Daniel R. DePetris

The Democrats’ dilemma: is it time to impeach Trump?

The Democrats' dilemma: is it time to impeach Trump?
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You won’t find a more committed and passionate opponent of president Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. than Nancy Pelosi (witness yesterday’s blowup at the White House, in which the president walked out of a meeting on infrastructure over Pelosi’s earlier comments about a Trump-ordered coverup).  

The two-time Speaker of the House and long-time politician from liberal San Francisco is the opposite of the president in many ways. Whereas Trump takes pride in being the bull in the china shop, Pelosi is a highly-calculating politician who thinks long and hard before she settles on a course of action.  

Trump is a nationalist (some would say quasi-nativist) at heart; Pelosi, a representative of the “globalist” camp the president and his supporters complain about.  

Trump likes to improvise in front of the nation and treat his official White House events as campaign rallies; Pelosi’s pressers are generally boring and highly-scripted, talking points at the ready.

The biggest difference between the two titans, however, is experience. Trump’s first race was the 2016 presidential election. Pelosi, in contrast, has been in politics her entire adult life. She grew up in a political family and was exposed to the political world at a very young age (her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was the former mayor of Baltimore and a former congressman). The Speaker has been a lawmaker since 1987, climbing the ladder until she made history in 2007 as the first woman to hold the position of Speaker of the House. The congresswoman from California knows how to play the game—and she plays it quite well.

Pelosi, however, is in a bit of a pickle. Being the most senior Democrat in the nation doesn’t mean very much if she can’t keep her large and oftentimes unwieldy caucus together. Donald Trump’s antics and stonewalling of multiple congressional investigations is testing her ability to do exactly that.  

After former White House Counsel Donald McGahn defied a subpoena this week and refused to show up for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the orders of the White House, Democratic lawmakers who were once reticent about impeachment are now banging the drums for it.  

A House Democratic caucus meeting this Tuesday got heated as some of Pelosi’s own leadership team demanded more aggressive investigatory tactics from the party. Rep. David Cicilline, who heads the Democrats’ messaging arm, wants an inquiry to begin sooner rather than later. To many lawmakers, Trump’s utter contempt for the role of Congress is simply unfathomable and too difficult to stomach. "I think if this pattern by the president continues, where he's going to impede and prevent and undermine our ability to gather evidence to do our job, we're going to be left with no choice,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.  

It’s difficult not to sympathise with the complaints. Democrats have all of the power in the House, such as the ability to issue subpoenas, call hearings, and launch investigations to their heart’s content.

Yet the Trump administration has settled on a policy of fighting rather than cooperating with any of the inquiries. Normally, a president’s staff would negotiate with the other party and at least try to come to an accommodation on which documents will be released and which official will testify. Trump, however, is taking a no-holds barred approach: don’t give an inch to any of the demands. “We’re fighting all of the subpoenas,” Trump declared on the White House lawn last month. 

Four weeks on, he has been holding true to his promise. Launching an investigation is a meaningless exercise if the investigators can’t get any of the information. Hence the frustration in the minds of Democrats. There is only so much a subpoena or a contempt citation will do if the people being reprimanded have no intention whatsoever of complying.

Pelosi has never been enthralled with the impeachment route. She views it as "a waste of time" and a trap set by the president himself, a way to distract Democrats from their legislative agenda.

The Speaker has also been around long enough to know what happened to Republicans during their impeachment crusade against president Bill Clinton in 1998—Americans, tired of the year-long obsession about Clinton, Monica, and the blue dress, punished Republicans at the polls. She doesn’t want a similar result to happen to her caucus, particularly since the upcoming contest will occur as tens of millions of Americans head to the polls to cast their ballots for president.

If the White House continues to block any and all information from coming out, Pelosi’s talents at holding the line will get more precarious. When some of her closest allies start to get restless, the pressure may build to such a crescendo that she may have no choice but to authorise an impeachment probe in order to maintain her speakership. The central question now is how patient are House Democrats willing to be?