In a letter to her Democratic colleagues on Friday, Nancy Pelosi announced that the jig was up: The House would vote to appoint impeachment managers and transmit the two impeachment articles to the Senate “next week.”
After holding the articles in the House for three weeks in an effort to compel the subpoenaing of additional witnesses and documents—a “fair trial”—in the Senate, Democrats secured no such concessions from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. By Tuesday, after McConnell had announced he had enough Republican votes to set up the Senate trial on his own terms, Pelosi said that she simply wanted to see the text of those rules before transmitting the articles, so she would know what “arena” House prosecutors would be entering. McConnell didn’t afford her that pleasure, either.
As the week went on, Pelosi was starting to feel pressure from both Senate Democrats and from some within her caucus. In a cable news interview Thursday morning, one of Pelosi’s own chairs, Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, said that “it is time” to send the articles. He was forced to walk back the statement shortly thereafter, but his statement represented a sense of unease among moderate Democrats, including many of those who had risked their necks in their impeachment vote, that their months of messaging on the underlying Ukraine case were getting lost in the gamesmanship.
From the start, there was an unusual, un-Pelosi-like sense of winging it, rather than a long-term vision with a guaranteed deliverable in the end. When she first said, in a press conference following the impeachment votes on Dec. 18, that she wouldn’t commit to a timeline for transmitting the articles to the Senate, she seemed to have been unprepared for the question. As she was monitoring floor debate on impeachment articles that day, a bloc of members in her caucus had signed on to the “impeach and withhold” strategy that Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe had laid out in a Washington Post op-ed two days earlier.
In that article, Tribe described the leverage Democrats would have in withholding the articles from the Senate this way: “As a tactical matter, it could strengthen Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) hand in bargaining over trial rules with McConnell because of McConnell’s and Trump’s urgent desire to get this whole business behind them.”
It was never clear what urgent desire on McConnell’s part Tribe was talking about. The Senate majority leader is perfectly happy to ignore a trial and preserve floor time to continue processing 32-year-old MAGA bloggers to lifetime positions on federal appellate courts. Trump’s desire might have been more urgent, and plenty of his tweets during the delay relayed a thirst for the trial. But they weren’t thirsty enough to convince McConnell that he needed to abandon his stronger negotiating position in order to get a trial moving, or to convince four shaky Republicans to wrest control of the trial process from McConnell and hand it to Chuck Schumer. McConnell came up with his own plan, got (at least) 51 votes for it, and waited. It wasn’t hard.
What did Democrats get out of the delay? Well, some new reporting on the ugly mechanics of the Ukraine aid hold came to light over the holidays, and Democrats were at least able to spend a couple of weeks poisoning the “sham” trial rules that McConnell was pushing. John Bolton, for reasons known only to John Bolton, came out and said that he would testify in the trial if subpoenaed. These were all things that might have happened, too, without the backdrop of a high-stakes “standoff” between two leaders, and with the simple backdrop, instead, of “the holiday break.” The impeachment trial is going to start roughly on the schedule it always was, with some unnecessary procedural drama having filled the void.