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Why it matters that Pelosi wants to see Trump 'in prison'

When Pelosi said she wants to see Trump "in prison," I don't think it was a throwaway line; I think she was offering her members a credible alternative.
Image: 58th U.S. Presidential Inauguration
WASHINGTON, USA - JANUARY 20: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) President-elect Donald Trump greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Congressional...

As the intra-party debate over Donald Trump's possible impeachment continues to unfold in Democratic circles, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met privately yesterday with five committee chairs, each of whom are investigating White House controversies. One of the leaders, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) reportedly pressured Pelosi about opening a possible impeachment inquiry.

The Speaker still hasn't budged, though according to a Politico report, she did point to a different outcome she'd prefer.

"I don't want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison," Pelosi said, according to multiple Democratic sources familiar with the meeting. Instead of impeachment, Pelosi still prefers to see Trump defeated at the ballot box and then prosecuted for his alleged crimes, according to the sources.They said she was expressing solidarity with pro-impeachment Democrats who want to hold the president accountable while disputing the idea that it is now time to take that step. Pelosi has long argued that certain conditions must be met before Democrats begin impeachment -- public support and strong bipartisan backing, neither of which have so far materialized.

It's worth emphasizing that the reported quote was made behind closed doors, and Pelosi hasn't said anything similar in public. It may also have been a throwaway line -- an exaggeration the Speaker used to remind her members they aren't the only ones who have a problem with Trump's alleged misdeeds.

But it's possible there was a little more to this. What if Pelosi was pointing to an alternative approach to presidential accountability?

As we've discussed, Trump has been implicated in a variety of alleged crimes, though as far as the Justice Department is concerned, Trump is shielded from prosecution so long as he's in office. If he were to lose in 2020, however, that shield would disappear, and the prospect of an indictment would become quite real.

Indeed, by most accounts, the only way for Trump to ensure he faces no criminal liability is for him to remain president for another four years, effectively running out the clock on the statute of limitations.

If Pelosi said, "I want to see him in prison," she may have been doing more than just expressing contempt for the Republican in the Oval Office. She may have also been signaling a way to hold Trump responsible for his alleged crimes in a way that would be more severe than impeachment.

In effect, the Speaker may have told her members, "We could focus on impeaching him, but the Senate wouldn't remove him from office and nothing would change. Or we could focus on defeating him in 2020, at which point he could be indicted."

Indeed, there's a reason a growing number of Democratic presidential candidates are vowing not to pardon Trump if he loses next year and faces charges soon after.

To be sure, I haven't spoken to Pelosi or her staff about this, and I'm admittedly speculating about the rationale of a behind-closed-doors quote. But it wouldn't surprise me if the Speaker, clearly resistant to an impeachment push, starts pushing the "prison" option as an alternative for Democratic members who aren't satisfied doing nothing.

Update: In case this isn't obvious, if I'm right about Pelosi's thinking, her plan may very be flawed. For example, Trump might win a second term. And even if he doesn't, there may be all kinds of challenges associated with prosecuting a former president.

What's more, though the Speaker may be trying to buy some additional time, I imagine impeachment proponents in the House will make the case for impeaching Trump and hoping for his eventual indictment. That said, Pelosi seems to believe impeachment will strengthen Trump's position vis a vis the election, making it easier for him to prevail and end his legal jeopardy.