Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Pelosi had all but made up her mind.
Two days earlier, while she was in a Madrid hotel for a climate conference, Pelosi took a call from anxious moderate members of her Democratic caucus who were feeling heat in their home districts about supporting impeachment. The speaker, they said, should resist liberal calls to expand the investigation.
Pelosi did not tip her hand on the call. But it was a compelling argument from her “majority makers,” the group whose members flipped pro-Trump districts in 2018, helping make Pelosi speaker for the second time, and have guided her thinking from the earliest moments of the three-month impeachment saga.
“It was not much of a debate,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) recalled in an interview Tuesday. “When we made our decision to go forward, there was no opposition to it.”
The back and forth was a closing snapshot of how Democrats proceeded toward Wednesday’s momentous vote to impeach Trump on two counts, abusing his power and obstructing Congress. While the Democrats voted almost entirely in lockstep, and the outcome was never truly in doubt, the result belied an emotional and often caustic behind-the-scenes drama that exposed — and at times exacerbated — divisions within the House Democratic caucus.
The experience tested the will of centrist Democrats from pro-Trump districts, forced liberals to settle for what some considered to be a far narrower list of charges than the president deserved, and, ultimately, showcased Pelosi focused on protecting her majority.
Republicans, meanwhile, faced their own anxious moments, unsure how to confront an avalanche of damning facts and compelling testimony about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine and how to publicly defend a president who operated on his own gut and not based on any traditional strategy.
Trump was reluctant about establishing a “war room,” concerned about showing weakness, while some in the White House had no sense of the political dynamic in the Democratic caucus.
In October, Trump was so dispirited, according to people familiar with the president’s actions, he told visitors he found it depressing to walk by the White House portrait of former president Richard M. Nixon — who resigned in disgrace.
In the end, each side wound up largely where it began — with Republicans dismissing the evidence amassed against Trump as they stood to oppose his impeachment, and Democrats sticking together to do what they said was their solemn duty.
The result illustrated one of the fundamental realities of modern-day America, a country riven by political tribalism whose leaders cannot even agree on a common set of facts. And now, with GOP Senate leaders promising a speedy trial that will almost certainly acquit the president, the pitched warfare will spread from Capitol Hill to the national campaign trail.
This account of the days leading to Wednesday’s vote making Trump the third president in history to be impeached is based on interviews with more than 38 lawmakers, congressional aides, White House officials and allies of the president. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about private deliberations.
Publicly, Pelosi declared that impeachment had “zero” to do with politics. Democrats allege that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid to pressure Ukraine to help his reelection bid, including conducting investigations of former vice president Joe Biden, a 2020 candidate, and his son Hunter Biden, who once served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. The accusations came to light in a whistleblower complaint filed in August.
But privately, those close with her said she kept an eye on protecting her vulnerable members as she navigated her caucus through one of the most turbulent three months of her 30-plus-year career.
“We’re talking not apples and oranges, we’re talking Venus and Mars,” she said of the separation between impeachment and politics. “It’s the facts and the Constitution of the United States. That’s all that matters.”
A longtime impeachment skeptic who declared in March that Trump was “not worth” impeaching “unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan,” Pelosi radically shifted over a few crucial days in September as details of a phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president emerged.
Over several weeks, a handful of freshmen played a key role, urging her to keep tight reins on an inquiry they feared would spin out of control. The speaker listened, culminating in her decision to keep the impeachment effort focused on Ukraine.
The strategy worked in the short term: Only two House Democrats voted against impeachment on the first article, three on the second.
Not a single Republican backed the charges. Even retiring Republicans, liberated from political consequences, refused to break despite harboring private concerns about Trump.
In fact, in the final days before the vote, a confident White House scored a minor political coup by persuading an anti-impeachment Democrat, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, to switch parties, with Trump promising a tweet and event supporting him, according to people familiar with the interaction. The GOP gain, however, helped solidify Democratic support for impeachment as wavering moderates quickly fell in line.
Throughout, the partisan rancor intensified. Republicans accused Pelosi of being pressured by her party into ousting a man the voters elected.
“Never in the history of our country has an impeachment been partisan — never,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in an interview. “That’s a stain on Pelosi’s record.”
Pelosi bristled at the criticism, arguing that Republicans might ignore their oath of office but Democrats would not. “It’s so pathetic. After they impeach somebody for having a personal indiscretion and lying about it to protect his family, they’re calling this partisan? That’s so ridiculous,” a reference to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton 21 years ago.
“This is our responsibility,” she said. “That’s where we have to go.”
'This cannot stand'
Pelosi’s path to impeachment began amid a grim backdrop — two weekend funerals as reports of Trump’s potential Ukrainian misdeeds reached a fever pitch. On Sept. 20, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden “about eight times” in the July phone call, news that greatly disturbed Pelosi, according to an individual close to her.
The next morning, Pelosi attended the funeral of Cokie Roberts, the journalist, political commentator and daughter of two former members of Congress. The speaker then traveled to South Carolina for the funeral of Emily Clyburn, the wife of the House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, one of her closest allies.
They were somber occasions where the politics of the moment would be an inescapable topic, and Trump contributed to the debate that Sunday morning by appearing to confirm he did, in fact, discuss Biden on the call.
Later that day, in a room off the church sanctuary, Pelosi began calling several House committee chairmen, three of whom had quietly been investigating the matter for nearly two weeks. Her message: Start thinking about the next steps.
Meanwhile, several moderates from swing and GOP districts with national-security backgrounds would have a consequential impact on the course of the probe.
For months, members like Rep. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), a former Navy fighter pilot; Rep. Jason Crow (Colo.), an ex-Army Ranger officer; and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), a former CIA officer and Defense Department official, had tried to steer the caucus away from impeachment and toward the policy agenda they had campaigned on.
But over a week in September, they had been reading reports detailing Trump’s actions — and over text messages on the encrypted Signal app and late-night dinners at a Navy Yard bar, they realized that the potential abuse of power could not be ignored.
“We all just said, this cannot stand,” Crow said in a recent interview. “We have to stand up against this.”
Crow began to draft an op-ed embracing an impeachment inquiry. The draft went into a Google document; others logged in and made edits.
On Sunday night, Sept. 22, as Pelosi returned from South Carolina, nine freshmen convened a conference call that stretched on for more than an hour as they debated the piece and its impact. Ultimately, all but two — Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and Max Rose (N.Y.) — agreed to sign.
On Monday afternoon, Crow and Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) huddled in Houlahan’s office and hammered out the final edits. Around 6 p.m., the group called Pelosi and told the speaker what they would say.
“These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect,” they wrote in the op-ed, which The Washington Post would publish four hours later.
Pelosi did more listening than talking. “Thank you for leading on this issue,” she told them, knowing the political dam had broken. Less than 24 hours later, she would tell the world an impeachment inquiry was officially underway.
In the interview, Pelosi praised the freshmen and said their decision made it “easier” to move forward with the inquiry.
“They were so courageous. But they weren’t asking permission or consulting with me,” she said. “They were just informing me as to what they were going to do, as members do all the time. That they did it en bloc made it very, very important.”
'Really making this case'
Pelosi’s internal political challenges, however, were only beginning. Some liberals — particularly those on the Judiciary Committee who had been pressing for impeachment for months — were discussing inclusion of alleged offenses by Trump, from potential obstruction of justice to apparent violations of the Constitution’s ban on accepting foreign gifts embodied in Trump’s refusal to divest his business interests.
Moderates facing tough reelection races did not want an expansive impeachment inquiry.
On Sept. 26, dozens of the vulnerable “frontliners” crammed into a small meeting room in the Capitol basement, where they made clear to the top three House leaders how they wanted things to proceed: focused, efficient and fast.
They knew who they wanted to lead the inquiry — Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), whom they had come to trust as the unflappable face of the probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Fairly or not, they saw Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who had openly campaigned for the post on his readiness to preside over impeachment, as a symbol of liberal zeal to oust Trump.
But Democrats were unsure whether they would be able to make their case. To most, Trump’s decision to release the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky immediately appeared to vindicate their worst fears. Trump’s own words — “Do us a favor, though” — appeared to confirm the quid pro quo the anonymous whistleblower had suggested, in a complaint that was released publicly Oct. 16.
Getting those around Trump to corroborate the details, however, was hardly guaranteed, as the Trump administration had refused to comply with scores of Democratic requests for witnesses and documents. And within a week, those fears were realized when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose department and personnel were at the center of the affair, objected to House subpoenas and told investigators their deposition requests were “not feasible.” On Oct. 8, the stonewall became official Trump administration policy when White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent a blistering letter to the House, rejecting the “highly partisan” impeachment inquiry.
But things quickly began to fall into place for Democrats, surprising party leaders.
It began when Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly removed from her post in May, testified despite instructions from the State Department not to do so. She described in frank terms how forces she barely understood, seemingly centered around Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, had conspired to derail her distinguished diplomatic career.
At a news conference, acting White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted to conditioning Ukrainian military aid on political favors, before walking the comment back. And several Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Rep. Francis Rooney (Fla.), publicly indicated they were troubled by the allegations and open to impeachment.
Plus, the witnesses kept generating headlines of damaging information for Trump. William B. Taylor Jr., the U.S. Military Academy graduate and veteran diplomat, led investigators though a blow-by-blow of how he learned that a Ukraine meeting and military aid was leveraged on investigations of Trump’s political rivals. Gordon Sondland, the megadonor turned ambassador to the European Union, who helped broker Ukrainian relations, eventually admitted he delivered the quid pro quo message to Ukraine.
“Every witness that testified, the reaction was: Damn, they’re really making this case,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
“We were getting crushed in the closed hearings,” said one senior White House official. “The closed hearings were the darkest days.”
Meanwhile, Republicans started to feel desperate and helpless. Trump frequently complained to associates about becoming an impeached president. After Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, testified that he was disturbed by Trump’s demands on Ukraine, the president told allies he did not want to “ever see that guy again,” in the words of the White House official — even though Vindman still worked at the White House.
On one early call to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Trump asked whether Democrats had the votes to impeach him as Cipollone, unfamiliar with Democratic caucus politics, suggested Pelosi might come up short, according to a GOP official familiar with the conversation. McCarthy, who has a better understanding of Congress, told him Democrats already had the votes.
Instead of persuading Democrats, the GOP leader was focused on his own party, aware that a single defection could lead to many more. One lawmaker he watched closely was Rooney, who abruptly announced his retirement after the Ukraine scandal broke and surprised both parties when he suggested he might be open to voting for impeachment.
Sitting in his office in late October, as revelations emerged from the closed-door depositions, Rooney admitted he was torn, recalling his own political whiplash growing up in a pro-Nixon family during Watergate.
He described celebrating Mass at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity church with his father and some conservative friends on Oct. 21, 1973, the morning after the Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
“The priest asked for a moment of silence for those two — my dad and these business guys got up, walked out cussing and screaming,” Rooney said. “But lo and behold, about six months later, they realized the depth of this thing. . . . And so I just thought: Okay, I’m not going to jump out here before I even know any facts.”
GOP strikes back
The drip, drip, drip of revelations that had so troubled Rooney flowed from the secure facility three floors below the Capitol where access is tightly controlled and electronic devices are verboten.
As witnesses testified in the House investigation, reporters and cameras staked out the closed-door sessions that stretched on for hours. House Republicans decided to take advantage of the ready-made media to stage an event to highlight what they characterized as a secretive star chamber.
The night before the protest on Oct. 23, Trump hosted some of his most fervent loyalists at the White House. His message: Fight harder, something Republicans were also hearing back home from pro-Trump constituents.
The next day, they gave Trump the sort of televised spectacle he craves. Scalise led the protest outside the facility’s locked doors, which was initially planned as little more than a raucous news conference. But things quickly escalated when the doors opened and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) barged in, leading a parade of unauthorized lawmakers, some holding cellphones, into the conference room where Pentagon official Laura Cooper was about to be questioned about the hold on military aid to Ukraine.
The stunt had clearly violated House rules, but it stole the spotlight from Democrats and dominated cable news and headlines that day — showing GOP leaders that they had the ability to knock Democrats off their game.
For the first few weeks of the inquiry, Trump strongly resisted the idea of creating a “war room” as Clinton had to ensure a unified communication strategy. He worried it would make him look weak — even as Republicans such as Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told him he needed a more robust response.
There was also plenty of tension in the White House, including over the initial decision to release the rough transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, according to administration officials. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Cipollone and Justice Department officials told Trump that releasing the transcript would take the heat off. But others, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Pompeo and communications officials warned releasing the document would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.
White House officials, however, would later argue that the move proved prudent. It put the most damaging evidence out first, raising the bar for any further findings discovered by Democrats — none of which would be so explosive as the transcript. Trump eventually clutched the document as a shield: “Read the transcript!” became a frequently tweeted defense.
While the White House dithered on a counter-strategy, McCarthy deputized members to lead the pushback, countering damaging emerging facts and arguments, attacking the rapid impeachment process and assailing the credibility of key players.
Throughout the three-month inquiry — and multiple explanations — Republicans held firm to one talking point: The process Democrats had settled on was unfair to Trump, and the speed and secrecy of the probe had lent it an irreparable partisan taint.
Many Democrats saw those complaints as a sign of weakness — that Republicans had no ability to defend Trump’s conduct. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), in fact, confronted McCarthy in the gym as the GOP process complaints mounted in early October, telling him Republicans were “losing” on impeachment. “All you can talk about is process,” Moulton told McCarthy, telling the leader he was “full of s---.”
To McCarthy, Moulton and other Democrats were missing the point. The process arguments weren’t aimed at Democrats or even swing voters. They were aimed at Republicans in Congress.
“You’ll see in the end,” McCarthy shot back at Moulton, according to the recollection of both men.
The barrage of attacks on the process and criticism of Schiff worked. On a key Oct. 31 test vote, Republicans were united against a resolution that set rules for the remainder of the impeachment process.
Meanwhile, Trump worked behind the scenes to woo Republicans. Mulvaney turned Camp David into a retreat center for select House members to escape. Trump invited groups of Senate Republicans to the White House for lunch, frequently telling senators they should not give an inch because the Democrats wouldn’t.
But Republicans suffered setbacks in their defense of Trump as well. On Nov. 15, Trump attacked Yovanovitch by tweet before she had barely completed her opening statement. The social media assault, Republicans said, played right into Democrats’ hands as they sought to elicit public sympathy for the former ambassador.
Trump realized the misstep immediately as Vice President Pence, Cipollone, son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and others met in the Oval Office. Universally, he was told the tweet was a mistake.
“The fact that he was even asking if it was a mistake tells you he knew it wasn’t a good tweet,” one White House official said.
As the public hearings continued, it became increasingly clear to Democratic leaders that the Republican wall of support wasn’t crumbling. If anything, it was stronger. Multiple Democrats cited the striking transformation of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) from a sometimes Trump critic to a bold Trump defender as a telltale sign that they weren’t making any headway with the GOP.
Many Democratic hopes were also dashed in the final Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 21 when Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA official and frequent GOP critic of Trump who had chosen to retire, called the president’s pressure on Ukraine “inappropriate” but not a crime.
The announcement deflated senior Democrats, who saw Hurd as a potential defector.
“I cannot believe he believes that this is not an impeachable offense putting at risk our national security and our election integrity,” Hoyer recently vented about Hurd.
Some Democrats made a last-ditch appeal to their GOP colleagues. Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) approached retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) to try to persuade him to back impeachment. Mitchell, a former businessman in GOP leadership, had decided to quit Congress after only two terms, partly out of frustration with the party’s unwillingness to call Trump out. Mitchell also told his colleagues he believed Trump’s call with Ukraine was entirely inappropriate.
Cohen pulled Mitchell aside after an early December hearing.
“You could be the one,” he told him. “You could be the first Republican to break.”
“Your wish won’t come true,” he told Cohen.
Mitchell had recently reread The Federalist Papers and concluded that Trump’s conduct simply hadn’t met the standard for impeachment. Like Rooney, Mitchell wanted to hear from close Trump aides who have refused to testify, such as Mulvaney or former national security adviser John Bolton. While Bolton asked a judge to referee the dispute, Democrats had decided they didn’t want to waste time in the courts enforcing subpoenas. The decision carried a price: no Republican defections.
“People can be compelled to testify, evidence can be turned over, there’s a legal process to do that,” Mitchell said, citing the Nixon investigations. “It seems to me, it was just inconvenient. It appears to me that [Democrats] had a schedule.”
Toward the end of the House impeachment saga, the president repeatedly sought to show he is working — signing deals, traveling the country. But he also couldn’t hold back from punching at Democrats, even his 2016 rival. Speaking to donors at his hotel Saturday night, he talked about the Army-Navy football game and how he visited both sidelines, stopped in the locker rooms and stood in the cold for hours. “Hillary couldn’t have done it,” he said, boasting of his stamina and mocking his 2016 opponent.
Trump also privately mocked Democratic suggestions that he engaged in a quid pro quo. And he bragged to advisers repeatedly that Republicans have stuck behind him, his mood brightening as impeachment inquiry came to a close.
In recent days, the president publicly called Pelosi “crazy,” while privately he made the unfounded claim that the speaker was deteriorating and needed aides to care for her.
“She would have never done this” if her mental faculties were intact, he told an ally at a White House holiday party, according to a senior administration official.
A spokesman for Pelosi, Drew Hammill, dismisses Trump’s comments as “projection.”
With Trump refusing to express even a smidgen of remorse and his attorney traveling to Ukraine to continue pushing for investigations of Trump’s rivals, Democrats realized that while their inquiry was over, their epic clash with Trump was not. In fact, as lawmakers neared the vote on Wednesday, some liberals privately lobbied Pelosi to consider an unusual move, according to Democratic officials: Hold the articles rather than sending them to the Senate, to continue investigating Trump — and, perhaps, even impeach him again.