Pelosi dilutes case for Trump impeachment with hard logic

America Letter: House speaker shifts focus from attack on president to real-world issues

US president Donald Trump and House speaker Nancy Pelosi: Even if the Democratically controlled House of Representatives was to vote for impeachment, conviction still needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Photograph: Jim Young

US president Donald Trump and House speaker Nancy Pelosi: Even if the Democratically controlled House of Representatives was to vote for impeachment, conviction still needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Photograph: Jim Young

 

This week, as part of the annual St Patrick’s Day ritual in Washington, president Donald Trump made one of his rare trips to Capitol Hill.

Following his bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the president was whisked down Pennsylvania Avenue, accompanied by blaring sirens and whirring helicopters, to attend the St Patrick’s Day speakers’ lunch.

The president had already seemed less than happy as he took questions from reporters in the Oval Office alongside Varadkar. No doubt the looming Senate vote against his emergency declaration, which would ultimately see more than 12 Republicans defect, was weighing on events.

He then had to take his seat beside the Taoiseach and Nancy Pelosi.

I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country

The meeting was the first time the two adversaries had met since the State of the Union address in the wake of the very public showdown over the government shutdown. Pelosi was faux-polite – “I have been told that the appropriate introduction . . . is to keep it very simple,” she said sweetly, passing the microphone to the president, who proceeded to deliver some nice remarks about Irish-America and mentioned Pelosi’s Irish grandchildren.

But despite the strained display of bonhomie, Trump has something to thank Pelosi for.

This week the House speaker made her first public comments on an issue that is increasingly occupying minds in the Democratic party as the special counsel investigation nears an end: impeachment.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Pelosi put it simply.

Trump was just not worth it. “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country,” she said. “And he’s just not worth it.”

Investigative activity

Her comments were delivered on the back of a flurry of investigative activity by Democrats this month, as they ramped up congressional oversight of Trump.

Last week the House judiciary committee sent letters to 81 individuals and entities demanding information related to Trump. The House intelligence committee has also reopened probes into Trump’s affairs. The ways and means committee is exploring legally tight ways of demanding the president’s tax returns.

Many senior figures such as House judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler and House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff have said that they believe that Trump has obstructed justice, though stopped short of calling for impeachment.

US president Donald Trump confers with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after St Patrick’s Day celebration on March 14, 2019 with Richard Neal and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty
US president Donald Trump confers with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after St Patrick’s Day celebration on March 14th, 2019, with Richard Neal and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty

Pelosi’s comments elicited sharp responses from some on the left of the party, particularly younger members of the caucus elected in November who had campaigned to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said that if “the facts require us to initiate removing the president, we are obligated to do it”. Prominent Democratic supporters such as billionaire Tom Steyer also criticised her remarks.

Pelosi’s comments – while still leaving open the possibility of impeachment if something “so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan” emerges – were in keeping with her midterm election strategy of focusing on real-world issues such as healthcare rather than attacking Trump.

Overplaying hand

They also reflect her experience of living through America’s last impeachment trial – the Clinton impeachment of the 1990s.

As ways and means committee chairman Richard Neal said in an interview with The Irish Times this week, Pelosi is warning Democrats not to overplay their hand.

“The Republicans impeached Bill Clinton and Newt Gringrich lost his job,” he recalled, referring to the Republican former House speaker.

Impeachment would effectively be undoing the result of a democratic election by removing a president the people elected

“Bill Clinton’s numbers went way up when he was seen as being persecuted never mind prosecuted. We elected a lot of Democrats that year in an off-year election.”

More pragmatically, perhaps Pelosi is aware of the maths.

Even if the Democratically controlled House of Representatives was to vote for impeachment, conviction still needs a two-thirds majority in the Senate. With Democrats holding just 49 seats, such a scenario would involve more than a dozen Republicans breaking ranks with the president.

Even though Pelosi said in the same interview that Trump was unfit to be president, her stance reflects the perspective embedded in the constitution that impeachment is a last resort only to be used if a president is found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanours”.

Impeachment would effectively be undoing the result of a democratic election by removing a president the people elected. For the moment, the 116th US Congress is not there yet.

But with the Mueller report yet to be published and various congressional investigations in their early stages, a lot could change in the coming months.

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