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When the House of Representatives impeached President Trump Wednesday night, a smattering of Democrats clapped, drawing a reproach from Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she announced the tally.
Pelosi shot a warning look at her side of the chamber and held up a small index card from which she was reading the vote total. It was a reminder to her party to treat impeachment as a solemn task and not a partisan victory.
Democrats took care, over and over Wednesday, to emphasize that the impeachment of President Trump was not a cause for celebration.
“It is a sad day. It’s not a day of joy,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who described himself as having a “heavy heart.”
“I never ran for Congress wanting or expecting to impeach anybody, let alone the president of the United States. However, given the facts, here we are,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that “Democrats did not choose this impeachment.”
“We did not wish for it. We voted against it once, we voted against it twice, we voted against it three times as recently as July. We did not want this,” Hoyer said in a lengthy speech moments before the vote. “However President Trump’s misconduct has forced our constitutional republic to protect itself.”
Pelosi set that tone from the moment she announced the launch of the impeachment inquiry in September. That week, she said she was “very prayerful about this.”
“This is a heavy decision to go down this path,” Pelosi said, adding, “I pray for the president all the time.”
That comment in particular, which Pelosi has repeated several times, appears to have infuriated the president more than almost anything else.
“You know this statement is not true,” Trump railed in a six-page letter to Pelosi on Tuesday, “unless it is meant in a negative sense.”
Trump also took umbrage at what he called a “false display of solemnity” by Democrats. “This is not a somber affair,” Trump said.
And on Wednesday, Republicans were eager to paint the Democrats’ sorrow as insincere. The Republican National Committee sent around a short video clip of one Democrat chuckling on the House floor during the six-hour debate as evidence that the Democrats were giddy about impeachment.
And after the handful of Democrats cheered Trump’s impeachment, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., immediately tweeted, “Disgusting. Democrats just started cheering and applauding after the first vote on impeachment. Didn’t they claim this was supposed to be a sad and somber moment?”
Of course, the impeachment vote in the House has been a high-stakes political process all along. And Democratic leaders instructed members, “Don’t cheer, keep it solemn,” as a matter not just of decorum but of tactics,
One leadership aide said as much: “The strategy is to win. Our tactic is the right one on that front and has been effective,” the Democratic aide said.
Another outside adviser to the Democratic Party noted that their approach was shaped in part by Republicans. “The Republican strategy was to turn it into a circus and Democrats really fought back against that,” the adviser said.
Indeed, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, in particular, were outraged that the impeachment hearings focused on lengthy question-and-answer sessions run by committee staff. They would have preferred a fragmented and chaotic format shaped by a succession of five-minute speeches by lawmakers.
And even within those constraints, Pelosi wanted to limit the potential for her own members to lose their tempers and get drawn into shouting matches with Republicans looking for a viral moment. For the most part, she succeeded in getting them to follow her lead.
Republicans were looking for more moments like the one when freshman Rep. Rashida Talib, D-Mich., said in January that Democrats were going to “impeach the motherf*****.” Republicans mentioned that comment repeatedly on the House floor Wednesday, using it to argue that Democrats are “so blinded by your hate that you can’t see straight,” as Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., said.
The endpoint of the impeachment process has been in sight all along. There was widespread agreement the Democratic House would impeach Trump, and that the Republican-controlled Senate will not remove him from office.
And so Pelosi’s approach, as it’s been described by multiple sources, has always been conducted with that in mind. As she is fond of saying, quoting Lincoln, “public sentiment is everything.”
Pelosi knew that the impression on voters in key swing states such as Michigan — where Trump rallied Wednesday night while he was impeached — was as important as the outcome. She believed the president’s actions merited impeachment, but she was under no illusions about the outcome.
So a serious, understated approach was imperative for Pelosi.
Strategy is not incompatible with sincerity, of course. But some Democratic lawmakers were offended by the suggestion that political considerations entered into the calculus at all.
“It’s not a strategy. It’s the right thing to do. This is a sad, solemn day. I would ardently criticize any Democrat who said otherwise,” said Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., a freshman lawmaker and an Army combat veteran.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., however, admitted that “there is obviously a downside to having values.”
“The downside is that people without values or without scruples can gain a momentary advantage,” he said in an interview. “But there is a far greater downside to being without morality.”
“We can win and keep our values at the same time,” he said.
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., told Yahoo News that “a strong case could be made politically that this [approach] advantages Trump in many respects.”
“But that no longer becomes part of the calculus once you find yourself in this situation. You’re either going to do the right thing or you’re not,” he said.
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