Below is my column in The Hill on Nancy Pelosi announcing that she is opposed to impeachment and that it is simply not part of “our agenda.” During the campaign for the midterm elections, I wrote that the drumbeat for impeachment was another bait-and-switch in American politics and that Democrats would quickly move away from the calls once they secured a majority. The reason was (and is) obvious. While Democrats continue to insist that Trump is harming the country and committing impeachable offenses, his removal would not serve the interests of the party for 2020. Both parties continue to play the public as chumps and this is the latest example. Even Beto O’Rourke is now backing off of his call for impeachment.
There is no compelling evidence for impeachment at this time. If Pelosi also believes that there is insufficient evidence, she should say so. That would be a principled and frankly courageous position. However, Pelosi continues to suggest that Trump is committing impeachable offenses but still opposes impeachment absent the assurance that Republicans will join in the effort. That is a bit too convenient and ignores the individual obligations of members to act if they believe that there are impeachable offenses.
Here is the column:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi crushed the hopes of hundreds of thousands of voters this week by declaring, “I’m not for impeachment.” She insisted in an interview with the Washington Post that it is simply “not our agenda.” With those words, one of the most brazen political bait and switches in history was attempted. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats held out the prospect of impeaching President Trump as a top reason for giving them back control of the House. With a drumbeat of impeachment, Democrats made their return to power the political prerequisite for removing Trump.
As I wrote before the 2018 midterms, the impeachment pitch was highly dubious. Whatever benefit impeachment might hold for the country, it was not clearly beneficial to the Democratic establishment beyond the 2018 midterms. The last thing that the Democratic leadership wants to do in this environment is to remove Trump and inaugurate a Mike Penceadministration before the 2020 election. They want Trump wounded but alive. However, Democrats are risking that, after pretending to build a case for impeachment, a real impeachment could come unexpectedly.
That is why Pelosi went into the interview with a mission. She was not subtle, telling the Washington Post, “This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before.” Pelosi went on to explain that impeachment, which rallied the Democratic base last fall, was now deemed too “divisive to the country.” She declared that we would not “go down that path” because Trump is “just not worth it.” It was, however, worth it to win the 2018 midterms.
Democratic members whipped up the issue to such a frenzy that nearly 80 percent of voters who identified as Democrats called for impeachment in exit polls. Democratic House members have maintained the illusion of working toward impeachment with a harsh blizzard of investigations and subpoenas. However, most of these efforts focus on conduct by Trump before he became president. There is limited oversight value in some of these issues and even less potential for impeachment. Yet, the public does not understand that this is just political kabuki theatre. It actually believes an impeachment is in the making, and it is becoming impatient.
For Pelosi, the only prospect more unnerving than keeping Trump in office is the prospect of inadvertently forcing him out of office. Democrats have to appear as if they are pursuing Trump. To that end, they have launched a myriad of investigations into past taxes, past business deals, and even past insurance claims. All of these investigations raise the danger that Democrats could actually trip over an impeachable offense. Alternatively, they could fall victim to their own strategy in whipping up the passions of their base to the point that nothing but impeachment will be accepted.
What Pelosi really fears is that if “we go down that path,” it may be a path of no return toward an impeachment. If that happens, Trump could well prevail in the Senate or, worse for Democrats, he could be convicted. Democrats would then face an enraged Trump base with a new President Pence working to unify the nation after the trauma of a Senate trial. That is why Pelosi is giving “some news right now” in dampening expectations even as she declares that Trump is not “fit to be president of the United States.” But it is a hard sell to oppose impeachment while at the same time insisting that Trump is ethically and intellectually unfit. How can a president be so unfit for office that he is unworthy of impeachment?
Pelosi did say that she could be convinced to impeach Trump if there is a “compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan” case. But strong bipartisan support for impeachment, which allows Democrats to blame Republicans, is unlikely. Yet, the Constitution contemplates that members will move to impeach not when the politics are right but when impeachable offenses are present. Members of Congress take an oath to uphold this standard regardless of whether other members will further their own obligations.
If Pelosi believes Trump has not committed impeachable offenses, she should say so. But if she believes, as other Democratic leaders have said, that Trump has indeed committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” then it is not a question of whether the president but the office itself is worth an impeachment. Of course, an oxymoronic argument is sometimes easier than the truth. The 2018 midterms were never really about the voters or their demands. It was about the party leaders and their political interests.
In the 2016 election, voters demanded a break from the establishment. The Democratic Party responded to that by rigging the primary process to guarantee the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the only public figure in our country as unpopular as candidate Trump. After Clinton lost a supposedly “unloseable” election in a wave against the establishment, Democrats responded by electing the same establishment figures including Pelosi.
Now we see that Democratic voters have been whipped into a frenzy for impeachment, their leadership is tamping down impeachment talk while letting the clock run out. It is simply not in their political interests to seek the removal of a president who is more useful in office than out. So they will allow the investigations to unfold until the 2020 election is months away, and then declare that the matter should be left to the voters unless, in hunting Trump, they accidentally stumble into an actual impeachment.
That brings us back to the real cause of this political travesty. It is us. We are duped in every election by two parties holding a duopoly of power. In each election, the parties convince voters to ignore third party candidates because voters must unite against the greater evil in the other party. Every election, we buy their arguments because we have turned into chumps. A nation of chumps.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.