WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi really doesn’t want her party to lurch into 2020 having tried, and failed, to impeach President Trump.
“Impeachment is one of the most divisive things you can do,” she warned at her weekly press conference Thursday, where she was peppered with questions on impeachment.
The question is whether she’ll be trapped into it, either by her own party or by Trump himself.
The more Trump acts out, the more divisive Pelosi’s position becomes within her own party. And increasingly, Democrats say Trump’s unprecedented defiance of congressional subpoenas leaves them no choice but to reach for extreme measures.
Which may be exactly what Trump wants.
The White House’s stance toward Congress appears custom-built to provoke Democrats into launching impeachment proceedings, an exercise Trumpworld seems to think would rally his supporters and boost his 2020 odds. The calculation is more complicated for Democrats: act on impeachment as a moral imperative and risk securing Trump’s second term — or stand down, and risk the wrath of the progressive wing of the party, and your most enthusiastic voters.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told VICE News she thinks impeachment is inevitable — politics be damned.
“When we start having these hearings and the truth starts coming to life in the public body, in the public eye, we’re going to have almost no choice but to impeach. This is not even a political question,” she told VICE News in the Capitol. “If you pursue a path of impeachment for political reasons or if you decide not to impeach for political reasons, either way you are threatening and undermining the institution.”
“Taunting, taunting, taunting”
Pelosi (D-Calif.) herself said earlier this week that Trump appears to be “goading us to impeach him,” by defying every congressional subpoena and declaring executive privilege over the redacted portions of the Mueller report on his ties to Russia and potential obstruction of justice.
“That's what he's doing,” Pelosi said Tuesday. “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.”
Kayleigh McEnany, the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, countered that presidential hopefuls on the Speaker’s left flank are the ones itching for an impeachment battle.
“The only ones ‘goading’ impeachment are the rabid, crazed 2020 Democrats,” she told VICE News. “Baseless impeachment was always their ambition and they’ve never stopped trying to overturn the legitimate results of the 2016 election.”
Yet the truth about who stands to gain may be somewhere closer to the middle. Impeachment would be a political dice-roll that, once cast, could have far-reaching and hard-to-predict political implications — and there are few things members of Congress hate more than uncertainty.
“It’s not always clear who’s going to benefit from these things at all,” said James Wallner, an expert on the separation of powers at the R Street Institute. “Most members think the uncertainty associated with something like this is bad for them.”
Pelosi wants to beat Trump the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box. She has said impeachment should only go forward when Republicans come on board, a bar that seems reachable only if their investigations turn up undeniable examples of criminality or corruption. Other Democrats think that’s a dim hope in today’s bitterly divided Congress, and see little point in holding out for bipartisanship.
“There is no requirement for Republicans to join in,” said Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), the sponsor of a 2017 impeachment resolution that failed on the House floor. “It can be beneficial to hear from witnesses, let the country hear what they have to say. I don’t think we should paint ourselves into a corner such that if we don’t get certain additional pieces of evidence, then we cannot go forward with impeachment.”
”I’m not interested in impeachment, but man, every day I wake up and look at the newspaper and it’s something else”
With the pressure rising, even coolheaded Democrats are starting to feel their blood boil. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who voted in 2017 against impeaching Trump, said he still believes impeachment would widen the breach of an already divided country, but he is becoming more and more uncomfortable with Trump for defying Congress without consequence.
“I don’t think he’s doing it intentionally, but he is pushing people who are reticent about going that far to move in that direction, and I’m one of them. I’ve said, ‘No, I’m not interested in impeachment,’ but man, every day I wake up and look at the newspaper and it’s something else,” Rep. Cleaver told VICE News. “That’s where I think we’re going.”
That dynamic is moving more House Democrats into alignment with some of the most liberal and popular figures in the party. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for instance, has called on Democrats to ignore the political dangers and focus on what she calls the moral imperative to oust Trump.
“We can't play politics here,” she told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Tuesday. “We have to step up and say, ‘The president is accountable.’”
Warren’s Democratic primary opponent, Beto O’Rourke, announced his support for impeachment only this week. Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has been sharpening her rhetoric against Trump, accusing the president of trying to “make America hate.” Although she once stopped short of calling for Trump’s ouster, she declared herself in favor of launching impeachment proceedings at a town hall event in late April.
But while talk of impeachment may rile up Democratic primary voters, most Americans aren’t there yet, according to recent polls. Only a third of respondents said they favor opening impeachment in a Washington Post-ABC poll from late April, while 56 percent said they oppose the idea.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a top 2020 contender, has worried openly that talk of impeachment “works to Trump’s advantage.” But the Democratic 2020 frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, has said Congress may be forced to go there if Trump refuses to budge.
If Trump continues to stonewall Congress’ investigations, House Democrats may have “no alternative but to go to the only other constitutional resort they have, which is impeachment,” Biden recently told ABC’s "Good Morning America."
What else can they do?
Yet Democrats wary of impeachment must contend with the fact that their other options for battling Trump’s White House don’t look so hot.
The House can slap Trump Cabinet officials with criminal contempt for failure to answer Congressional subpoenas — as they are about to do with Attorney General William Barr — but they must rely on Trump’s own Department of Justice for enforcement. And nobody thinks that will actually work.
And while they’ll almost certainly file a lawsuit in civil court and ask a judge to enforce the citation, the resulting courtroom battle might take years to play out — easily outlasting Trump’s first term, if not his entire presidency.
“If Trump keeps daring them to fight on these grounds, I don’t see how they back down”
A third option, known as inherent contempt, under which the House could throw Trump Cabinet members into jail on its own authority, hasn’t been tried in almost a century. And it remains widely seen as far-fetched.
This lack of alternative options is therefore pushing Democrats to consider impeachment, despite a keen awareness of the pitfalls, said professor Frank Bowman, author of the forthcoming “High Crimes & Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.”
That’s partly because stepping away from the fight with Trump would mean admitting congressional impotence in the face of a president who legal scholars warn is eroding long-standing constitutional norms.
“The Democrats are in something of a box here, because institutionally, they can’t take no for an answer,” Bowman told VICE News. “If Trump keeps daring them to fight on these grounds, I don’t see how they back down.”
Cover: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly press conference in the Capitol on May 9, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)