House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said multiple times over the last two years that it was premature to talk about impeaching President Trump. In an interview published Monday by the Washington Post, however, she added five words that put an exclamation point on her view: “He’s just not worth it.”
Her comment exploded like a bomb on both sides of the partisan divide, drawing an overreaction from Republicans and Democrats alike. It would behoove everyone to take a deep breath and consider the full measure of Pelosi’s remarks, which were both sensible and, apparently, necessary.
Lawmakers should approach the question of impeachment cautiously and wait to see what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reports about issues surrounding possible Russian collusion with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Such caution is appropriate because impeachment is a traumatic process that almost by definition damages public confidence in democratic institutions. A lengthy proceeding that weakened or humiliated Trump but didn’t result in his removal would certainly deepen the nation’s bitter divisions — and, frankly, even if the House impeached Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to convict him.
Some members of Congress have discussed Trump’s removal so blithely, it’s as if they don’t sense the gravity of such a move. Pelosi, by contrast, clearly does.
“I’m not for impeachment,” she told the Post. “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. And he’s just not worth it.”
It’s hard to fault that position. The impeachment process seeks to overturn a decision made by tens of millions of voters, so if it’s seen as a partisan act, it can shake the public’s faith in the system and generate enormous rancor against the party bringing the charges. Witness how the Republicans’ impeachment of Clinton backfired against the party in the 1998 midterm elections.
But that doesn’t mean impeachment should be off the table either.
Some observers suggested that Pelosi was ruling out impeachment regardless of what’s found by Mueller, other federal prosecutors or a raft of investigations launched by House Democrats. If so, they’re ignoring what she actually said.
Besides, if she was trying to silence the impeachment chatter in her caucus, it didn’t work. Several of Pelosi’s colleagues insisted that they were going to press ahead with efforts to remove Trump; one example is first-year Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who said she’s still planning to introduce impeachment legislation in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, some Republicans put their own spin on Pelosi’s remarks, saying they vindicated Trump. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for example, said on Fox News, “I’m glad that she sees what the rest of us see, that there’s no reason, there’s no cause for impeachment. The president’s done an incredible job in his first two years in office.”
Just guessing here, but that’s probably not the message Pelosi thought she was delivering.
Other Republicans speculated that Pelosi was trying to get out ahead of a Mueller report that will come up empty on collusion — a “nothingburger,” in their parlance. It’s unlikely but possible that Pelosi has some advance knowledge about what Mueller, who is reportedly wrapping up his work, has found, but we’ve already seen him obtain indictments against or guilty pleas from 34 people and three companies connected to Russia or the Trump campaign. The only missing link is a direct tie between Russia and Trump himself.
Lawmakers will have the actual findings of the Mueller report in due time, followed eventually by the results of (long overdue) oversight work by House committees. They’ll also be able to judge how Trump responds to these inquiries, and whether he tries to use the powers of his office to impede them. Then they can weigh the division and antipathy of an impeachment proceeding against their obligations to the office they hold, and decide whether Trump is worth it.