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Can Quarterback Pelosi Bring the Democratic Team an Impeachment Victory?

The Speaker of the House has helped build an impressive roster of players. The questions that liberals and Democrats—indeed, most Americans—are now asking is whether she can bring the team into the end zone.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, announces a formal impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump on September 24, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, announces a formal impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump on September 24, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The resistance movement against Trump—which began with the massive women’s marches around the country the week that the new president took office in January 2017 and led to the huge "blue wave" mid-term election last November that gave Democrats a large majority in the House—finally pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday to call for impeachment hearings against the most corrupt president in U.S. history.

What comes next? This will be the biggest test of Pelosi's leadership. The impeachment proceedings will provide lots of opportunities for televised drama. But the facts of Trump's corruption won't just speak for themselves.  As he has repeatedly done, Trump will seek to muddy the waters by claiming that the inquiry is a "witch hunt" and will enlist the help of his fanatic supporters, including Fox News, to defame his accusers, as he did to Hillary Clinton and as he's now trying to do with Joe Biden and other Democratic rivals. 

No doubt Trump's friends have already started doing an intensive investigation to try to discredit the intelligence agency whistleblower who leaked information about the president's efforts to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on behalf of his re-election campaign. 

Trump will continue to stonewall any efforts by Congress to obtain records of meetings, phone calls, and emails that could put the president in a bad light.  He’ll offer to release a redacted version of the whistleblower’s report on Trump’s Ukrainian hijinks, but refuse to release the entire version, as he’s done before with regard to his tax returns and other key documents.

It is up to Pelosi to orchestrate the hearings so that the American public understands that Trump’s misdeeds and lawlessness not only feathered his own nest but also put the country’s national security and democracy at risk. 

Democrats, and perhaps a handful of rogue Republicans, should bluntly call for Trump to resign and spare the country the agony and expense of an impeachment trial.  He won't, but it will help frame the debate going forward. Nor will the Republican-controlled Senate convict him after the House votes for impeachment.   

In other words, Trump will be the Republican candidate for president next year. 

For the Democrats, therefore, the goal of the impeachment proceedings is education, not conviction.  

As the evidence of his transgressions piles up, Trump and some key Republicans in both the House and Senate who stick by him, will be weakened, and vulnerable to defeat.  The objective is to help persuade American voters—especially in swing states and Congressional districts—that Trump and his Republican enablers are not morally fit to govern the country.

While the impeachment proceedings are going on, Pelosi and the Democrats should continue to pass legislation that is popular with the vast majority of the American people—such as raising the minimum wage, reducing tax cuts for the super-rich, strengthening environmental regulations, expanding health insurance coverage—that will remind voters that Democrats that have a positive agenda for reform.

Trump is already under investigation by six House committees for a variety of impeachable offenses, including his collusion with Russia, his use of his office to enrich himself and his family, his refusal to provide Congress with his tax returns despite a legal requirement that he do so, his efforts to obstruct the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and others. 

For months, House Progressives (led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a former community organizer), and the growing base of Democratic Party and anti-Trump resistance activists (such as the grassroots group Indivisible), have been pushing Pelosi to launch impeachment proceedings, but were getting nowhere.  Although Trump's favorability ratings have remained low, public opinion polls showed no surge of support for impeachment. 

No single example of Trump’s malfeasance—not even his complicity with Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election—garnered majority public support for impeachment. But the gradual accumulation of evidence of the president's lawlessness, as well as his racism, his bromances with dictators, and his pathological lying, led to growing impatience with and opposition to the chaos he's created. 

More and more House Democrats—including several chairs of key committees—began expressing a desire to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump. But despite the presence of many smoking guns, Pelosi was reluctant to pull the trigger on impeachment. She consistently claimed that it wasn't worth the fight, since the Republican-controlled Senate under Mitch McConnell, would never vote to convict Trump.

The real reason for her hesitancy was her understandable desire to protect the many Democrats elected from swing districts—especially as part of last November's blue wave—whom she feared would be in jeopardy when they run for re-election next year if they were forced to vote on removing Trump from office. Many of those Democrats held back from calling for impeachment, despite growing pressure from constituents, many of whom were part of the upsurge of activism that fueled the protest movement against Trump and helped put these first-time Congress members in office. 

But this week, the dam broke. The tipping point was the revelation that Trump had sought to rig the 2020 election by pressuring Ukrainian officials to undertake a sham investigation of Joe Biden, using the stick of withholding $391 million in U.S. military aid to the country. Stupidly, Trump henchman Rudy Giuliani inflamed the controversy by admitting to CNN's Chris Cuomo that, on Trump's behalf, he had urged Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.  Then Trump confirmed that he had talked to the Ukrainian president, and tied U.S. military aid to his demand that Ukraine begin a bogus probe meant to discredit Biden, whom Trump considers his biggest rival for the White House. This blatant abuse of power is precisely the kind of corruption that impeachment was created to stop.

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Reps. Dean Phillips and Angie Craig, both freshmen from Minnesota, were the first swing-district Democrats to express support for impeachment hearings. Then, on Monday night,   seven more freshman Democrats from swing districts—Gil Cisneros of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia—published an op-ed column in the Washington Post calling for an impeachment inquiry. They described themselves as "veterans of the military and of the nation’s defense and intelligence agencies," adding credibility to their support for an impeachment investigation.  

Slotkin, who held key positions in the Department of Defense under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, won a very narrow victory last November in Michigan's 8th congressional district, which had been represented by Republicans since 2001.  She beat the incumbent, Republican Mike Bishop, by just 13,000 of the 340,000 votes cast. (Trump won that district by more than 25,000 votes in 2016).  Her victory was buoyed by an upsurge of new activists angered by Bishop's support for Trump, voting with the president 98% of the time. As late as last Sunday, at a fundraiser in Ann Arbor, Slotkin refused to express support for impeachment despite getting an earful from attendees urging to do so. By the next day, however, she had changed her stance, co-signing the Washington Post column.  Immediately, the Republican National Congressional Committee issued a statement squawking that Slotkin had sided with “rabid" Democrats, hoping to lay the groundwork for defeating her next year. 

Once Democrats like Slotkin jumped aboard the impeachment train, veteran members in Pelosi's inner circle who had held back in deference to the Speaker's wishes—including Rose DeLauro and John Larson of Connecticut and Debbie Dingel of Michigan—announced their support for impeachment proceedings. 

Although Trump has called the latest move by the Democrats a "witch hunt," he brought this upon himself.  He has repeatedly said—no doubt against the wishes of his lawyers and advisors—that he would willingly accept help from foreign governments to bolster his election campaigns. In a June interview in the Oval Office with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, he said he might not alert the FBI if foreign governments offered damaging information against his 2020 rivals in the upcoming presidential race.

"I think you might want to listen, there isn't anything wrong with listening," Trump told Stephanopoulos. "If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent'—oh, I think I'd want to hear it."

After Mueller—in his 448-page report and his testimony before Congress in July—failed to conclude that the president had committed a crime worthy of impeachment, despite evidence to the contrary, Trump believed he was off the hook.  In fact, his July 25 call to Zelensky took place soon after Mueller's testimony.

The Democrats may be tempted to abandon, or at least downplay, their investigations into the long list of Trump’'s practices in favor of putting most of their eggs in the Ukrainian basket. It is clearly easier for most Americans to understand the mendacity of Trump's admitted attempt to rig the upcoming elections with help from a foreign power. But the impeachment inquiry should provide the public with the full menu of Trump's corruptions, to reveal that the Ukrainian incident is simply the latest episode in the ugly reality show called the Trump presidency. 

The Democrats should review the Watergate hearings.  The Senate Democrats built their case slowly, starting with the least prominent and influential witnesses, and then, when the evidence of Nixon's crimes and his inner circle's complicit was obvious to most Americans,  calling those closest to Nixon, expecting that they would turn against him. The testimony of Nixon's White House Counsel John Dean, saying that there was a "cancer on the presidency," was the knock-out punch. 

In the latest Ukrainian scandal, Trump was not acting alone. In May, after Giuliani had met several times with Ukrainian officials, Trump recalled U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer.  This couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump's withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine as leverage to get the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens couldn't have occurred without the complicity of Trump budget director and acting chief-of-staff Mick Mulvaney.   We don't know if Pompeo, Mulvaney, or other members of Trump's inner circle will turn on him—as his lawyer Michael Cohen did when his own freedom was at stake—but the hearings can at least demonstrate that Trump's administration is littered with see-no-evil sycophants and enablers.

We cannot expect the current crop of Republican politicians to do what their counterparts did in 1974, when—in the wake of the Watergate hearings—key GOP leaders told President Richard Nixon that his gig was up and that he had to resign from office or he'd be impeached.  

A growing number of Republican incumbents have announced that they won't seek re-election next year. Some no doubt decided to quit in disgust over Trump and their own unwillingness to criticize him and/or their fear of being defeated by a primary challenger or a Democrat, as happened to many of their GOP colleagues last November.   

Over the next few months, we can hope, but not expect, that some Republicans in the House and Senate will join the growing public chorus for impeachment.  But be on the lookout for Republicans who seek to distance themselves from Trump without calling for impeachment. It would be relatively easy for several Senate Republicans who face tough re-election battles next year—Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and perhaps even John Cornyn in Texas—to try to narrow the debate by making obligatory statements criticizing Trump's interactions with the Ukrainian president without expressing support for impeachment based on the litany of his other illegal offenses.  Democrats running for those battleground Senate seats will be able to use the GOP incumbents' unwillingness to embrace impeachment as a sign of their lack of courage and independence, and their complicity with Trump’s crimes.

The Democrats will garner the most success if they consolidate the investigations and hearings against Trump under one committee.  Some committee chairs may complain that Pelosi is stepping on their legislative authority, but the public only has so big an appetite for keeping track of politicians, witnesses, and complex issues. No House chair is better prepared to lead the inquiry that Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a former U.S. attorney with a remarkable ability to remain composed while dissecting witnesses. Hiring the right lawyer to help the politicians question the witnesses will also be a key decision.

The media have an important role to play to make sure that Trump and his allies don't hijack the impeachment hearings. The media do not need to report on every Trump twitter rant, false accusation against the Democrats, and attacks on witnesses, which the president will undertake to deflect attention away from his own crimes and misdemeanors. Nor should the media fall into the false equivalence trap of permitting Trump to claim that what he did is no better or worse than what Democrats have done. The media should learn the lesson from its mistaken effort during the 2016 election to balance Trump’s long history of corruption with Hillary Clinton’s use of personal emails while conducting State Department business.  

The media need to broadcast all the hearings, as the three major TV networks did during the investigation of Richard Nixon's Watergate cover-up.  If the Democrats strategically interrogate witnesses with the same finesse and drama that occurred during the Watergate hearings, they will make for riveting television.  

Pelosi has had a long and successful career as a political activist and politician, as well as being a pathbreaker as the first female Speaker in the nation's history. But nothing that she has ever done before matches the challenge she now faces as the quarterback of the Democrats’ impeachment team.  She has helped build an impressive roster of players. The questions that liberals and Democrats—indeed, most Americans—are now asking is whether she can bring the team into the end zone and help Democrats win the White House and Senate, and keep their majority in the House.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). His next book, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism – American Style,  co-edited with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin, will be published by The New Press in January.  He is currently writing Rebels of the Diamond: The Baseball Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game On and Off the Field, which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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