House Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the impeachment debate with a five-word flourish that helped steady her wobbly caucus: “He’s just not worth it.”
Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been talking down impeaching President Trump for months, but she used an interview with The Washington Post Magazine to deliver her clearest statement so far and tried to refocus liberals on defeating Republicans at the ballot box in 2020.
Her remarks, which were published Monday, exploded across the Internet and TV news. A few days later, Pelosi reflected on the reaction by complaining that she had been trying to say this for many months but that no one seemed to hear her prior comments opposing impeachment.
“I’ve made it all through the campaign. I made it in our transition. And I’ve made it every week. It didn’t seem to catch on until I had a gimmick: ‘He’s not worth it.’ Boom, it explodes,” she told reporters at her weekly Thursday briefing.
That hashtag-worthy declaration against impeachment — unless several factors come together to produce a “compelling and overwhelming” case that Republicans will support — found strong support, particularly among freshman Democrats who won GOP seats in 2018.
The first six weeks of the new majority had already been focused on a massive showdown with Trump over his demand for a border wall, including swearing in the new freshmen amid a record-setting 35-day shutdown of parts of the federal government.
A mid-February recess served as the first extended chance for the newcomers to spend time with their constituents, and few of those swing-district voters seemed interested in impeachment. Then over the past three weeks, the stakes rose, as Trump’s former lawyer testified at a House hearing that elicited allegations of criminal behavior, and the House Judiciary Committee demanded documents from more than 80 people or entities associated with the president.
Some of the more outspoken liberals began to demand impeachment hearings, even before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III reports on his investigation of whether there were ties between Trump campaign and Russia in 2016.
All that came as Democrats splintered over support for Israel and controversial remarks by some of the most liberal members of the caucus.
But Pelosi effectively sidelined impeachment, for now, and that led to several relatively quiet days before Democrats left Washington on Thursday for a 10-day recess.
“I give her credit for allowing this very broad tent of Democrats right now to express themselves, and bring their own perspectives to the caucus and be relatively supportive of all of us,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a freshman who won a seat from the GOP in the Twin Cities suburbs.
Phillips said he tells constituents the same thing about Trump — “Wait for the facts,” he says — but Democrats know they eventually will have to figure out a better answer.
“There are a lot of voices, but at the end of the day, all points lead through the same thing, which is the Mueller report,” Phillips said.
The impeachment question could have divided the Democratic coalition.
Many activists see Trump’s removal from office as the ultimate objective of the new majority, while others see the presidency in 2020 as the top goal. Those latter Democrats fear that a partisan impeachment that ends in deadlock in the Senate would only help Trump’s reelection.
Now, with Pelosi setting the ground rules, these Democrats have a ready-made answer if activists dominate their town halls in the week ahead. If liberals demand that a first-term Democrat impeach Trump, the response is simple: Listen to Nancy Pelosi, she has set the standard for when impeachment could begin.
If conservatives cry “witch hunt” and complain of overly aggressive investigations into Trump, that lawmaker now has an easy answer: Nancy Pelosi said she’s “not for impeachment” so this cannot possibly be a witch hunt.
Some Democrats said Pelosi has laid down a marker that if Mueller’s report is not a slam dunk, they can explain to the far left that House committees will continue forceful oversight and impose political pain on the president without commencing impeachment hearings.
She has the standing, they believe, to make that vow and be trusted. “If Nancy Pelosi can’t have standing with the liberal crowd, we’ve got bigger problems than that,” one centrist Democrat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal caucus dynamics.
By Friday afternoon, Need to Impeach, the group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, felt the need to issue a memo citing a litany of liberal voices that support ousting Trump from office.
“While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attempted to tamp down talk of impeachment last week, the demand for action on impeachment continues to grow,” the group said in a statement.
But Pelosi has had a long-standing opposition to impeachment, unless it is a bipartisan exercise.
For the interview with The Post’s Joe Heim, Pelosi sat comfortably in the speaker’s office that she occupied for four years last decade, the first person to win back the gavel in more than 50 years. She began the interview by comparing today’s political climate to other eras, citing the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton on accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice.
“There’s no question that that was horrible for the country. It was unnecessary and the rest,” Pelosi told Heim.
That could be read as a message to Mueller: She will be reluctant to push impeachment if his report focuses on Trump’s hush money for mistresses.
After the interview was published, she reminded reporters that some liberals wanted her to begin impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush over his handling of the Iraq War when she became speaker in 2007.
“I didn’t believe in it then, I don’t believe in it now. It divides the country, unless there’s some conclusive evidence that takes us to that place,” she said.
This was music to the ears of some Democrats.
Phillips said that during his last round of town halls, he did not face many questions related to Trump scandals or impeachment. This time around, he does not expect to face those issues — unless a certain special counsel files his report.
“The Mueller report, that’s going to be the igniter,” Phillips said, “and that’s when people are going to take sides.”