impeachment season

Nancy Pelosi’s Game

Inside the Democrats’ war room.

Illustration: Ward Sutton
Illustration: Ward Sutton
Illustration: Ward Sutton

Nancy Pelosi has not had a simple job since the Democrats won back the House last year, having to, most prominently, swat away an ill-fated attempt to replace her as Speaker, navigate uncharted political waters with the emergence of the progressive “Squad,” and try to negotiate with Donald Trump. But on no single issue has she faced a more persistent drumbeat from assorted members of her caucus than the impeachment of the president, whom her entire party regards as a criminal but whom far fewer have believed it wise, politically, to prosecute. Suddenly, though, almost her entire caucus is behind her, and Pelosi’s months of caution (years, really, since Maxine Waters and Al Green first started calling for impeachment) look something like strategic prescience. It’s true that the Ukraine story was impossible to predict, and the polling swing in favor of impeachment has happened faster than even its loudest boosters could have hoped. But having held its fire on matters of Trump’s emoluments, his tax records, his alleged collusion, and his obstruction of justice, the Democratic House appears to be in a nearly unified position, poised to bring charges on an egregious, easy-to-follow transgression committed in plain sight — which even her lefty critics have to admit is not the worst place to be.

When Pelosi convened the 235 House Democrats behind closed doors on a Tuesday afternoon late last month to announce that she would back an impeachment inquiry into Trump — now that there was clear evidence he had pressured Ukraine’s president to effectively support his 2020 campaign — she was careful to remind them she’d had a plan from the start. “We had ourselves on a path, seeking the truth there, and that work must still go on,” she said to her colleagues in the Capitol, referring to investigations into the administration they’d pursued since regaining control from Republicans in January. “What has happened this past week is grievous and serious with our Constitution. And so we must. It is understandable to the public. It has clarity in terms of what he did,” she continued, according to a senior Democratic aide in the room. “We have to strike while the iron is hot. This is a national-security issue — a national-security issue — and we cannot let him think that this is a casual thing. So that’s where I’m at.”

It was a monumental, if reluctant, step for the 79-year-old San Franciscan, who is simultaneously a liberal icon and the face of the party Establishment, who watched Bill Clinton’s impeachment from the House, then shut down calls to impeach George W. Bush during her first stint as Speaker eight years later. The 17-term congresswoman, who has been known to quote Abraham Lincoln’s line “Public sentiment is everything,” had long bet there was no way to successfully impeach Trump earlier in his presidency — frustrating the 138 members of her caucus who were already calling for it before the Ukraine news broke. As recently as early last month, she had privately dressed down the staffers who were leading what she saw as the overly aggressive, undisciplined, and premature impeachment push, sniping, “You can feel free to leak this,” according to Politico.

“I’m delighted that she’s come around and is moving forward,” said even Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton, who led the most recent failed campaign to oust Pelosi, and who’s been pushing for months for impeachment on national-security grounds.

Another way of looking at it — the way Pelosi sees it — is that circumstances demanded action. “People say, ‘Oh, the Democrats changed their minds.’ We didn’t change our minds,” Pelosi told her colleagues on a private conference call late last month, according to an aide on the call. “I think impeaching the president is very divisive unless we have to. And I said we would wait until we had the facts, and we have the facts. And I said when we have the facts, we will be ready. And we are.”

Pelosi is now in charge. None of her allies has set up external war rooms or rapid-response operations. Not even Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, theoretically the head of the party, found out about Pelosi’s decision to move forward with the inquiry until it became public, said Democrats familiar with the timeline.

Nowhere was Pelosi’s control of the moment and understanding of her caucus clearer than when she chose to empower Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, whom many Democratic members trust as a reliable messenger, to spearhead a process assumed to belong primarily to Jerry Nadler’s Judiciary Committee. For months, moderate members of the caucus squirmed while outspoken pro-impeachment members of the Judiciary panel drove the messaging on TV. When former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared before the Judiciary Committee in September and reduced the hearing to an embarrassing filibuster session, even the committee’s own members feared it had run up against a wall. “We have been engaged in this impeachment inquiry for a very long time and experiencing considerable frustration with the president’s stonewalling,” said Rhode Island representative David Cicilline, a committee member who is part of Pelosi’s leadership team. “We have made our best effort to bring the contents of the Mueller investigation alive, but under very difficult circumstances.”

Aiming to streamline the investigation and minimize internal friction, Pelosi and her leadership group told the caucus a few days after announcing her support for the inquiry that Schiff’s committee would take charge of looking into the president’s actions regarding Ukraine, the Foreign Affairs Committee would look at the State Department and Rudy Giuliani’s involvement, and the Oversight Committee would probe how the White House handled Trump’s calls with foreign leaders. Judiciary would still bring the ultimate articles of impeachment. But under this new plan, the behind-the-scenes diggers and trusted messengers would handle phase one. The aggressive impeachers would step back in when the time comes to drop the hammer.

Illustration: Tony Millionaire

Throughout the 2018 midterm campaign, the operatives in charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) included a question about support for impeachment in the private national poll they ran every month to inform their strategy. The results, which were distributed to Pelosi and Ben Ray Luján, the New Mexico representative then running the committee, found that while support for opening an impeachment inquiry tended to break along partisan lines, the idea of removing Trump from office was deeply unpopular — something like 15 to 20 points underwater, according to Democrats familiar with the data. Consultants working on individual races recalled seeing some polls in targeted districts where voters opposed impeachment by 40-point margins. When Democrats won the House, despite a flood of anti-Pelosi ads, DCCC leaders cautioned the new majority that Trump’s alleged Russian collusion was too politically tricky to navigate in too many districts, said operatives familiar with the warning.

Back in control, Pelosi made it clear she wouldn’t close the door on impeachment, but she wanted her caucus to focus on policy. At least Robert Mueller’s investigation was still up and running, impeachment advocates reminded one another hopefully. Meanwhile, the House’s various investigative committees, led by Judiciary and Intelligence, ramped up their long-promised investigations of Trump. But high-profile steps forward were halting. Nadler’s Judiciary panel had requested documents from 81 Trump associates early in the year but then dialed back their efforts amid worries from politically vulnerable House members (mostly young moderates who in 2018 won Republican-held districts); months later, after Mueller’s testimony, Pelosi and those members chafed when progressive committee members went on TV in support of impeachment and began calling their work an impeachment inquiry.

Then things changed. By the time of the Lewandowski hearing, Schiff’s Intelligence Committee had learned of the whistle-blower complaint regarding Trump’s July call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and four days before Lewandowski’s testimony, the committee subpoenaed the acting director of national intelligence. By the end of the week, the country knew the complaint was about Trump pressuring Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Pelosi was watching closely, monitoring the waterfall of news but also sensing — according to those close to her — that the ground was moving under her caucus’s feet. Here, it seemed, was a truly beyond-the-pale Trump act that was easy for average Americans to understand, without the weight of years of partisan warfare dragging it into the muck as Mueller’s probe had been.

As more details about Trump’s call rushed out over the weekend, Pelosi was on the road — including for a pair of funerals, one in Washington and one in South Carolina—and on the phone, speaking with members as more lawmakers jumped onboard with the inquiry, figuring the case would be simple to make and there would be strength in numbers.

The politically vulnerable lawmakers were on the phone with one another, too. One group of seven freshmen Democrats with national-security backgrounds who represent swing districts — California’s Gil Cisneros, Colorado’s Jason Crow, Pennsylvania’s Chrissy Houlahan, Virginia’s Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill, and Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin — determined on Saturday, in their preexisting group chat, that they had to say something. These were exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road members the remaining on-the-fence Democrats were watching for a signal that it was safe to step forward on impeachment. That Monday— the day news broke that Trump had held up aid to Ukraine before speaking with Zelensky — the group of seven and their aides submitted an op-ed to the Washington Post. Once it was edited and set to publish that evening, they called Pelosi to give her a heads-up.

Pelosi read the op-ed during her evening flight back to Washington from New York. She had already called House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to tell him she would back the inquiry. She started drafting her remarks for a formal announcement but accidentally left them on the plane.

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

The next morning, Trump called Pelosi, ostensibly to talk about gun control, but the now-inevitable inquiry naturally came up. He insisted he wasn’t holding up the whistle-blower complaint, and she told him to release it, in her recounting to her caucus later in the day. She kept unrelated meetings on her schedule throughout the morning, telling a handful of members who were discussing a separate foreign-policy issue, “Alea iacta est” — “The die is cast,” as Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon — according to a Democrat present at the meeting. By the early afternoon, she had gathered the chairs of the investigative committees and asked them to send Nadler their best cases for impeachment.

When it came time to address the caucus later that day, the mood was “somber [with] a sense of almost inevitability and something of the anticlimactic. We knew sooner or later we were going to end up at this point,” said Virginia representative Gerry Connolly. “It was not a jubilant meeting. There was no high-fiving.”

Pelosi told the caucus, “There is no question [Trump] has admitted that he brought up the investigation of the Biden family in his call. He is asking a foreign government to help him in his campaign. That is a betrayal of his — our — national security. And a betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” Nonetheless, it took a few more days of damning news reports and improved polling for some members of Pelosi’s caucus to become comfortable with what was happening. Pelosi, Hoyer, Luján, DCCC chair Cheri Bustos, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn sat down with “frontline” lawmakers — ones Republicans will be targeting next November—on September 26 to talk messaging, including how they hoped to keep House Democrats’ drug-pricing initiatives and trade negotiations front and center, rather than allowing the party’s national messaging to be overtaken by impeachment, as had happened to Republicans in 1998 and as the GOP was trying to ensure would happen to Democrats now.

Pelosi publicly and privately hammered home the message that this could not be seen as a political inquiry. “We have to be prayerful, somber, and nonpartisan,” she said on her Sunday call with the caucus, the same call in which she made Schiff’s role clear. The day before, she’d been asked onstage in Austin why she’d changed her mind. “The facts,” she said simply. As she handed the call off to Schiff, she informed the caucus, “I will only close by saying the polls have changed drastically about this.” Hakeem Jeffries, the caucus chairman, shared his messaging advice, harping on a six-word framing: betrayal, abuse of power, national security. By October 8, a Washington Post poll showed Americans approved of the House’s move to open the inquiry by a 20-point margin.

From Mayor to Betrayer, by Jim Carrey. Illustration: Jim Carrey

For now, no Democrats are willing to speak with much specificity about the individual articles of impeachment they expect to bring against Trump. But “there is no longer any doubt in my mind that the House will act on an article, or articles, of impeachment,” said Connolly. Trump will very likely be the third president to see charges from the House, even if the body’s Democrats have no expectation that Senate Republicans will turn on him. Some members say they can see the outlines of individual articles of impeachment materializing, first from the president’s Ukraine call and now from the administration’s stated intention of obstructing the investigations. While they won’t commit to a timeline, many members see the impeachment playing out over the next few months; some are eager to wrap it up before the Democratic-presidential-primary voting begins in February.

Pelosi’s team must manage its members’ expectations, especially given that some still fear that, as Republicans hope, a messy impeachment and an inevitable Senate acquittal could propel Trump to reelection. (Former New York representative Steve Israel likened Pelosi to “Toscanini conducting a jazz-fusion orchestra.”) Some members see merit in limiting the ultimate impeachment articles to the Ukraine call and excluding Mueller’s findings. Either way, “we need to keep this focused and quick, although thorough,” said Crow, a first-year congressman from the Denver area. “We have to get that in front of the American people, and we have to effectively communicate to them.” But to members who’ve been calling for impeachment for months, if not years, a strict Ukraine focus is “too near, too simple and clever,” in Connolly’s words. “I don’t think you can ignore the other things that 138 of us thought merited impeachment, especially obstruction of justice.”

The investigative committees are now eager to test the limits of Trump and his allies’ defiance (all the better to draw up impeachment articles based on obstruction, some members say). Trump “sounds more and more shrill,” said Illinois representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of both the Intelligence and Oversight panels, a few hours after Trump accused Schiff of treason earlier this month. “It’s almost as if he’s not able to counter the specific allegations as laid out in the [whistle-blower] complaint. He feels he needs to engage in more ad hominem attacks, which signals we should really follow the facts wherever they lead us.” They still have investigative paths they could follow without the administration’s cooperation, including interviewing any further whistle-blowers and former government officials. If their tactics change in the coming weeks, it will almost certainly mean issuing more subpoenas.

But as the inquiry matures, Pelosi’s leadership team hasn’t sent rank-and-file Democrats talking points, and its messaging advice hasn’t changed. They “understand this is a deeply personal, member-by-member [situation], and we’re gonna talk about it like we want to talk about it. The train has left the station,” said Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix-area congressman who first called for an impeachment inquiry in July. “The president impeached himself by releasing the transcript. We don’t have to overthink this.”

*This article appears in the October 14, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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