Did Pelosi Fold?

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi speaks ahead of the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should ... Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi speaks ahead of the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images) MORE LESS
March 12, 2019 9:33 a.m.
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There is quite a lot of perplexity and disgruntlement that Nancy Pelosi has apparently ruled out impeachment, saying Trump’s “just not worth it.” This has led to a number of theories. Possibly Pelosi has received some intelligence briefings that touch on the Mueller probe and she knows that the final verdict won’t be strong enough to sustain an impeachment. Perhaps she worries about impeachment spurring an even deeper round of polarization which will hurt the Democrats in the 2020 elections. Perhaps she simply wants to get out ahead of a Mueller Report with a firm line in the sand to prevent a headlong rush to impeaching the President.

I don’t know Pelosi’s character or thinking well enough to know precisely which of these it is. I can’t know what’s motivating her. But her statement yesterday seemed far less momentous or consequential to me than it appears to have seemed to almost everyone else.

My thinking is based on two premises.

First, you can’t impeach without first investigating. This seems elementary to me, just as a prosecutor doesn’t indict until you have a case to make. Impeachment supporters say, quite right. That’s why we need to start an impeachment inquiry now to review and the find the evidence that would sustain an impeachment. They point out that when Democrats started their impeachment inquiry during Watergate public opinion was firmly against the prospect. As evidence was unearthed, public opinion shifted against Nixon.

In other words, impeachment isn’t just a vote. It’s a process, one that either does or doesn’t build an evidentiary and political case for removal as it proceeds.

This is a good argument.

But that process is not substantively different from what is underway in at least three (Judiciary, Intelligence & Oversight) and possibly four (Foreign Affairs) committees in the House. That’s the process. Get overseeing. Get investigating. You can only make a decision once you have their findings. And only their findings can shift public opinion, and thus votes in the Senate, to make removal possible.

So are we trying to impeach the President? I would say, yes. We’re taking the first step, since almost no actual public investigating has happened yet. And we’ll see where it leads us. Simply put, we have an impeachment process. Whether you formally call it that or simply a wave of investigations probing Trump’s crimes and misrule, I’m not sure that makes any real difference.

Second point. Are there votes in the Senate? This can seem like a lily-livered question. It’s not. In politics, success breeds success and defeat defeat. Many of us get beguiled by the word “impeachment”. It doesn’t really amount to much. It is actually an invitation for the Senate to remove the President from office. Whenever you start to say “it’s time for impeachment” it’s really better to say “it’s time to vote to ask the Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate to remove Trump from office with 67 votes.” I can only get so excited about issuing such an invitation. If we assume the 47 person Democratic caucus votes unanimously for removal, that means twenty Republicans will need to do the same. At the moment I cannot think of a single Republican senator likely to cast that vote.

That means House investigators have some serious work cut out for them.

Even in its clown-show, play-acting 1999 version, impeachment is a serious, incapacitating process. There won’t be an appetite to fail at it once and come back four months later for another try. I don’t see what that will accomplish for the Democrats, the endangered citizenry and most of all for the country itself. If anything I think it would mildly empower the President to claim he was vindicated.

At the end of the day, it’s all beside the point. You must investigate and build a case. This is the best, really the most legitimate way to build a drip, drip, drip public case for impeachment. If you come up short, it still leaves debilitating damage going into 2020.

Is this just tactical positioning of the moment on Pelosi’s part or is she dead set against impeachment in this Congress? I don’t know. I don’t think it matters. If the facts produced by the House committees are clear, and especially if they move public opinion, they’ll carry Pelosi before them.

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