Ever since special counsel Robert Mueller’s unexpected public statement about his findings regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and potentially obstructive behavior by Donald Trump, calls to impeach the President have picked up considerable steam.
As of Monday night, 59 House Democrats have either called for Trump to be impeached or for an impeachment inquiry to be launched, according to CNN’s count. And on Sunday, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, seemed to suggest to CNN’s Jake Tapper that impeachment for Trump was inevitable.
“That’s exactly what I feel, I think we’ve already begun it,” Clyburn told Tapper, adding that Trump would be impeached “at some point.”
The impeachment boulder seemed to be rolling down the hill. Then Pelosi held a private meeting of her leadership team on Monday night. And Clyburn immediately changed his tune.
“I’m probably farther away from impeachment than anybody in our caucus,” Clyburn said Monday night. “We will not get out in front of our committees. We’ll see what the committees come up with. I’ve said that forever.”
Look, a politician getting too far out over his skis and then adjusting after realizing it is as old as politics itself. But what is noteworthy here is how quickly Clyburn changed his tune – and how he did so immediately after sitting down with Pelosi and the rest of the party leadership.
What that flip-flop makes clear is that Pelosi is still firmly in charge of her caucus and its approach to the allegations of obstruction against Trump – and the broader investigations into the President’s administration.
Yes, you now have 59 Democrats calling for Trump’s impeachment (or at least the start of an impeachment inquiry). But that group makes up only one-quarter of the 235 total Democrats in the party’s majority. That doesn’t mean the number isn’t significant, but it does means that it’s still a (relatively) small chunk of the Democratic caucus.
And it’s important to look at WHO those 59 people are (and who they aren’t). The 59 are, by and large, the most liberal members of Congress – most of whom represent districts where impeachment is already very popular. Pelosi knows she is never going to stop, say, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or California’s Maxine Waters from pushing for impeachment. So she doesn’t spend time trying.
Take a look, though, at the people Pelosi HAS clearly leaned on to keep them away from calling for impeachment.
At the top of that list is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York, whose committee would run any sort of impeachment inquiry. In the wake of Mueller’s public statements, Nadler said this of the way forward: “With respect to impeachment, all options are on the table, and nothing should be ruled out.” Which is, of course, very different than saying “we need to begin the impeachment inquiry now.”
Another key voice Pelosi has kept in line is House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a fellow Californian. Here’s what Schiff said when asked the impeachment question on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday:
“I think we’re going to do what’s right for the country, and at this point, the speaker hasn’t reached the conclusion and I haven’t had either. It’s not best for the country to put us through an impeachment proceeding that’s destined for a failure in the Senate. That calculus may change if the President continues to demonstrate his unfitness for office.”
Then there is Pelosi’s leadership team. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in the immediate aftermath of the release of the Mueller report that impeachment was “not worthwhile,” although he has slightly backed off that statement. Clyburn has reversed himself over the past 48 hours to be more in line with Pelosi’s preferred position. Conservatives made much of New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ comments on a podcast released Monday that “hearings should commence immediately” on obstruction of justice, but didn’t really note that the fourth-ranking Democrat in leadership also said this: “What you call those hearings – that is a decision that will ultimately be made by Chairman Nadler and Speaker Pelosi.”
Look: Pelosi didn’t become the first female speaker of the House (and then reclaim that title eight years after losing it) by not being able to understand which way the political wind is blowing. Her position on impeachment – against it – is a fungible thing, depending on what else (if anything) comes to light regarding Trump and allegations of obstruction of justice.
But to paint Pelosi as losing control of her caucus on impeachment is to misunderstand what the speaker is doing here and how much control she retains. Unless and until you see major cracks among the party’s leadership in the House, Pelosi is still very much in charge.