The Democrats' impeachment limbo is their own fault

Matthew Walther

When Donald Trump told an audience in Battle Creek, Michigan, back in December that "it doesn't feel like I'm being impeached," he was accused of being flippant about what had taken place only an hour or so earlier on the floor of the House of Representatives. But I wonder how he wrong he was. It is already difficult to recall the atmosphere of breathless importance that surrounded this past fall's impeachment-related proceedings. When they finally concluded on December 19, the consensus that prevailed among members of both parties was that perhaps the most significant political event of the decade was less important than drinking eggnog and everyone went home for their long holiday break.

Now what? As of Monday, the two articles of impeachment had still not been formally transmitted from the House to the Senate. For this reason, some (including law professor Noah Feldman, who testified before the House last month) have argued that Trump has not been technically impeached. Nancy Pelosi says that she is waiting to pass along the articles because she wants to ensure that the the Senate trial proceeds on favorable terms — specifically, the ability to call witnesses who can present additional evidence of Trump's wrongdoing.

This is not likely to happen on Mitch McConnell's watch. As the Senate Majority Leader said on Friday, if Democrats wanted more and wider-ranging testimony, they should have done a better job in the House, where they controlled the process. This in turn has prompted Pelosi to accuse McConnell of taking part in a "cover-up" of crimes for which she and her party insisted last month that they had unambiguous proof.

Both leaders are engaged in the usual partisan brinksmanship here, but it is genuinely worth asking why, if Pelosi did not think that the case for impeachment had been made successfully, she allowed a successful vote to take place. If she thought it was worth attempting to call additional witnesses or considering additional articles of impeachment related to matters beyond the Ukrainian affair, why didn't she wait?

The answer, of course, is that she did wait. For years members of her party flirted with the idea of impeaching Trump for everything from obstructing his own authority over federal law enforcement during the special counsel investigation to his tweets about pro football, and all the while Pelosi counseled forbearance. It is still difficult to say why she changed her mind. The idea that it was because the whistleblower complaint about Trump's phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky was a cut-and-dry case of executive malfeasance is belied by her current insistence upon securing more witnesses for a Senate trial. She and her colleagues do not think the case for impeachment was made effectively even after having voted for it; this makes it unlikely that she was persuaded back in October.

Instead, the simplest explanation is that her hand was forced. The mood among her caucus, and among a vocal and influential (though not necessarily sizable) portion of her party's base insisted that impeaching Trump should be her number-one priority. Rather than lose face or influence — and perhaps invite a challenge to her speakership — she relented and began proceedings in which she had little confidence.

Which brings us to the present stalemate. How much longer can the process remain suspended? On Monday afternoon, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a freshman Republican, introduced a resolution calling for the articles of impeachment to be dismissed on the grounds that Democrats themselves had chosen not to prosecute. While this course of action seems somewhat unlikely, it is not out of the question. Meanwhile, McConnell himself does not seem to have made up his mind about how a Senate trial should proceed. It could be a months-long grand-standing affair in which witnesses are called to testify against Joe and Hunter Biden about the latter's activities in Ukraine, a performative attempt at exoneration that would have the added benefit of removing several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates from the campaign trail during the early primary season. It could also be a short, cursory acquittal. (It would be interesting to know whether his team, the White House, or both have communicated directly with John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, who announced on Monday that he would be willing to testify before the Senate.)

Either way, the most salient fact about this process is that it is out of Pelosi's hands. This was always going to be the case eventually. The question is how much longer the process can remain suspended without its becoming even less popular than it already is. Impeachment of an elected president in his term is was already unprecedented. What about a trial that drags on through the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary and beyond? At what point is it worth giving up entirely? Do certain abstract principles require them to continue even if it becomes an undeniable electoral liability, as it already appears to be in many battleground states?

These are all things that should have been considered long before a formal impeachment inquiry began. Democrats have only themselves to blame for the present state of limbo.

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