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‘Reluctant impeachment’: Will Pelosi ever be swayed to go there?

Democrats understand the speaker’s cautious approach to impeachment but believe she can be convinced

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves a House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, May 22, 2019 in which her members debated whether it’s time to open an impeachment inquiry. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves a House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday, May 22, 2019 in which her members debated whether it’s time to open an impeachment inquiry. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Will Speaker Nancy Pelosi ever come to a point where she is ready to lead her caucus in opening an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump?

The California Democrat hasn’t ruled it out, despite strong signals she wants to avoid the divisive move and let the voters decide in 2020 whether to punish Trump for his alleged misdeeds. 

“The House Democratic Caucus is not on a path to impeachment. And that’s where he wants us to be,” Pelosi said Thursday of Trump.

Many House Democrats who support opening an impeachment inquiry — the number of which has grown exponentially this week — say they think Pelosi can be convinced.

“I think what’s swaying her is the same thing that’s swaying us,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan said. “Every time the president — basically he does another way to try to block us getting information — every time he tries to obstruct a witness from coming, every time he tries to cover up something that we’re trying to get from him, that just puts us one step closer and more members come on board.”

Democrats on both sides of the impeachment question have praised Pelosi for her cautious approach to the matter.

“She is rightfully a word of caution,” Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly said. “You can’t rush into this. You can’t decide it’s a priority someone ought to be impeached and then try to fill in the blanks. And so I think I think that she’s exercising the mature judgment we hired her to exercise.”

Connolly said that while the president likely has committed impeachable offenses, he’d be hesitant to open an inquiry on the grounds of obtaining information that Trump is blocking from Congress because it could set a dangerous precedent about impeachment being the only recourse for executive branch stonewalling.

‘Tough job’

Even Democrats who want to start impeachment proceedings now aren’t so eager that they’re ready to criticize the speaker for holding back.

“She’s been handling it very well. It’s a tough job,” California Rep. Maxine Waters said. She acknowledged, however, that she did not know if Pelosi would ever come around to support impeachment.

Waters, as chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee, is arguably one of the most prominent impeachment supporters in the Democratic Caucus because she is leading one of six committee investigations into Trump. Her panel is focused primarily on the president’s finances and businesses transactions.

Pelosi on Wednesday called a special caucus meeting to have Waters and the other five committee chairmen leading investigations update members on their probes. Many rank and file saw the meeting as an effort by Pelosi to tamp down on the impeachment talk by showing that the committees were making progress despite stonewalling from the Trump administration.

“It’s good to be reminded of all that, but I certainly don’t consider that a substitute for the essential step of an impeachment inquiry,” impeachment supporter Rep. Jared Huffman said after the meeting.

The California Democrat told CQ Roll Call that the caucus needs to have a more lengthy and serious debate about impeachment. The day before, Huffman cited signs of progress as more members have come out and said an impeachment inquiry should be opened.

“I think the conversation is shifting from the uncertainty politically of impeachment, where does this go, all the hand wringing attached to that — to a conversation about how you do it,” he said. “So again, another indication I believe that we’re at the tipping point and we’re very near to starting this process.”

‘Reluctant impeachment’

Those who have recently come out in favor of starting impeachment proceedings — many of whom have made clear that doesn’t mandate an impeachment vote — have expressed soberness about reaching that conclusion.

Huffman sees the hesitation among some Democrats as having a tactical advantage even if the sentiments are genuine. 

“There may be strategy, even in what we’re hearing from leadership,” he said. “I think there’s a deep concern that we not be perceived as rushing into this and we not be perceived as doing it as some partisan impulse. And so as much as I’ve been ready to do this for a long time, I can see the potential value in having set up this narrative that it’s a reluctant impeachment, because it is.”

That reluctance throughout the caucus is clear. Even some members who have long supported impeachment see why Pelosi isn’t pushing ahead amid what virtually all Democrats have called obstruction of justice by the president.

“Keep in mind, impeachment without removal is ineffectual,” Rep. Brad Sherman said.

Sherman, who filed articles of impeachment against Trump last Congress, said he is extremely skeptical the Republican-controlled Senate would have anywhere near the 67 votes required to remove from office an impeached Trump. That reality is a serious hold up for House Democrats.

‘Sent here to be leaders’

Not all Democrats are concerned about the outcome. They feel like opening an impeachment inquiry, despite where it may lead, is the morally right thing to do.

“The reason I came out is because I believe that all of us — 435 of us that are lucky enough to serve in this House — were sent here to be leaders, not to wait until people tell us what we should do. I feel very strongly about that,” Rep. Kathleen Rice said when asked about Pelosi’s handling of the impeachment matter.

The New York Democrat said that 10 years from now, when people ask what she did about this, she doesn’t want to say she sat around waiting for the politically convenient moment. 

“I spent my whole life making decisions and doing what I think is the right thing,” Rice, a former prosecutor, said. “If voters don’t agree with me, that’s what Election Day is for.”

Those who have not fully come out in support of initiating impeachment proceedings but are warming to the idea have made similar comments about wanting to set the right precedent and example for future generations.

“I’ve been a very hesitant visitor to this conversation. I think it’s something we ought to be very careful about,” Rep. Dan Kildee said. “But I think the president is behaving in a way that leaves us very few options.”

The Michigan Democrat said he agrees with Pelosi in that she wants to be careful about impeachment but he also took direct aim at one of her arguments, in which she’s suggested Democrats shouldn’t move to impeach Trump because that’s what he wants.

“Once we start going down that path and trying to think two and three moves ahead about what the political implications are, in 10 or 15 years, I’m not going to be able to explain that to my grandchildren,” he said. “That we have a lawless president, who was completely out of control, and then I start to explain what our tactics were. Our obligations go much deeper than that.”

Bipartisanship key?

Among the reasons Pelosi does not want to move toward impeachment is that it lacks broad bipartisan support in the Congress and the public.

“Impeachment is a very divisive place to go in our country,” she said Thursday. “And we can get the facts to our American people through investigation. It may take us to a place that is unavoidable in terms of impeachment or not. But we’re not at that place.”

Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings said he agrees with Pelosi that any effort to impeach Trump must be bipartisan.

“I think the speaker is right on this point, that we have to bring the American people with us,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Pelosi is “doing her best,” Florida Rep. Darren Soto said, noting he has an open mind on the question of an impeachment inquiry but hasn’t made a decision.

Rep. Al Green, when asked how Pelosi has been handling the impeachment debate, responded that he has been focused on his role.

“I let others be where they may,” the Texas Democrat told CQ Roll Call.

Green filed articles of impeachment articles against Trump last Congress and twice used a procedural maneuver to force floor votes on them. He is planning to do so again this Congress, unless someone else is willing to step up and do so.

When that vote comes, the votes in favor of impeachment may be significantly more than those members who are vocally pushing for it.

“If an article came to the floor, then I would vote in favor of it,” Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown said. “But I’m not out there calling for it because I think there are members on the Judiciary Committee, Government and Oversight, Intelligence that are much more steeped in it and better informed on when is the right time to do it.”  

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