Impeachment: Pelosi vs. Trump

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a plan: no impeachment of President Trump.

As the highest-ranking elected Democrat, she could impose her plan on her fellow Democrats, even over the objections of a wing of the Party anxious to attack.

Why did she prevent an impeachment inquiry?  The Mueller report revealed Trump’s effort to block the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections, but she saw that most Americans did not want him impeached.  Other charges against him did not gain much traction.

In 2018, the Democrats had gained control of the House thanks to winning seats held by Republicans who supported Trump.  If the Democrats now went after the president without public support, those seats might switch back to the GOP.

To let off steam, Pelosi allowed several House committees to look into issues surrounding Trump, from obstruction of justice to his personally profiting from being president.  Those inquiries might give Democrats talking points in the 2020 campaign, but avoid making impeachment the center of the campaign.

Trump may have misread Pelosi’s plan.  Instead of seeing it as her strategy for winning in the upcoming House elections, he might have concluded that she recognized the Democrats did not have a case.

Ignoring Mueller’s report on Russian meddling, he asked the president of the Ukraine to help him undermine former Vice President Joe Biden by reopening an investigation that had found Biden made no effort to protect his son from claims that his involvement with a company there was improper.

Trump’s aides, realizing he could be seen to invite foreign involvement in an American election, tried to hide his conversation.  Even worse, Trump had sought the Ukrainian’s help while withholding funds to help him counter the Russians, who occupy part of his country.

One civil service employee, who had access to the facts, became a whistleblower by revealing what Trump had done.  That changed everything.

The Ukraine revelation sent shock waves.  There is wide opposition to seeking or using foreign help for a candidate in a U.S. election.  Some Democratic House members, whose seats might be in jeopardy, became willing to risk their re-election out of their sense of obligation to the Constitution.

Pelosi’s plan had to be amended as many Democrats shifted to favoring an impeachment inquiry.  Public opinion also seemed to shift rapidly, making their risk seem less dangerous.  In effect, the impeachment moved from a political calculation to a matter of principle.  But Pelosi still sought to manage it.

With major issues like health care, the environment, and trade at stake, she remained committed to keeping impeachment from becoming the focal point of the presidential and congressional campaigns.

Pelosi’s plan, based on three elements, is emerging.

First, the impeachment inquiry should be kept short.  Historically, because the process draws the president’s attention away from his duties, inquiries have been compressed.

In Pelosi’s view, a short burst of attention to impeachment will help keep it away from center stage in the 2020 elections.  Democrats who want to use it in their campaigns might do so, but they would not be forced to focus on it.  The election could be more than simply about Trump.

Second, the scope of the inquiry would be limited as much as possible.  Only the foreign involvement issue raised broad public concern, so the inquiry should be limited to related Trump actions.  Collecting evidence is relatively easy on this issue, given the whistleblower’s report and the transcript of Trump’s call.

By keeping the inquiry to a single issue that has newly arisen, the Democrats would not appear to be airing all their past grievances.  And that would also keep the inquiry brief.

Third, keep the inquiry serious.  Avoid rants against the president.  In the end the Judiciary Committee will have to recommend Articles of Impeachment to the House.  Other committees will be involved.  Some rants are inevitable.

But Pelosi has given the lead to Rep. Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor, who tries to avoid overheated arguments and creates an aura of authority.  She is betting he can keep the process orderly, worthy of public respect.

Throughout the process, Americans will be educated about impeachment.  It is not a criminal trial.  It does not remove the president from office.  It simply determines if there are charges serious enough for the Senate to consider removing the president.  That’s the only penalty.

The process has begun for only the fourth time in American history.  At its heart, it is a contest about how constitutional government should operate between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.