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Why Nancy Pelosi Is So Reluctant to Say the “I” Word

As a congressional game of cat and mouse continues between House Democrats and Attorney General William Barr, the speaker responds to calls for impeachment from within her party

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Nancy Pelosi agonizes over hundreds of reelection campaigns, but least of all her own.

The House speaker conveys her concerns about preserving the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, for whatever benefit it brings to the party, whenever she discusses presidential impeachment, the Beltway topic du jour. Pelosi discounts the support for impeachment among Democratic activists. She has, reportedly, said she wants to see President Donald Trump “in prison,” but she has warned against aggravating Trump’s base. Since reclaiming her role as speaker after last November’s midterm elections, Pelosi has trivialized the prospect of impeaching Trump as a waste of time. She fears the process will fail to meet the required consensus in the Republican-held Senate and, worse yet, backfire in the months before the 2020 presidential election. Best to beat Trump fair and square at the ballot box.

It’s a persuasive argument until one considers what Congress is and (largely) isn’t doing otherwise. There’s no productive legislative agenda, no bipartisan infrastructure bill for everyone to rally around. There’s no Pelosi agenda without Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s cooperation, which is unlikely. So there’s only impeachment and all of the incremental “oversight” which Pelosi’s committee leaders will administer in the meantime. Impeachment may fail to convict Trump in the Senate, but the investigations may achieve even less.

In the three months since special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his conclusions to Attorney General William Barr, Trump has shifted his vilification from Mueller to Pelosi, despite Pelosi’s apprehensive approach to impeachment. Instead, Pelosi places strange faith in the U.S. Department of Justice, which has, under Barr, become Trump’s stronghold, as former FBI director James Comey warned it would become two years ago. Barr is an establishmentarian Republican attorney whom other Republicans endorsed as Jeff Sessions’s replacement as confidently as they once endorsed Mueller. He has provided Trump with loyalty without honesty at last.

On Tuesday, the House passed a resolution placing Barr in “civil contempt” of Congress, empowering the relevant committees to enforce subpoenas against Barr through court action.

Barr refused to testify about Mueller’s investigation before the House Judiciary Committee a month ago. He has spent the past few weeks resisting the committee chairman Jerry Nadler’s requests for additional documentation from the special counsel’s probe. On Monday, Nadler and Barr struck an agreement, agreeing to release “Mueller’s most important files,” in Nadler’s words, to Nadler’s committee. Still, the House proceeded with the vote to hold Barr in contempt on Tuesday, though Nadler says he will refrain from taking Barr to court, for now, so long as Barr keeps his end of a shaky deal.

The Republicans are unified in their defense of Trump. Three years after the initial party rebellion against Trump before his election, the party’s long acquiescence is complete. Meanwhile, the Democrats are unified in their opposition but divided in their strategic outlook. On Tuesday morning, Pelosi once again stressed that House Democrats are “not even close” to supporting impeachment in sufficient numbers. Worse yet, congressional Republicans in both chambers oppose impeachment nearly unanimously. The lone GOP advocate for impeachment, Michigan Representative Justin Amash, has resigned from the powerful House Freedom Caucus—a right-wing coalition that Amash cofounded four years ago—and has generally been alienated by congressional Republicans for citing Mueller’s report, among other evidence, as grounds for removing Trump from office.

Pelosi’s own oversight goals crashed up against the same Trumpian resistance that, in her assessment, make pursuing impeachment a waste of time. In May, Barr simply refused to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. Pelosi might allow the House committees to conduct their respective investigations in hopes that the post-Mueller probes of Trump’s finances, his 2016 campaign, and his presidential conduct will turn up new evidence to rally Democrats around impeachment while turning some Republicans against the president. Pelosi’s belief in bipartisan transcendence has proven no more or less realistic than Nadler and Amash’s belief in impeachment.

Pelosi’s choices are suboptimal, but they are choices nonetheless. She can waste her majority, demoralize her party, and pander to her opposition for reasons that remain unclear, while further demonstrating the cynicism which has, under Trump, overwhelmed the rule of law. Alternatively, Pelosi can empower her majority to pursue Mueller’s findings to substantial conclusions. If Pelosi really does believe Trump has overseen a criminal conspiracy against the national interest, there’s a constitutional provision written to address the emergency which the Speaker describes. It’s under Article I, and, sure enough, the clause begins, “The House of Representatives shall … ”