Ever since Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation concluded in March, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been walking a fine line on initiating impeachment proceedings against the president.
She says she wants to keep all options open, with an array of congressional investigations, but hold off on the “i” word, as Donald Trump calls it.
A Saturday morning in her home town of San Francisco made clear that her current strategy may be at risk of collapse.
As Ms Pelosi addressed a gathering of the California Democratic Party – an organisation she once chaired – she dove into what is her now familiar critique of the president. She said that he was engaging in a cover-up and that Democrats in Congress would expose his “wrongdoing and corruption”.
Words weren’t enough for some in the audience – an assortment of activists and officeholders from across the solidly liberal state.
As Ms Pelosi continued her speech, a growing chorus of “impeach!” shouts swept across the hall. Some in the crowd waved signs – handmade and pre-printed – urging Democrats in the House of Representatives take that first step in the constitutionally delineated process for removing a duly elected president.
“We will build an ironclad case to act,” Ms Pelosi concluded, after briefly acknowledging the outburst. “President Trump will be held accountable for his actions.”
The convention ruckus made headlines nationally, with reporters using the episode to illustrate the conflicts within the Democratic Party.
The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan wrote of the “dilemma” facing the speaker and her team, who are trying to balance the calls from a “fervently anti-Trump base” with the more moderate voters who delivered a majority of the House to Democrats last year.
Complicating matters for the speaker were the more than a dozen Democratic presidential candidates who also spoke at the convention and affiliated events in San Francisco – and the lessons they may be learning about the political potency of impeachment.
While some shied away from the issue, shortly after Ms Pelosi’s appearance on Saturday California Senator Kamala Harris addressed the crowd – and received her biggest cheers when she called for impeachment.
“We need a new commander-in-chief,” she said, as the audience erupted. “So we have a fight on our hands.”
Later that day, at a get-together organised by MoveOn – a left-wing activist group that was, somewhat ironically, founded in opposition of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 – presidential hopeful Cory Booker received a similarly enthusiastic response when he repeated an impeachment call he first made earlier in the week.
“Let us remember the wisdom of [Martin Luther] King, who said we have to repent in this day and age not just for the vitriolic and violent action of bad people, but for the appalling silence and inaction of good people,” the New Jersey senator said.
What is impeachment?
- Article II of the US Constitution outlines the process for impeaching and removing a president who commits “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”
- The House of Representatives can vote to impeach a president with a simple majority – an act analogous to an indictment in a criminal trial
- The Senate then conducts a trial of the impeached president – a two-third majority of the Senate is required to convict and remove the president from office
- Only two US presidents have been impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned before a vote occurred
Recent polls show that a growing number of Democrats are in favour of starting impeachment proceedings, even while a majority of the public at large is still opposed. Conversations with some of those supporting the move, however, reveal nuance in their views – and a continued reservoir of support for Ms Pelosi, sometimes in spite of her continued impeachment reticence.
“I’m a huge fan of Pelosi, but she needs to stop dragging her feet,” says Alan Hinman, a retiree from Paradise, California, who attended the MoveOn candidate forum.
For him, impeachment was a question of right and wrong, even if Democrats pay a short-term political price. “I don’t care about the politics,” he adds.
Ted Smith, an environmental activist from San Jose, was one of the convention attendees carrying a hand-written impeachment sign. He also had kind words for the speaker – followed by a warning.
“She’s a pretty smart person, and she’s been handling Trump quite well, but I do think at some point people are going to look back on this and ask when people stood up for doing the right thing,” he says. “I think people who waited too long are going to be not looked on very kindly.”
He adds that he thinks impeachment will help Democrats win elections because televised congressional hearings will illustrate the damning conclusions of the Mueller report.
Who will take on Trump in 2020?
“People don’t read the book, they’ve got to see the movie,” he notes.
Smith supports Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was the first major Democratic presidential candidate to call for impeachment and, perhaps not unrelatedly, has seen a subsequent rise in opinion polls and vocal support in the San Francisco convention hall.
Since Ms Pelosi’s San Francisco speech, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, has said he thinks a formal impeachment will be the end result of the current congressional investigations.
On Tuesday a coalition of 30 progressive groups sent a letter to Ms Pelosi expressing “deep disappointment and concern” about her reluctance to begin impeachment.
“Voters gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives because they wanted aggressive oversight of the Trump administration,” they wrote. “Yet your leadership is resulting in dangerous inaction that enables this racist and xenophobic president.”
Back in Washington on Wednesday morning, Ms Pelosi continued to stand by her open-ended approach to presidential investigations and the “path” she has chosen, saying most Americans may not know that impeachment doesn’t automatically remove the president.
It is the equivalent of an “indictment” that results in a trial by the Republican-controlled Senate. In previous interviews she has said that, barring irrefutable evidence, a Senate acquittal is likely and would be heralded by the president as complete vindication.
According to Politico, Ms Pelosi reportedly told Democratic congressmen eager to begin the impeachment process that she wants to see the Mr Trump “in prison”, rather than impeached – arguing that the best way to hold the president accountable is to prosecute him after he loses re-election in 2020, rather than engage in a futile removal effort.
More on the Democratic 2020 race
Ethan Willard of Berkeley likes the speaker’s strategy, calling it a “middle path”. He recommends keeping the investigative pressure on the president right up until the 2020 election, without ever letting the Republican Senate have its say.
“We keep bringing in an endless battering of Trump with all this bad news,” he says.
For the moment, Ms Pelosi appears to be keeping most members of her House Democratic caucus in line. While there have been a few advocates – a CBS News estimate puts the number at 57 out of the 235 Democrats in the chamber (plus one Republican) – most Democrats have opted to back the speaker or remain silent, rather than risk her ire.
“It is known that if you do that you are defying the speaker and she will remember that when you need something down the line,” an anonymous senior House aide told the Daily Beast website. “She has the longest memory of anybody.”
The speaker isn’t without her opponents, of course.
In the hallways of the California Democratic Convention last weekend, Tom Gallagher – a public school substitute teacher – was promoting his campaign to unseat Ms Pelosi in the 2020 congressional elections. He says the 32-year veteran of Congress is out of step with San Francisco voters on issues like healthcare, military spending and the Green New Deal.
As for impeachment? He says it’s not something he hears much about when he talks to district voters.
“I don’t mean to say they don’t care,” he says, “but it’s not the first thing.”
If a man who wants to beat Ms Pelosi at the polls doesn’t sense political opportunity, the speaker may still have some room to manoeuvre.
If the impeachment calls reach beyond activist gatherings and strongly worded letters from progressive groups, however, all bets are off.