Nancy Pelosi told the Washington Post that she doesn’t want to impeach Donald Trump:
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. And he’s just not worth it.
It was the most direct expression of a message that the House Democratic leadership has been gently easing into the discourse, for political-analysis stories to share. Here’s how Adam Gopnik described the argument against impeachment in the New Yorker:
Trump should be defeated at the polls; ejecting him in any other way provides too many opportunities for after-the-fact stab-in-the-back recriminations, and will only further convince his base that the “deep state” conspired against him.
And this was the New York Times describing what Democratic sources were telling it two weeks ago:
Democratic strategists…view impeachment as a politically dangerous move that could backfire on the party and help Mr. Trump and Republicans in next year’s elections. The window to open an impeachment inquiry may be closing fast. By the 2020 election year, even Democrats would most likely say the American people should decide Mr. Trump’s fate at the polls.
These are ringing, principled-sounding phrases: “The American people should decide.” “Trump should be defeated at the polls.” What they describe, though, is the opposite of principle. In the name of prudent statesmanship, the Democratic leadership is running away from the entire premise of self-government.
Michael Cohen, the president’s disbarred and prison-bound lawyer and fixer, has more genuine respect for the rule of law than the House Democrats do, or at least he expressed more respect for the law than they did. In his Congressional testimony, he declared that the president is a criminal and a liar, and said that he wanted to warn other people against supporting him or protecting him. It is dangerous, Cohen said, to have someone like Trump in the presidency.
The branch of government that’s supposed to keep the presidency in check does not want to start the constitutional process for removing a criminal president.
But the leadership of the opposition party doesn’t want to try to remove him. The branch of government that’s supposed to keep the presidency in check does not want to start the constitutional process for removing a criminal president.
Instead, they’re planning to dump their responsibilities onto the voters. They’ll let the president keep enriching himself and misusing his powers for the next 20 months, and ask the public to be the ones who stop it. This is, according to them, the mature and reasonable strategy.
The Post asked Pelosi outright whether she thought Donald Trump was fit to be president, and Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, said he was not:
No. No. I don’t think he is. I mean, ethically unfit. Intellectually unfit. Curiosity-wise unfit. No, I don’t think he’s fit to be president of the United States. And that’s up to us to make the contrast to show that this president—while he may be appealing to you on your insecurity and therefore your xenophobia, whether it’s globalization or immigrants—is fighting clean air for your children to breathe, clean water for them to drink, food safety, every good thing that we should be doing that people can’t do for themselves.
It is not the job of the House of Representatives to “make the contrast” to convince voters that they should vote against the president, next time the voters get an opportunity to vote. The House’s job is to impeach an unfit president itself, and to refer him to the Senate for trial and removal.
Pelosi’s answer, as it kept unspooling, revealed the fundamental dishonesty. Clean air, clean water, and food safety are very important things, and the Trump administration’s policies and actions in those areas go against the preferences of the majority of the public. But what do they have to do with impeachment? As corrupt as Trump’s Interior secretary and EPA administrator have been—shockingly corrupt, corrupt enough to be ruinous to a normal presidency—Trump’s handling of pollution is nowhere near his own top 15 or 20 high crimes or misdemeanors.
What Pelosi was saying was that she would prefer to let the crucial question of whether the president is immune to the law be resolved by implication, as a secondhand effect of what voters choose in the next election. This would hollow out both democracy and republican government: instead of choosing their next leaders and representatives, the public would be stuck voting in a referendum on what their last set of representatives should have done about the previous leader.
Elections are not a replacement for elected government. “The window to open an impeachment inquiry may be closing fast,” the Times wrote, describing the would-be conventional view. When that line was published, the current House of Representatives—elected in a landslide against the president’s party—had been in office for less than two months.
Pelosi was telling those voters that our political system does not really work, and that there is no device by which the public can stop even a president as blatantly corrupt as Trump. The House majority fears that impeachment would die in the Republican Senate, and that the whole process would end up looking partisan and illegitimate. If you believe that Trump is unfit for office—as Pelosi said she believes, and as a majority of the public believes, and as a glance at any morning’s newspaper easily confirms—then you believe that there is already an illegitimate partisan government protecting him, and the Democrats are allowing themselves to be held hostage to it.
The Democrats are afraid that if they oppose the president by impeaching him, it will hurt them politically.
And where does their logic lead, even in plain competitive-politics terms? The Democrats are afraid that if they oppose the president by impeaching him, it will hurt them politically. But they want to make the 2020 election about their opposition to the president. But they don’t want to tie the Senate Republicans directly to the president. Is it good to be against Donald Trump, or is it bad? Is it better to be against Donald Trump, but weakly, than to be strongly against Donald Trump?
Meanwhile, outside the bounds of tactical politics, kidnapped children are being molested in our government prison camps because the administration has suspended the laws at the border. Thousands of people are dead in Puerto Rico because the administration didn’t care about, or have the basic competence to respond to, a natural disaster. State governments and foreign governments and lobbyists are paying money directly into the president’s businesses.
After two and a half years of regular people admonishing other regular people not to normalize Trump, the official strategy of the opposition party leadership is to treat all this as normal, to be dealt with in due time by normal electoral politics. (The president’s vision of normal electoral politics, last time out, was to send the armed forces to the border for a fake crisis.) They are afraid to use the political system as it was explicitly designed to be used. We are stuck being subject to Trump, and we’ll be stuck being subject to whatever other criminals come along after him. If our government fails to draw the line at Donald Trump, there is no line.