In hindsight, Speaker Pelosi should have stayed the course and not given into her worst instincts.
As the dust settles on our third presidential impeachment in U.S. history with President Donald Trump’s acquittal, we can finally look back and analyze what went wrong. Democrats went into the impeachment process confident President Trump would be convicted and removed from office. After all, that’s the goal of the whole process. With that effort defeated, it looks like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) original reservations about impeachment were correct.
If Pelosi succumbed to her worst political instincts by handing out commemorative pens after signing the authorization to transmit the Articles of Impeachment, she was at her best when trying to restrain the most militant members of her party. Pelosi knew that once impeachment left the House, she had no control over where it would lead. Trump was unlikely to be convicted and removed from office by a Republican majority in the Senate.
After Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives in November 2018, there were four failed attempts to launch an impeachment inquiry, on Jan. 3, March 27, May 22, and July 17, 2019, none of which had Speaker Pelosi’s support. Pelosi had publicly come out against impeachment, telling the Washington Post in March 2019: “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
This was consistent with her behavior in the past. As House Minority Leader, Pelosi opposed impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush, making private statements against impeachment in May 2006 and after Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives that November and she became Speaker of the House the first time. She reportedly told fellow Democrats in a closed door meeting “impeachment is off the table.”
Her feelings on impeachment finally changed in September 2019 when Pelosi opened a formal impeachment inquiry into a whistleblower complaint regarding a July 25, 2019 phone call President Donald Trump made with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In short, the whistleblower alleged Trump was soliciting Ukrainian help in the 2020 election by asking Zelensky to cooperate with a private investigation led by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine while serving as vice president from 2008 to 2016. It also alleged Trump withheld Congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in the hopes of leveraging Zelensky’s cooperation.
After calls for impeachment grew, Pelosi unilaterally announced an impeachment inquiry at a press conference on September 24th. A chorus of criticism followed by Republicans alleging the inquiry had no legitimacy without a formal vote, so on October 31, a vote was held. The result was 232 to 196. Two Democrats and every Republican voted against it.
A highly partisan vote was exactly what Pelosi warned about in March.
By November, she was still hedging her bets, saying Democrats “haven’t made any decision” to move forward with articles of impeachment and “As we continue to gather evidence and the facts from the testimony, we’ll go where the facts take us.” It was clear, however, that once this process got started, it wasn’t going to stop.
Impeachment in the House concluded with more partisan votes. On December 13, the House Judiciary Committee voted 23–17 along party lines to recommend two articles of impeachment, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. In the full House vote, zero Republicans voted in favor of either article. Two Democrats voted against the first and three against the second.
Polls consistently showed public support for impeachment was almost totally divided along party lines.
Democrats had all the votes they needed to impeach President Trump, but if they were looking for the kind of bipartisan support Pelosi said would be needed to prevent a highly divisive process, it never materialized. Pelosi either severely miscalculated or misread how her Republican colleagues would react. Perhaps events just spiraled out of her control.
Now Donald Trump is still president and the political parties are more divided and less willing to work together than when this whole thing started. President Trump snubbing a handshake with Pelosi and Pelosi bitterly tearing up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was a perfect illustration of this failure.
Impeachment has no purpose unless the alleged crimes are so grave and outrageous, members of both political parties join hands to remove the president. Otherwise, it’s a partisan exercise, the outcome of which is determined by whichever political party has a majority. Even going back to the Bush years, Pelosi understood this to be the case. With Trump, however, she gave into the loudest voices in her party and allowed herself to get swept up in the moment. It ended in failure.