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Push to impeach Trump stalls amid Democrats’ deference to — and fear of — Pelosi

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/16/2019 Rachael Bade

a person holding a suitcase: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday. © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Prominent liberals in the House, impatient with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s opposition to impeaching President Trump, seemed on the brink of a major breakthrough one night last month.

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a key Pelosi ally and the man who would preside over the hearings, was preparing to buck his party’s leader and join the pro-impeachment movement.

Pelosi moved swiftly. She summoned her top lieutenants to a late-night meeting and hatched a plan — that six party leaders, speaking in unison, would make clear to the chairman why impeaching Trump was a terrible idea. 

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“Republicans are stewing in their own juices,” Pelosi told Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), arguing that the majority of the Democratic caucus didn’t support impeachment and that the party should devote its time to calling out Republicans for siding with a president trampling the Constitution, according to Democrats and other senior officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe what transpired.

Nadler left the room that night and has not publicly endorsed impeachment. “Impeachment is a political act, and you cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it,” he has said.

As pressure has mounted in recent weeks on House Democrats to move more aggressively against Trump, Pelosi has demonstrated the firm grip she wields over her caucus — quashing, at least for now, the push for impeachment. It is a command that colleagues say is drawn from a deep well of respect for the political wisdom of the most powerful woman in American politics — and fear that challenging her comes with the risk of grave cost to one’s career.

In January, Pelosi blocked two ringleaders of the rebels who had tried to deny her the speakership from securing their preferred committee assignments — even though the peace pact she made to reclaim the gavel precluded retaliation. And veteran lawmakers keenly remember how she rebuffed former Democratic lawmakers Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), two occasional thorns in her side, in their quest for chairmanships, moves many viewed as revenge for challenging her vision or authority.

“It’s much better to be with her than against her,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), a Pelosi antagonist who eventually backed her for speaker. “She doesn’t make it easy, that’s for sure.”

“One, you want to be a team player and support the leader’s position, but secondly you’re worried about your own self and . . . what can happen if you don’t follow along,” said another Pelosi critic, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who summed up the concerns members face if they defy Pelosi.

The reluctance to oppose the speaker, according to interviews with more than 20 lawmakers and aides, has undermined the push for impeachment despite the growing support for ousting Trump among the party’s liberal base and several 2020 presidential candidates. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found more Democratic voters backing impeachment — 48 percent up from 30 percent last month — but the nation divided, with Republicans and independents opposed.

Thus far, impeachment proponents in the caucus have been unwilling to call Pelosi out by name or rally support to begin proceedings. Consequently, the campaign has slowed, with a caucus minority of just over 60 lawmakers backing impeachment — at least for now.

Longtime Pelosi allies say the fear factor is vastly inflated. Rather, they say it’s more that members respect the California Democrat, who has led them for 16 years and understands the political consequences of impeachment.

“I don’t think there’s anything more divisive we can do than to impeach a president of the United States, and so you have to handle it with great care,” Pelosi said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “It has to be about the truth and the facts to take you to whatever decision has to be there.”

Pelosi’s midterm election strategy of focusing on health care rather than the president helped Democrats capture the majority last year, as the party won in 31 districts where Trump had prevailed in 2016. Pelosi knows Democrats could lose those seats — and their majority — in a backlash over impeachment.

“She is the single smartest strategist that we’ve ever had. . . . People are not wanting to second guess her because she’s been right on so many fronts,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a longtime Pelosi ally who has deferred to the speaker on impeachment.

To be sure, the impeachment push is far from over and could become more difficult for Pelosi to manage as Trump repeatedly defies congressional investigators.

Pelosi is “holding it together but it’s fragile because we’re kind of one event, one piece of explosive testimony, one action by Trump away from that dam collapsing,” said Rep Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

But even if a majority of her caucus calls for impeachment, Pelosi allies predict she will withstand the pressure. 

Pelosi's maneuvering

Over the past few weeks, Pelosi has worked behind the scenes to stifle the pro-impeachment movement in her caucus with strategically timed comments and announcements — and nudges to her members to get in line. 

When House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said impeachment was inevitable during a television appearance in early June, Pelosi’s staff mobilized quickly, calling his office and telling staff to have Clyburn walk it back, according to congressional officials familiar with those conversations.

When other senior Democrats started advocating for impeachment on television, Pelosi made sure at least some knew she was unhappy. During one recent private meeting, she snapped at Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, signaling she wanted him to soften his impeachment language and focus more on the legislative agenda, according to Democrats and other senior officials.

Pelosi declined to discuss private conversations .

Both pro- and anti-impeachment lawmakers say recent court rulings upholding Democratic subpoenas have helped solidify Pelosi’s argument that her strategy is working. And the fact that members are torn about what is right means many are content with deferring to their leader.

But Pelosi’s aptly timed announcements have also played a major role in easing tensions. When the clamor for impeachment grows louder following some explosive news about Trump defying Congress, Pelosi has made a point to echo the frustration of a pro-impeachment base by accusing Trump of a “cover up” or saying he should be “in prison.” Those remarks, her allies say, shield her as she pumps the breaks on impeachment.

Pelosi has also made a conscious effort to “let the air out of the balloon before it pops,” according to one aide. Last week, she greenlighted a civil contempt vote on the House floor to give frustrated members an outlet to vent.

On Thursday, after Trump told ABC News that he would be willing to take opposition research from a foreign country in the future, Pelosi was likewise ready with a response: Weeks earlier, she had instructed her committees to prepare legislation forcing all candidates to report such contacts to the FBI. She discussed the legislation at a news conference, batting down reporters’ questions about impeachment yet again.

Part of Pelosi’s effectiveness has been planning ahead. In late May, after Robert S. Mueller III said he did not exonerate the president and set off another impeachment firestorm, Pelosi asked her senior leadership to come to a Monday meeting prepared with counterarguments on impeachment, according to Democrats and other senior officials.

During the huddle June 3, Pelosi went around the room to ask her top allies what they thought of impeachment; all agreed with her. Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) even suggested the brave thing for members to do would be to resist the base’s call for impeachment.

Outflanked, the impeachment proponents did not push back.

A different speaker

Pelosi’s grip on her caucus stands in stark contrast to her Republican predecessors. Former speakers Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) frequently faced fierce public resistance from their rank-and-file and grass-roots opposition that hindered their effectiveness.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus not only broke with Ryan but regularly circumvented his leadership and appealed to Trump to get what they wanted, undercutting his leadership. Before Ryan, Boehner faced the same conservative critics who threatened to oust him over his pragmatism, eventually forcing him to resign.

While conservatives were suspicious of Boehner and Ryan, the Democratic base views Pelosi as one of their own — loyalty Republicans actually inspired by attacking her as a liberal boogeyman during campaigns, said former Boehner chief of staff Mike Sommers.

“I believe that she’s about the only person that can manage their caucus right now,” he said. “She has a base of support that is unmatched within the Democratic caucus.”

Pelosi tightened her grip on the caucus by quashing a group of rebels who tried to prevent her from becoming speaker for the second time in more than a decade and emerging stronger after a showdown with Trump in January over government funding.

Pelosi’s move to punish her adversaries, as she did on the committee assignments, wasn’t the first time she’d used hard-line tactics. In 2006, Pelosi refused to name Harman as chairwoman of the House Intelligence Committee. The two had been at odds for decades, and when Democrats took the majority, Pelosi appointed Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), citing term-limit rules she could have overridden. In 2002, Pelosi backed a primary challenger to Dingell, who survived. One of her allies, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), then seized a committee chairmanship that Dingell wanted — with Pelosi’s tacit approval.

“You can always disagree with her — no problem. But you don’t take those outside to a news conference,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who worked alongside Pelosi for years. “I wouldn’t say they have a fear of her, but I think members who may want to oppose her think long and hard about it.”

Nowadays, few House Democrats criticize Pelosi by name, even on the emotional question of impeachment. If they do contradict her publicly, many give her a heads up, as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) did before he announced his support for impeachment on Thursday, according to Democrats and other senior officials.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a vocal impeachment backer, said she is not organizing an effort to change minds on impeachment and defers to Pelosi’s leadership.

“I don’t criticize her. I don’t blame her,” Waters said of Pelosi’s impeachment position. “She’s got the responsibility of doing the best job that she thinks she can do for this caucus.”

Cicilline bristled at the notion that the speaker was upset with him or his pro-impeachment colleagues. Asked why he didn’t rally votes for impeachment, he said the issue is too personal to try to twist arms on the matter.

Still, he argued it’s only a matter of time before the number of pro-impeachment lawmakers grows: “In those instances where the president acts in a way where he believes that he’s above the law . . . additional members of the caucus will be forced into no other choice but to open an impeachment inquiry and respond.”

rachael.bade@washpost.com

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