dems were giddy with excitement in Capitol hallway, asking, ‘Did you get your pen?’ ”
“The American people will hold House Dems accountable for making a mockery of their duty to the Constitution,” she said.
Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said in an email Thursday that while it is “tragic that the President’s attacks on our Constitution have brought our country to this point … it is indisputably historic when the Constitution and its balance of power reasserts itself.”
He drew attention to the Government Accountability Office’s finding released Thursday that the White House broke federal law in withholding security aid to Ukraine last year. “Today, the Government Accountability Office confirmed that the President’s actions were illegal abuses of power, and Republicans are complaining about pens,” Hammill said.
Trump’s impeachment, the third in American history, would not be the first to spawn physical mementos. Senators each received their own black and silver pen to use while pledging their impartiality in Bill Clinton’s impeachment — though the maker had to pledge a reprint after a typo meant the keepsakes read “Untied States Senator.”
That politically divisive impeachment was full of souvenirs, as the New York Times reported in 1999 under the headline, “Impeachment Props Become Stuff of History.” White House lawyers and others with central roles got to keep the leather chairs they sat in for the trial. Pencils, tickets, nameplates and more all became historical artifacts.
Pelosi’s decision to distribute pens has drawn particular scrutiny, however, amid the broader attitude she’s projected toward impeachment. The House speaker has bristled at suggestions she “hates” the president and earlier praised lawmakers’ “somber approach to actions which I wish the president had not made necessary.”
Pelosi made light of her procession of pens at Wednesday’s signing, though.
“It makes for a funny signature,” she said.