House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came out with a decisive statement in a new interview published Monday in the Washington Post: “I’m not for impeachment,” she said. “This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before.”
She did include a caveat, allowing that something might emerge that could justify impeachment — but she thinks we’re not there yet.
“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.”
The claim that “he’s just not worth it” is particularly bizarre — impeachment is the ultimate sign that someone isn’t worthy of the powers of the presidency. It’s not an honor to bestow.
It’s also bizarre because she later says: “All the challenges we have faced, we can withstand anything. But maybe not two [Trump] terms. So we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
If a second Trump term is so dangerous — something Pelosi literally believes the country might not be able to withstand — isn’t allowing him to stay in office another two years similarly perilous?
Of course, there are decent arguments against impeachment. With the current composition of the Senate, it’s very difficult to imagine a successful vote to remove him from office. Some Democrats fear that, by engaging in the fight, the party would be damaged by the backlash. And some even believe that it’s better to leave Trump in office to run against him in 2020, since they think he would be a weaker candidate for re-election than Vice President Mike Pence (an argument which, in my view, vastly overestimates Pence’s appeal.)
But Pelosi and other critics of impeachment rarely give the counterarguments enough consideration. Most important is that, by taking impeachment off the table now, barring some new big revelations that spark bipartisan outrage, you give tacit assent to Trump’s worst behavior. This includes, most prominently, Trump’s clear complicity in the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election. Secondarily, it includes his continuing efforts to obstruct the investigation into the links and coordination between his campaign and Russia.
These can be reasons for impeachment can be thought of as central to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. No one seems to know when it will end, or what form a final “report” will take, but the conclusion of the probe may lay out a very compelling case for impeachment. But much of what it contains may already be public knowledge, and with Pelosi’s comments about the impeachable nature of what is already known, the conclusion of the report may be undermined.
There are also many non-Russia reasons for impeachment. Trump’s blatant breach of the emoluments clause is one; relatedly, his apparent receptivity to foreign influence on multiple fronts is another. He has also been accused of wild abuses of power — most recently, in a New Yorker article that said he wanted the Justice Department to use anti-trust law to punish CNN for negative coverage. And, of course, there’s the Southern District of New York’s allegation that Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, committed criminal campaign finance violations by covering up hush money payments to women who said the had affairs with him. Again, the basic facts of this case are already known, even if they haven’t been formally presented by prosecutors yet. If SDNY eventually presents a report of Trump’s misconduct to Congress in some form, Pelosi may have already undermined its case for impeachment.
She also, unwisely, gives Republicans the ultimate escape hatch on impeachment. By saying impeachment needs to be “bipartisan,” she hinders any Democratic arguments that a particular act or crime, past or future, warrants impeachment. As long as Republicans assert that they disagree the president should be impeached, the argument is, de facto, over, based on Pelosi’s reasoning.
And without being overly naive or abstract, Pelosi should consider what her decision to write a blank check to the GOP on impeachable offenses means for the country. Even if, as she may suspect, impeachment would be politically disadvantageous for Democrats, allowing Trump’s clearly aberrant and destructive behavior to become normalized could threaten the future integrity of the presidency and of the country. While fighting against his reelection might be the best way to get rid of Trump, it’s not necessarily the best path for undoing his assault on important norms of governance. Though an attempt at impeachment might fail to remove Trump from office, it would draw a clear line in the sand for future presidents to fear to cross. By declaring Trump essentially unimpeachable, the House speaker gives future presidents the impunity to act as these choose, virtually without consequence.
To be clear: Pelosi may be right in believing that, for now, impeachment is not the best option, for some of the reasons referenced above. But she is going a step further. She says she’s against impeachment. She could say instead that many of Trump’s actions are indeed impeachable, but that actual process isn’t feasible right now. She could argue that the Senate would thwart any attempt to remove him from office and so Trump should resign instead. But rather than taking these more nuanced tacks, she is, for all intents and purposes, taking impeachment off the table.
That’s a decision that could haunt the country for generations to come. Is it worth it?