Pelosi’s Leap on Impeachment: From No Go to No Choice
WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi was planning to deliver back-to-back eulogies at funerals here and in South Carolina during a busy weekend of late September travel when she saw an explosive headline in The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Repeatedly Pressed Ukraine to Investigate Biden’s Son.”
For months, Ms. Pelosi had resisted calls for impeachment. It would be nearly another week before the release of a whistle-blower’s complaint detailing Mr. Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son — and days before nervous moderates told her they were ready to back an impeachment inquiry they had shunned all year.
But the news of Mr. Trump’s repeated entreaties for Ukraine to investigate a leading political rival was too much for Ms. Pelosi. The speaker’s mind was made up to embark on proceedings that could lead to the impeachment and removal of the 45th president of the United States.
Now, Ms. Pelosi has taken a substantial leap forward in an evolution that began when she assumed the speakership in January and reached a critical turning point on that Saturday in September. On Thursday, she announced she had directed her lieutenants to draft articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump.
The decision, delivered in a somber tone punctuated by unusual flashes of emotion — “Don’t mess with me,” she told a reporter who asked if she hates the president — demonstrated how thoroughly Ms. Pelosi had transformed from impeachment skeptic to impeachment warrior.
Just nine months ago, Ms. Pelosi declared flatly in an interview with The Washington Post Magazine that she was “not for impeachment” because it would be “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.”
“He’s just not worth it,” Ms. Pelosi added with a disdainful flourish.
Congressional Republicans have repeatedly thrown that comment back at Ms. Pelosi. On Thursday they said they thought she caved to the impeachment demands of the progressive left.
“I think she has lost control,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “In March, she said it wasn’t going to be successful unless it was bipartisan, and she totally abandoned that.”
But at her weekly news conference on Thursday, Ms. Pelosi told reporters the president had given Democrats no choice: “He is the one who is dividing the country on this. We are honoring the Constitution of the United States.”
As the speaker turned to leave the lectern, James Rosen, a correspondent for the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, shouted out to ask if she hated Mr. Trump. Ms. Pelosi spun around to address him, her finger wagging, her voice quivering.
“As a Catholic, I resent your using the word hate in a sentence that addresses me,” she said sharply. “I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is a heart full of love and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time. So don’t mess with me when it comes to words like that.”
People close to the speaker say that she has said privately what she often says publicly: She has never been eager to impeach the president. She worried that vulnerable moderates would lose their seats, that it would tear the country apart. And it was a distraction from the poll-tested agenda Democrats had campaigned on: lowering the cost of prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, fighting corruption and gun violence.
“She came to where we are today with real reluctance — that was genuine,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and a close Pelosi ally. “It was fear of the division of the country and fear of re-litigating the last election.”
How Ms. Pelosi got to “where we are today” is in part the story of her sense of timing, her methodical approach to decision making and her ability to read the sensibilities and political needs of her fractious and often unruly caucus. As Washington’s most powerful Democrat, she is the only lawmaker in the Capitol who can, and routinely does, go toe to toe with the president.
On Thursday, after the speaker called Mr. Trump “a coward” during her fiery exchange with Mr. Rosen, the president fired back on Twitter, accusing Ms. Pelosi of having “a nervous fit.”
Earlier, Ms. Pelosi struck a somber tone as she announced that the House would move forward with impeachment articles. Her brief speech, delivered from a teleprompter against the backdrop of a row of six American flags in a corridor outside her office suite in the Capitol, was the speaker’s equivalent of a presidential address from the Oval Office. She chose the same spot, and the same format, when she announced the opening of the House inquiry in September, days after she saw the headline that persuaded her to move forward.
“She’s fond of quoting Thomas Paine, ‘The times have found us,’” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “But they have found no one more than her. She really was made for this hour, but I think she also recognized when that hour was right for the country to go down this road to impeachment.”
Ms. Pelosi has kept a tight rein on the impeachment process. On the night before the Intelligence Committee convened its first public impeachment hearing last month, the speaker line-edited Mr. Schiff’s opening statement, suggesting that he change a word to sharpen his point.
Mr. Schiff planned to introduce Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., the top diplomat in Ukraine who was a crucial witness, as a graduate of West Point. She changed “was” to “is,” arguing that the present tense made for a stronger credential.
“She has been very hands-on,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and a member of the Judiciary Committee who also leads the House Progressive Caucus. “She knows exactly what’s happening or her office is involved in all of the decisions, and she works to try to find a balance where the caucus will come together.”
“Once the speaker is on board with a strategy,” Ms. Jayapal added, “she is completely on board.”
From the very day that Democrats took power in Washington in January — and even before — Ms. Pelosi has faced pressures from all sides of her caucus. On her left, Representative Rashida Tlaib, the liberal firebrand freshman from Michigan who campaigned on a vow to impeach the president, was caught on videotape using an expletive for Mr. Trump as she described her desire to oust him from office.
On her right, moderate first-term members like Representatives Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, both of whom won narrowly in Trump-friendly districts, wanted nothing to do with impeachment. Ms. Pelosi knew that if they lost their seats, Democrats would lose the majority — and with it, her speakership.
Even after Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, came out with his report in April detailing several instances of possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump, Ms. Pelosi was reticent. From her travels around the country — she is gone almost every weekend, often raising money for Democrats — she had concluded that neither the public nor her Democratic members were ready.
“What’s instructive to her?” asked Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Ms. Pelosi’s fellow California Democrat and a close friend of the speaker. “It’s the public sentiment — the quote of Abraham Lincoln which she has repeated so many times I wish I had a dime for every time she said it, that public sentiment is everything and without it, very little can be achieved.”
Despite Ms. Pelosi’s own reticence, Democrats say she has never pressured them to take a stand on impeachment one way or another. It is a point she reiterated during a rare members-only, no-aides-allowed private meeting with her rank and file on Wednesday morning.
Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Intelligence Committee, recalled how he had approached Ms. Pelosi in June — long before most Democrats had embraced impeachment — to inform her he was coming out in favor of an inquiry.
“She said, ‘You know, you need to do what you think is right for your district,’” Mr. Himes said. “She has been studiously neutral until the point of, you know, September, when it became clear that what the president had done was a very serious abuse of power.”
On Sept. 20, a Friday, The Wall Street Journal came out with a report detailing how Mr. Trump, at eight separate moments during a telephone call in July, had pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to work with Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, to investigate the Bidens. Soon after, The New York Times posted a similar article.
Ms. Pelosi was to deliver a eulogy for Cokie Roberts, the well-known Washington television correspondent, the next day. And on Sunday, she was to travel to Columbia, S.C., to speak at the funeral of Emily Clyburn, the wife of Representative James E. Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat.
Although Ms. Pelosi kept her own counsel, aides said that her tone changed over that weekend and it became clear that she was planning to make an announcement about impeachment. She briefly thought of doing so the next Monday morning, before flying to New York for a dinner and panel discussion on the sideline of the United Nations General Assembly.
But Ms. Pelosi decided to hold back; she wanted to take the pulse of her caucus one more time, and members were still back home in their districts.
That Monday evening, while Ms. Pelosi was in a holding room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, she took a conference call with moderate Democrats, all with national security backgrounds — including Ms. Slotkin and Ms. Spanberger — who told her they had submitted an op-ed to The Washington Post calling for an impeachment inquiry.
As she flew back to Washington late that night, the speaker was seen reading the Washington Post piece on the plane. In midflight, she wrote the first draft of a speech that said Mr. Trump had “seriously violated the Constitution,” and that the House would investigate — the most consequential decision of her second speakership. She delivered it the next day.
As she told reporters on Thursday, “The facts of the Ukraine situation just changed everything.”
Carl Hulse and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.
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