Starting impeachment proceedings seems unlikely to end in a Senate conviction, given the two-thirds majority needed in a body Republicans control with a 53-47 majority.
This makes it a tricky political proposition, especially as Democrats eye a 2020 election they think could end the Trump era and leave Democrats in control of Congress and the White House. This scenario also would leave Pelosi with the chance at scoring some sweeping policy achievements on health care and climate change in her last years in Washington.
People who work closely with Pelosi believe she will take the more pragmatic approach, and not move to impeach Trump, barring another “bombshell” finding from special counsel Robert Mueller.
They say the Speaker is instead focused on the Democratic agenda ahead of the 2020 election.
“Democrats like to govern,” a former leadership aide said.
The risk of initiating impeachment is it could backfire.
If the public turns on Pelosi’s party for focusing on Trump and impeachment, instead of legislating and governing, it could give new political momentum to Trump — just as an impeachment push by a Republican, Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), did for Bill Clinton in 1998.
Trump could win four more years, with the Senate staying in GOP hands and the House flipping back to red too. For Pelosi and Democrats in general, that’s the nightmare scenario.
Late last year, Trump said he believes impeachment would play to his advantage.
“It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump said, adding “the people would revolt if that happened.”
There are plenty of signals Pelosi is leaning against impeachment, despite intense pressure from parts of her liberal base, who see it as the party’s duty to impeach Trump, and who aren’t interested in waiting.
Democrats didn’t campaign on impeachment last fall. Instead, they talked about their agenda, with health care, voting rights, and campaign finance reform at the top of their list.
Pelosi and her deputies repeatedly said they want to see the results of Mueller’s probe, which is reportedly in its final stages, even as they repeatedly cautioned against any rush to judgment.
And Democratic leaders put centrist freshmen on the House Judiciary Committee, the key panel for impeachment, instead of outspoken newcomers such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) or Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), who drew rebukes from both sides of the aisle after she announced, “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”
Pelosi, who cut deals with then-President George W Bush on energy, education, ethics rules, and national security during her previous Speakership, wants to make a compelling argument voters should keep Democrats in control of the House because of their legislation.
All of this leaves a very narrow window, given a shutdown and government funding fight ate up January and much of February. The first Democratic presidential debate, which will really usher in the 2020 political cycle, is scheduled for June.
Hence, the next six to nine months present the best opportunity to move bills and strike deals on infrastructure or prescription drug pricing before politics make doing so virtually impossible.
An impeachment push would make legislating more difficult, while giving Trump and his allies the chance to fight back.
“Say what you want about Nancy Pelosi,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said, “but she is a student of history. The impeachment of Bill Clinton blew up in Republicans’ faces … impeachment probably would kill any hope of bipartisanship with Trump.”
Democrats picked up five House seats in the 1998 midterms, a result which led to Gingrich’s resignation.
“We probably underestimated the need to really aggressively push a much stronger message about cutting taxes and saving Social Security, winning the war on drugs, reforming education, and national defense,” Gingrich said at the time.
Pelosi’s remarks during the Clinton impeachment over Monica Lewinsky — which officially took five months — also point to her taking a different tack.
In the fall of 1998, Pelosi said “this is all about the election.” She also said Republicans are “bankrupt in the world of ideas, and so they have to resort to this smear campaign.”
Trump could use those same arguments against Democrats if they embrace impeachment.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) closely consults with Pelosi on the Democratic agenda. He had a similar message to Pelosi’s during Clinton’s impeachment: “It’s time to move on and solve the problems facing the American people like health care, education, and protecting seniors’ retirement.”
There’s no doubt Pelosi faces some blowback if she is seen as putting impeachment on the back burner.
Sixty-six House Democrats voted last year to move forward on impeachment. The number today might be bigger, given the Democratic Caucus grew by 42 members.
Trump controversy is a daily occurrence in the media, and spectacles such as Michael Cohen’s public hearing on Wednesday attracting national attention, impeachment calls from the likes of billionaire activist Tom Steyer are only going to continue.
But Pelosi downplayed impeachment for the last two years. In January, she said any impeachment path “would have to be so clearly bipartisan in terms of acceptance of it. “
During the spring of 2018, Pelosi went so far as to say impeachment would be “a gift to the Republicans,” adding Democrats want to talk about solving problems facing working families instead.
Top lieutenants are echoing Pelosi.
In a Hill.TV interview last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, “Where it ends, I don’t know. I presume it ends with Donald Trump being voted out of office.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also threw cold water on impeachment, telling CNN late last year, “you don’t necessarily launch an impeachment against the president because he committed an impeachable offense. There are several things you have to look at.”
In order to quell the Democratic base, Pelosi could have Schiff and other committee chairs continue to investigate Trump in the wake of the special counsel’s final report.
After winning the House in 2006, Pelosi said House Democrats would not move to impeach Bush from office.
“Impeachment is off the table,” she said at the time.