Politics

Nancy Pelosi’s Gamble

The Speaker thinks impeachment is too risky, but so is the alternative.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Thursday in Washington.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Thursday in Washington.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“Don’t tell anybody I told you this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a New York City audience Tuesday morning, in an event hosted by Cornell University. “Trump is goading us to impeach him. That’s what he’s doing. Every single day, he’s just, like, taunting, taunting, taunting. Because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.”

The list of potentially impeachable offenses grows by the day as the administration refuses to cooperate with congressional requests and subpoenas for the unredacted Mueller report, the president’s tax returns, or testimony from key figures like former White House counsel Don McGahn. Pelosi called these actions obstructions of justice.

“Every day, he’s obstructing justice by saying this one shouldn’t testify and that one shouldn’t testify and the rest,” she said. “So he’s making the case, but he’s just trying to goad us into impeachment.”

And Nancy Pelosi, brave warrior for democracy and what’s right, will … not take the bait?

It’s not useful to guess whether Trump is consciously “goading” Democrats into impeaching him. It is useful, though, to know that this is how Pelosi sees it, and that she’s projecting onto him her own worst fears: that impeachment would backfire on Democrats, that it would distract them from their legislative agenda, and that there’s no chance Trump would get convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate, allowing him to declare victory afterward, just in time for the 2020 election. This is the overreach Pelosi believes Trump is trying to force her into, and she views it as her prime task to reject it. But portraying Democrats’ resistance to such goading, which others might describe as rampant abuses of power, as shrewd isn’t exactly a righteous argument either.

The muddled message from Pelosi—Trump is obstructing justice every day, but we’ll show him by not impeaching—is a byproduct of the corner she’s occupying: Impeach the president and risk a catastrophic backfire that secures him another term, or don’t impeach him, and allow Donald Trump to operate in a space where the credible threat of impeachment is off the table. Beneath all of the mixed signaling, though, is a coherent decision that she has made: to delay the decision on impeachment indefinitely, by continually requesting more, seeing where facts land at the end of a time-consuming process of fact-landing, and, by then, arriving at Election Day.

That might work, except: The Trump administration’s stonewalling of Congress has kicked off a separate debate about whether initiating an impeachment inquiry is necessary simply to give the Democrats a stronger and speedier legal foundation to secure the documents they’re seeking. For now, Congress is still trying to work through the conventional committee process to obtain what it wants, in some cases negotiating with the administration. What if that doesn’t work, though, and these fights get thrown into the courts for well into the next year?

Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent described this situation, specifically as it relates to the tax returns fight, as Democrats’ “nightmare scenario” in a piece on Tuesday morning.

“Democrats must now choose between continuing to pursue the returns through conventional channels, which carries some risk of failure, and getting serious about impeachment hearings, which would likely minimize that risk to the greatest extent possible,” Sargent writes. “If Democrats go with the first, it raises at least the possibility that they could squander months in court, only to fail to secure Trump’s returns at the end—at which point they’d decide it’s too late to pursue impeachment, because 2020 would be looming.”

Well, one person’s nightmare scenario is another House Speaker’s light at the end of the tunnel. “Too late to pursue impeachment” might have a certain ring to it, if you’re Nancy Pelosi, who, at the Cornell event, brought up the impeachment inquiry into Richard Nixon, and how Nixon left office when the “moment of truth came after months and months and months of investigation.”

Still Pelosi recognizes that, as she put it, “what’s different now from then, is that the Republicans are just probably never going to vote for impeachment for this president.” Which is why she believes that accountability for Trump means defeating him in 2020. Avoiding high-risk gambles, like pursuing impeachment, is a central part of her effort. Investigations will serve as a tool to expose the president’s wrongdoing for voters to draw their own conclusions, not as the build-up to Congress reaching a conclusion of its own. In a way, it’s the highest-risk gamble of all: Betting everything on an election which, if Trump wins, would leave him with four more years, and Congress with a broken ability to oversee him.