Nancy Pelosi lost the impeachment standoff

Matthew Walther

After nearly a month of dithering, Nancy Pelosi is finally accepting defeat in her standoff with Mitch McConnell over impeachment. Despite insisting as recently as Thursday that she would wait to transmit the articles of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate until she was confident that the trial in the upper chamber would proceed on terms favorable to her party, she quietly backed down on Friday morning. Her letter to Democratic colleagues in the House announced that the articles would be sent next week even though McConnell has made it clear that none of her demands — testimony from additional witnesses, for example — would be honored or even considered.

Is anyone actually surprised by this outcome? How likely was it that Pelosi was ever going to change McConnell's mind? All of the leverage has been on his side from the beginning. He would be the one to decide how the trial would proceed, when it would begin, and how long it would last. Having to surrender the fate of judicial proceedings to the opposing party was how this was always fated to end.

Was a delay actually in her party's interest? It could be argued that she hoped to persuade a handful of Republican senators to insist upon subpoenas for witnesses and documents. This did not happen, nor was it ever very likely. By the time Pelosi acknowledged that McConnell had the upper hand, Senate Democrats had been publicly begging her to surrender for days. "I think the speaker should send the articles regardless," Senator Chris Coons (Del.) said on Tuesday. "I think the time has passed."

It is worth pointing out that Pelosi's letter arrived amid McConnell's decision to sign on to a resolution introduced by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri that would have dismissed the articles of impeachment 25 days after their adoption on the grounds that they had not been transmitted. It is unclear exactly what the constitutional implications of such a move would have been, but one thing that is clear is that it would have added many months of legal wrangling to the impeachment process. Forget about having presidential candidates in Washington when they should be in New Hampshire or South Carolina — a Supreme Court case over the constitutionality of a Senate dismissal of impeachment articles may well have dragged on into the summer, during which time Trump (and many constitutional scholars) could have argued that impeachment had never taken place. Could this possibly have forced her hand? We may never know.

Which brings us back to the mystery that has been at the center of Trump's impeachment since the beginning. Why did Pelosi, a sober-minded, no-nonsense centrist who declared over and over again that impeachment was not worth pursuing, finally change her mind? Why did she wait to do so until last October, at which point it would have been obvious that the process would overlap with this year's caucuses and primaries? Why did she agree to draft and adopt articles of impeachment before she had secured the testimony of all the witnesses she and her members considered relevant? And why, finally, did she seem to have no coherent response prepared for the not exactly remote contingency in which McConnell refused to give her and her Senate colleagues the sort of trial they wanted? To quote an eminent anti-Boomer philosopher: "No thought was put into this."

Though it is difficult to see what motivated Pelosi, especially in her decision to stall the inevitable handover of the process to the Senate, it is hard not to imagine that she had some sort of plan in mind. It just doesn't seem to have been a very good one.

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