What a difference a week makes.
Seven days ago, the push for the impeachment of Donald Trump seemed dead. The combative testimony of the President’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski fell flat, and was widely seen as an embarrassment for House Democrats.
Afterward, reports emerged of Pelosi’s dissatisfaction over how her colleagues handled the episode, including that they didn’t find Lewandowski in contempt on the spot after his refusal to cooperate. At the time, it looked like the last gasp of what had been months of botched efforts by House Democrats to nail the President.
Now, impeachment is a likelier proposition than ever before – and it has nothing to do with Russia or the 2016 election. Instead, it’s about Ukraine and the 2020 election, and whether the President tried to get a foreign country to do his political bidding.
Tuesday’s official announcement of impeachment proceedings was the fruition of Pelosi’s strategic decision to play the long game. Rather than caving to the party’s left wing, which has been intent on starting impeachment proceedings from practically the moment Democrats took the majority in January, Pelosi held off.
The speaker of the House had to balance impeachment calls from her most vocal progressives with the interests of the freshmen majority-makers from swing districts. At every turn, Pelosi sided with these more moderate members, calculating that a premature call for impeachment could do far more damage than good for her caucus.
The resulting rift meant Pelosi worked overtime to hold her caucus together, even as calls for impeachment reached a fever pitch while special counsel Robert Mueller prepared to release his report in April.
Her decision to hold off proved prescient after the Mueller report failed to deliver the knockout blow to Trump that the President’s staunchest congressional critics had hoped for.
With the latest news about Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, and that a week before he had directed his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to put a hold on millions in military aid to Ukraine, Pelosi’s bet that Trump would continue to act recklessly and provide Democrats with more fodder for impeachment paid off.
By waiting to assent to impeachment, Pelosi accomplished several strategic goals. Democrats have now created the appearance that impeachment of Trump is a last resort, not a first resort. She divorced the process from the mess of the Mueller findings. And she allowed those moderate freshmen who built her majority, rather than the divisive members on the left, to lead on the issue.
An impeachment inquiry now gives every part of Pelosi’s caucus what they want. For the left, it’s the long-awaited chance to go after Trump. For her institutionalist allies, it’s the chance to enforce the checks and balances. For the vulnerable freshmen, it’s a more clear-cut example of potential abuse of power than what was uncovered by Mueller. That makes it an easier sell to swing voters back home.
Let the moderates lead
A key political signal to the rest of the caucus came Monday night, when an op-ed authored by seven freshmen Democratic members in swing districts was published by The Washington Post. All seven members have military or national security backgrounds, all flipped Republican seats, and many hail from districts that voted for Trump in 2016. So it was with some political risk that the authors said the allegation, if true, is an “impeachable” offense.
“They’d only be where they are if they had talked to Pelosi,” said one Democratic aide. “She doesn’t like surprises, and no one wants to surprise her.”
The op-ed prompted several more Democrats to announce on Tuesday their support for opening an inquiry. Among those were close allies and confidantes of Pelosi, Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Debbie Dingell of Michigan – House veterans of an institutionalist bent. Furthermore, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, largely seen as the conscience of the House Democratic caucus, added his support in a speech on the House floor Tuesday morning.
One Democratic aide said members are watching closely as several at-risk freshmen Democrats took to cable news to express their support in beginning a House investigation. The Democratic aide described the steady stream on Tuesday was part of Pelosi’s strategy of giving the “spotlight” to vulnerable Democrats as a way to reassure others still on the fence.
This episode is different
Her resistance to previous pushes to impeach Trump have underscored how differently Pelosi views this moment.
“What she’s seeing here are the members she was very focused on [protecting in 2020] are starting to come around to the conclusion that this is the only responsible path,” said one House Democratic source.
What’s different for many Democratic members – and thus, what’s prompting Pelosi to lean forward on impeachment – are the particulars of Trump’s actions. First, there is the sense that Trump is acting inappropriately in plain sight. There was Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, who admitted last week he had previously spoken to a Ukrainian official about the need for Ukraine to investigate the company tied to Biden’s son Hunter.
Then Trump himself admitted he had spoken with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in July about investigating corruption in that country and had specifically mentioned Biden and his son. (There is no evidence Biden influenced stopping Ukraine’s investigation into the company, Burisma Holdings, on whose board Hunter sat, a claim Giuliani has made.)
Then there is the frustration with the administration blocking the release of the report from the inspector at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In that report, a whistleblower claims knowledge that the President offered a “promise” to a foreign leader (reportedly Zelensky in their July phone call). A few days before that call, Trump had ordered Mulvaney to hold on delivering military aid to Ukraine, and the next month the administration was considering completely blocking the aid.
There is a sense among House Democrats, reflected in Pelosi’s resolution, that impeachment proceedings will be the only path to revealing the truth about whether there was or was not a quid pro quo with regard to the Ukraine aid and an investigation into Biden.
“We need to escalate this or we’re never going to get any of the information,” as the House Democratic aide put it.
This is still a big risk for Pelosi. Impeachment could bolster her party’s case against Trump as he runs for reelection. But it could also backfire. Lawmakers still have not seen the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, let alone the whistleblower’s complaint. As of Tuesday evening, the White House was preparing to release both in the coming days. Evidence that Trump was really leaning on Zelensky could be scant or unconvincing. The whistleblower’s complaint could turn out to be overblown.
So far, the American people have been opposed to impeaching Trump, with a recent Monmouth poll finding nearly 60% of Americans saying they are against it. A failed effort to nail Trump could even redound to his benefit heading into the election, especially since it’s unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate would convict him.
And Democrats won’t be able to disavow a botched impeachment as a misguided project of the far left. Pelosi has ensured nearly the entire Democratic caucus is on board.
CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.