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How Nancy Pelosi's political instincts failed her on impeachment

Pelosi got a lot right in her time as leader of the Democratic caucus — but her hesitancy to impeach Donald Trump was a major mistake.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced on Thursday that she will not seek a leadership role in the next Congress, ending a 20-year stretch atop the House Democratic caucus. Her decision ends a remarkable tenure filled with a number of political victories, legislative accomplishments and historic firsts. She listed just a small number of them during her speech, including shepherding through Obamacare and her successes over the last two years under President Joe Biden.

Among these bright spots, though, stands the failed impeachments of Donald Trump. Yes, the House voted to impeach the former president twice — but it was reportedly only over the objections and roadblocks that Pelosi raised along the way. That hesitation, at least in part, has paved the way for her to spend what may be her last two years in Congress with Trump able to bid to reclaim the White House.

Among these bright spots, though, stand the failed impeachments of Donald Trump.

When Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel in 2019, she knew her caucus’s members were ready to begin impeachment hearings almost immediately. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, had even filed articles of impeachment against Trump in 2017. Before she had been sworn in, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib had told a crowd that the new Democratic majority was going to “impeach the motherf----r.”

But Pelosi, who had lived through the GOP’s impeachment of President Bill Clinton and seen the backlash it inspired, wasn’t ready to pull the trigger. “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 told The Washington Post in March 2019. “And he’s just not worth it.”

It’s not, though, as if there weren’t ample grounds for an impeachment inquiry by that summer. Trump had already spent two years enriching himself through his Washington hotel, most likely in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. The Mueller report laid out a number of instances of likely obstruction of justice. But Pelosi was still firmly against moving forward with impeachment even as news began to emerge that the president might have pressured Ukraine’s leader for political dirt on Biden.

It was only in September that year, after seven freshman moderate Democrats in battleground districts, all with national security backgrounds, published an op-ed calling for an impeachment inquiry that Pelosi began to publicly change her tune. The next day, she gave a speech announcing an inquiry. But according to the book “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump,” by Rachael Bade of Politico and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post, behind the scenes Pelosi insisted that the probe be limited in scope to Trump’s actions in Ukraine, cutting off any other lines of investigation.

She also demanded that the impeachment process be brief, ideally wrapping up before Christmas. That rapid pace meant cutting corners and not giving the public enough time to wrap its head around the admittedly tricky subject matter. (I should know — I hosted a daily podcast trying to break down the particulars of the impeachment inquiry and the accusations against Trump.)

It also meant the Trump administration could run out the clock in the courts rather than take the time for Congress’ subpoenas to be enforced. Pelosi got her way, though, even as the vote in the House to impeach Trump on two charges related to Ukraine failed to get any Republican support.

It was clear from the jump that the lack of pressure for a longer, more deliberate investigation made it easier for Senate Republicans to rally around Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., worked to speed through the trial as quickly as possible, cutting off any witnesses. The Senate GOP basically wound up needing to spoon-feed a credible line of defense to Trump’s attorneys during the subsequent impeachment trial, Bade and Demirjian reported. But it worked — only one Republican, Utah’s Mitt Romney, wound up voting to convict, leaving the final vote far short of the two-thirds requirement to remove a president and bar him from office.

Pelosi wasn’t willing to put the full weight of her office behind actually preventing Trump from ever holding office again.

The next year, in the hours after the Jan. 6 attack, many of the same Democratic House members who had led the charge for the first impeachment reportedly tried to get Pelosi to agree to hold a vote on a new set of impeachment charges that night. Pelosi and her top deputy refused. It took another week of pressure from inside her own caucus for Pelosi to give in and agree to move forward.

In that time, House and Senate Republicans who had been willing to place the blame for the attack squarely at Trump’s feet had begun to have their doubts. By Jan. 13, 2021, only 10 were willing to join Democrats in supporting the charges. Had the House moved quickly, perhaps the Senate would have, as well. Instead, the impeachment trial itself didn’t begin until after Trump had left office. McConnell, who had been sure that his caucus would convict, ultimately joined those who argued it was unconstitutional to convict a former president in an impeachment trial. Trump again was acquitted, leaving him free to announce his presidential bid this week.

Timing really can be everything in politics, which Pelosi knows so well, and it’s easy to make judgments in hindsight. A lengthier House impeachment inquiry would likely still have been ongoing when the Covid-19 pandemic truly kicked off in the U.S. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the House GOP had been placed on the spot the night of Jan. 6 and forced to vote for impeachment.

But as Bade and Demirjian argue, Pelosi wasn’t willing to put the full weight of her office, one of the most powerful roles in our democracy, behind actually preventing Trump from ever holding office again. For someone whose political instincts have been so spot-on over the years, in this case Pelosi failed both her members and the country.