Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The blue wave, powered in large part by voters who said they did so in opposition to the President, means the House is full of new Democratic members with a firm mandate to attack Trump frequently.
Already, incoming freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan told supporters that Trump’s days are numbered because “We’re going to impeach the m*****f****r.” And when her comments sparked a furor, she declined to apologize and her office released a statement that read, “The Congresswoman absolutely believes he needs to be impeached. She ran and won by making this very clear to the voters in her district,” the statement said.
Trump has already responded to the jibe, calling it “disgraceful” before turning to Twitter to attack Democrats. He wrote, “They only want to impeach me because they know they can’t win in 2020, too much success!”
Whether impeachment proceedings will actually take place is a question perhaps best left to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Pelosi has so far downplayed talks of impeachment, although the option certainly remains on the table. “We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report. We shouldn’t be impeaching for a political reason, and we shouldn’t avoid impeachment for a political reason,” she told NBC.
Responding to Tlaib’s comments, Nadler said on CNN, “I don’t really like that language. But more to the point, I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts, we have to get the facts. That’s why it is important to protect the Mueller investigation, that’s why it’s important to do our own inquiry. We have to get the facts. We will see where the facts lead. Maybe that will lead to impeachment. Maybe it won’t. It is much too early.”
But even if impeachment is currently on hold, a criminal indictment could theoretically lead to severe financial penalties or even imprisonment – something no president has ever faced.
On the hot-button question of whether a president can be indicted while in office – a matter on which constitutional scholars disagree – Pelosi said on NBC that she doesn’t consider Trump immune from criminal prosecution.
When reminded that internal Justice Department memos advise against the idea of prosecuting a sitting president, Pelosi said “I do not think that that is conclusive.” She later added, “I think that that is an open discussion. I think that is an open discussion in terms of the law.”
Nadler went a step further when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper in early December, “I disagree with the Office of Special Counsel and the Department of Justice. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the President from being indicted. Nobody, not the President, not anybody else, can be above the law. There’s no reason to think that the President should not be indicted.”
Whether an indictment would guarantee impeachment, however, is another story. Nadler said, “There are several things you have to look at. One, were there impeachable offenses committed, how many, etcetera. And secondly, how important were they? Do they rise to the gravity where you should undertake an impeachment?”
Regardless of whether the House initiates impeachment proceedings, Pelosi now has a great deal of power to make Trump’s life miserable – both legally and politically – as the leader of a Democratic-led House with the power to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and dig into Trump’s tax records. And she knows it.
Before her colleagues even voted to make her the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi let President Trump know that his days of dominating the national political agenda with bluff, bluster and bullsh** have come to an end.
When asked whether she thought Trump deals with her differently because she’s a woman, she said, “I have no idea. We’ll see how he will deal with the speaker of the House. … I hope he recognizes that a new day has dawned in America.”
It’s unclear whether Trump has grasped the full meaning of the new environment in Washington. For the past two years, as special prosecutor Robert Mueller has racked up indictments, convictions and guilty pleas from Trump associates, the President has defended himself with a key assist from Republican members of Congress.
Several of the more outspoken members – whom Trump calls his “warriors” – have acted as political bodyguards by publicly attacking Mueller, calling for criminal prosecution of former FBI Director James Comey and appearing on right-wing media outlets to argue Trump’s case.
What a difference an election makes.
For the moment, talk of these grave legal matters is still hypothetical. We still haven’t seen Mueller’s findings and it will take a considerable amount of time for Pelosi, Nadler and other Democratic leaders to hire staff, hold hearings and begin playing catch-up on investigations that began years ago.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And a decision about whether to indict Trump is one that’s up to the Department of Justice, which has a long-standing view that presidents are immune to criminal prosecution during their terms in office.
But the talk from Pelosi and Nadler about being open to the idea of indictment is a warning to the White House: The days of Congress defending the Trump administration at every turn have ended. And new political and legal problems for the President could just be beginning.