Special counsel Robert Mueller’s public statement on Wednesday seemingly left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi between a rock and a hard place. She’s taking a middle of the road approach on impeachment – and that seems to be the most popular position with the electorate.
Mueller’s comments – during which he signaled that his obstruction investigation could be picked up by Congress – reignited calls from some Democrats to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice, including from a number of Democratic presidential candidates.
Most Republicans and Trump, for their part, continue to say that Mueller delivered his statement and it’s time to move on from the Russia investigation. (On Thursday, the President again attacked Mueller and said impeachment was a “‘dirty, filthy, disgusting word.”)
After Mueller’s statement, Pelosi again decided to strike a center chord. She didn’t call for impeachment proceedings to begin, but indicated such action may be necessary in the future depending on what House committees investigating potential obstruction of justice issues find.
Polling shows that’s likely the right move for now.
Voters seem most open to a path in which obstruction of justice is investigated, but not via an impeachment inquiry. A clear majority of voters (57%) agreed with the statement that Congress should “investigate whether Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice during the course of the Mueller investigation” in a CNN poll taken after the Mueller report was released. This includes 94% of Democrats, 52% of independents and even 18% of Republicans.
Importantly, Pelosi doesn’t risk alienating opponents of Trump by allowing House investigations into potential obstruction of justice issues to continue. Most Americans have disapproved of Trump’s performance for over two years now. Democrats don’t want to lose them.
The vast majority of voters (92%) who disapprove of Trump’s job performance are for investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. Additionally, the vast majority (88%) of those who chose Democrat Joe Biden in a potential 2020 matchup against Trump are for investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. In other words, Democrats are very unlikely to lose much of any of the Trump opposition by investigating him.
Compare these numbers to those on impeachment. In the CNN poll, 61% of voters were against impeaching and removing Trump from office. A minority of voters, 37%, were for impeaching and removing Trump. An ABC News/Washington Post poll similarly showed that only 37% of Americans want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings, while 56% were opposed.
Further, there isn’t a clear majority even on the mere question of whether or not to investigate to determine if impeachment should happen. Just 47% of voters told Quinnipiac University that they favor an investigation. A slight majority, 51%, were opposed. The split was even more pronounced in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania, where a May poll showed 41% in favor of an investigation to determine whether or not to impeach and 55% opposed.
It’s important to note that it’s not as if voters think Trump is innocent, however. By a 51% to 44% margin in the CNN poll, voters think that most or all of what Trump has said publicly about the Russian investigation has been false. By a 48% to 45% margin, they think he has obstructed justice. (A March Washington Post poll had a similar finding.)
Put it all together: Voters are very much open to the idea that Trump did something wrong, but they don’t want to go the road of impeachment just yet.
This doesn’t mean Pelosi committing to impeachment proceedings or dropping the issue altogether would be a political loser. As I’ve discussed many times, most voters put the Russian investigation very low on the list of most important issues. In a March CNN poll, 0 respondents listed the Russia investigation or the Mueller report as their most important issue in determining their vote for the 2020 election.
Pelosi is a politician who is practicing politics. She’s trying to maintain and build on a Democratic majority to enact liberal policies. Launching an impeachment inquiry not supported by the public is probably seen by her as a risky maneuver that puts at risk the Democratic majority. At the same time, not investigating the President would anger the Democratic base.
Further, there’s no real sign that Pelosi’s strategy isn’t working. Trump’s approval rating is, if anything, slightly down since the Mueller report was released. By staying back, she didn’t have to do anything to get Mueller to emphasize on national television that his report did not exonerate Trump. And so far, Pelosi has managed to keep the majority of her caucus together on the issue of impeachment.
So far at least, it seems Pelosi is politically winning.