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How Nancy Pelosi Is Dictating the Democrats’ Impeachment Strategy

There was a telling moment at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, fresh from the press conference in which she and some colleagues unveiled two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump—for abusing his power and obstructing Congress—was walking briskly down a hallway where Manu Raju, CNN’s senior congressional correspondent, was doing a standup. Raju broke away from his spiel to lob an important question at Pelosi: Why hadn’t the Democrats included an article for obstruction of justice? (The Mueller report detailed ten Trump actions that looked like blatant efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation.) The Speaker didn’t even break her step as she replied, “We are doing the U.S.M.C.A.”

That’s the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a successor to the NAFTA trade deal, which is one of the Trump Administration’s biggest legislative priorities. Pelosi was on her way to a second press conference, where she portrayed the new trade accord, which was finalized over the weekend in talks between senior Democrats and Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s trade czar, as a victory for American workers. “There is no question, of course, that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA, but in terms of our work here it is also infinitely better than what was initially proposed,” Pelosi said. She also pointed to the endorsement of the deal by Richard Trumka, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who had been pushing for stronger protections for American workers to be included.

The timing of the two press conferences was remarkable, and quite deliberate. Pelosi hasn’t hidden the fact that she was a reluctant convert to the impeachment cause. Before taking the vows, in the wake of the revelations about Ukraine, she gave several reasons for her skeptical attitude, on one occasion saying that Trump wasn’t worth the trouble. The real reason for Pelosi’s caution was political. She feared impeachment would generate a backlash that would reverse the blue wave in 2018, which saw the Democrats banishing Republicans from suburban districts in California, New Jersey, and other states to gain forty-one seats in the House and take control.

Even though Pelosi is now firmly behind impeachment on the grounds that Trump’s effort to extort the President of Ukraine into providing him with dirt on his domestic opponents was just too egregious to ignore, these fears still appear to be prominent in her mind. On the eve of last month’s public hearings before the House Intelligence Committee, according to a story in the Washington Post, she warned her fellow Democratic leaders that they wouldn’t trigger a dramatic shift in public opinion about impeachment. The FiveThirtyEight impeachment tracker indicates that she was right about that, and Pelosi sent a message on Tuesday morning that she won’t allow impeachment to upend her strategy for retaining the districts that the Democrats won in 2018.

She could have scheduled the announcement of an agreement on the trade deal for tomorrow or next week. But, by holding it right after the unveiling of articles of impeachment, she demonstrated that, even as she and her colleagues are trying to drive Trump out of office, they are also focussing on bread-and-butter matters, such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs, guaranteeing paid leave for federal workers, and enshrining labor protections in trade agreements. Her message is that, in order to make progress in these areas, House Democrats are even willing to coöperate with a President whom they are impeaching. The dual announcements got this across in a manner that reassured some centrist members of her caucus.

Political strategizing also helps to explain why there are only two articles of impeachment. According to numerous reports, Jerry Nadler, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, considered also filing an obstruction-of-justice charge arising from the Mueller report, which explained, among many other things, how Trump ordered Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to have Robert Mueller, the special counsel, fired. That order, which McGahn wisely ignored, clearly amounted to an effort to obstruct justice. From the beginning, though, Pelosi has insisted on keeping the impeachment inquiry narrowly focussed on Ukraine, probably because she thinks returning to the Russia investigation would play poorly in swing districts. With the support of Adam Schiff, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, she has got her way.

Similarly, Pelosi and Schiff rebuffed calls for them to slow down the impeachment process. Such a pause might have given the courts time to force Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, and others to testify about what they know, and also to make the Administration hand over crucial documents, such as White House records about the decision to place a hold on security assistance to Ukraine. In Tuesday morning’s press conference, Schiff said that such a legal battle could drag on for eight to sixteen months, which seemed like a pessimistic assessment. In any case, though, it is evident that Pelosi and he don’t want the impeachment process to continue deep into 2020.

Underlying all this is the assumption, unspoken but widely acknowledged on the Democratic side, that the Republicans in the Senate will vote to acquit Trump, and attention will then switch to the election campaign. If Pelosi had believed that there was a realistic chance of removing Trump from office, she might have endorsed a broader and lengthier impeachment process. As it is, the first article of impeachment says that Trump is a President who “betrayed the Nation by abusing his high office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections.” The second article says that Trump, in stonewalling congressional efforts to investigate the Ukraine scandal, has “abused the powers of the Presidency in a manner offensive to, and subversive of, the Constitution.” For Nancy Pelosi, that is enough.



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