Steering impeachment with an iron grip, Pelosi forges a legacy she never sought

From the moment in January she ascended to the speakership for the second time—she is the only woman to ever hold the office—Pelosi has been the maestro of the unruly Democratic orchestra that crescendoed Wednesday to an impeachment vote she sought mightily to avoid

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg
Published: Dec 19, 2019

g_125255_congressimpeach57_bg_280x210.jpgHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presides as the House of Representatives votes on a second article of impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. The House on Wednesday impeached Trump for obstruction of Congress and abuse of power, making him the third president in history to be charged with committing high crimes and misdemeanors and face removal by the Senate. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Hours before she announced the House would investigate whether to impeach President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi received a call from him at her Washington home, ostensibly to talk about gun violence. But he quickly changed the topic to Ukraine.


“He kept saying, ‘The call was perfect. When you see the notes, you’ll see the call was perfect,’” Pelosi recalled in an interview, sharing for the first time how Trump previewed a reconstructed transcript showing he had asked Ukraine’s president to investigate a political rival.

“Frankly, I thought, ‘Either he does not know right from wrong, or he doesn’t care,’” she said.

On Wednesday, with Pelosi sitting in the presiding officer’s chair, gavel in hand, Trump became the third U.S. president to be impeached. But when the final vote was tallied on charges he abused his power and obstructed Congress, the president was one of two Washington figures to go down in the history books.

The other is Pelosi.

From the moment in January she ascended to the speakership for the second time — she is the only woman to ever hold the office — Pelosi has been the maestro of the unruly Democratic orchestra that crescendoed Wednesday to an impeachment vote she sought mightily to avoid. Like a conductor, she has presided over the process with discipline and at times an iron fist, deciding which notes to hit, when to go fast and when to slow down — and when to allow the musicians to play solo.

Now Pelosi must move onto the next phase: sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which would start Trump’s trial. She said after the votes Wednesday night that she might delay doing so, and would not name impeachment managers, using that step as leverage until Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, reveals his plans for the trial.

The pursuit is fraught with risks for Pelosi and the Democratic majority that handed her the gavel in January, and they could face a backlash from voters in 2020 for their decision to move forward with the effort to remove the president. Those dangers, including the possibility that they could lose control of the House, have been evident from the moment she took over as speaker.

When Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the liberal freshman firebrand from Michigan, used an expletive on her first day in office to describe how she wanted to impeach Trump, Pelosi pointedly did not criticize her. “I’m not in the censorship business,” she insisted.

But she also made very clear that House Democrats had no intention of doing any such thing, even as she instructed her top lieutenants to investigate Trump on numerous fronts, like his communications with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and whether he had violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause by profiting from his real estate business as president.

When Robert Mueller, the special counsel, released his report documenting Russian interference in the 2016 election and at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump, a new wave of Democrats began pushing to open an inquiry. In private caucus conference calls and one-on-one meetings in her suite just off the Capitol Rotunda, she heard every one of them out — and patiently pushed back.

g_125259_impeachpelosi2_bg_280x210.jpgHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) meets with the leaders of committees involved in the impeachment process of President Donald Trump in Washington on Dec. 10, 2019. Pelosi wants to be remembered for her legislative accomplishments, like passing the Affordable Care Act. But her legacy is now tied to the impeachment of the 45th president. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

“I told her that we were struggling to justify why we were not moving forward,” said one of those Democrats, Rep. Val Demings of Florida, recounting her own effort to get Pelosi to change her mind. The speaker, she said, delivered a firm response about “being strategic and arriving to the right place at the right time.”

When news of Trump’s pressure campaign broke, and Pelosi decided she could hold off no longer, she involved herself in every aspect of the impeachment inquiry. She met nearly every day — sometimes twice a day — with the leaders of the six committees that were already investigating the president on an array of matters.

She insisted on signing off on which witnesses would testify before the House Intelligence Committee, and she personally approved the wording of news releases, committee reports, and some of the high-profile statements her lieutenants would deliver in public. When Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, showed her his opening statement for the panel’s first impeachment hearing, Pelosi changed a single word — “was” to “is” — arguing the present tense made for a stronger argument.

Committee leaders, ordinarily insistent on their autonomy, did not make a single move on impeachment without consulting her. When debate in the House Judiciary Committee on the articles of impeachment dragged late into the night last week, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., checked with Pelosi before delaying the vote until the next morning.

And Tuesday, on the eve of the historic votes on the House floor, the speaker was in her Capitol office late into the night, coordinating which lawmakers would get to speak and for how long.

Pelosi reserved the first speaking slot for herself. She took the floor Wednesday dressed in a dark suit, a nod to what she has long said would be a solemn day, and a carefully-chosen accessory: a gold brooch fashioned as the speaker’s mace, a ceremonial staff that symbolizes the power of the House of Representatives.

“Our founders’ vision of a Republic is under threat from actions from the White House,” she said , adding, “If we do not act now we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”

Even as she ascended to the House rostrum to bang the gavel on the close of the impeachment votes, Pelosi was still engineering the proceedings; when a smattering of Democrats began applauding passage of the first article, on abuse of power, she silenced them with a “zip-up-the-lip” flick of her hand, much like a parent shushing an unruly child.

After Pelosi opened the impeachment inquiry in September, Republicans demanded that she hold a formal vote authorizing the inquiry — a vote that would have been deeply uncomfortable for nervous moderates in Trump-friendly districts. Pelosi held off, and put the spotlight on other issues, like gun violence and legislation to reduce the cost of college. When members took a vote, she told them privately, it was going to mean something.

g_125257_impeachpelosi1_bg_280x210.jpgHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) works on the speech she intends to give on the House floor prior to the expected impeachment vote in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Pelosi wants to be remembered for her legislative accomplishments, like passing the Affordable Care Act. But her legacy is now tied to the impeachment of the 45th president. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, said in an interview this week that Pelosi’s failure to take that vote was a “fatal flaw,” because it allowed Republicans to criticize her on the impeachment process.

In the interview, Pelosi cut off a question about McCarthy’s criticism as soon as she heard his name.

“I don’t care what he has to say,” she said.

Over the past week, as Pelosi has rolled out the final stages of the impeachment process, culminating with Wednesday’s vote, she has sequenced each step alongside broadly popular, bipartisan legislative items like a giant defense policy bill, a $1.4 trillion government spending measure, and the ultimate prize for Trump: a sweeping North American trade agreement known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

The result is that the most politically vulnerable Democrats — moderates who represent districts that Trump won in 2016 — can point to a list of legislative accomplishments as they leave Washington at year’s end, telling their constituents they did more with their time in Congress than just impeach the president. The strategy is typical of Pelosi, who excels at determining precisely what will be needed to win over holdouts in her ranks and then delivering it, generating remarkable party unity.

In this case, all but two Democrats have said they plan to support the articles of impeachment.

As the highest ranking woman in Washington and leader in the House of her party for nearly two decades, Pelosi, 79, of California, made her mark as a leader with muscle and spine when Trump was still a reality television host. She says she wants to be remembered not for impeachment but for her legislative achievements, primarily a meticulous and politically complex push to pass the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law.

But for better or worse, people in both parties say, her legacy is now wrapped up with Trump.

“We don’t get to choose how history remembers us,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who compared Pelosi to Diogenes, the Greek philosopher who was said to have wandered Athens with a light, searching for an honest man. “Of course she’s going to be an inspiration because of this. Somebody had to be that person with the light — even if it was a lonely challenge.”

But if impeachment has made Pelosi an inspiration to her fellow Democrats, it has also cemented her status as a villain in the eyes of Republicans. In a long, rambling letter to her on Tuesday, Trump warned Pelosi that “history will judge you harshly” — a sentiment Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, echoed in an interview.

“This will be a stain on Pelosi’s legacy,” he said. “She’ll be historic in many ways — the first female speaker, and that’s a great accomplishment. But in terms of abusing the power of Congress to settle a personal vendetta, I think that’s playing out before our eyes right now.”

Over the past year, Pelosi has routinely gone toe-to-toe directly with Trump. A photograph of her wearing sunglasses and a swingy rust-colored coat, emerging from a White House meeting where she told Trump not to “characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting,” quickly went viral — before she became speaker.

When Trump wanted to deliver his State of the Union address during the government shutdown in January, Pelosi disinvited him — leaving him fuming. When the White House released a photograph of her wagging her finger at the president, and he called her “Nervous Nancy,” progressives lapped it up on Twitter.

Impeachment is, for both Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, a politically perilous endeavor. In 2010, after Congress approved the Affordable Care Act, a climate bill and a Wall Street bailout aimed at mitigating the Great Recession, Democrats lost their majority and she lost her speakership.

But in the interview, she scoffed at the suggestion that history might repeat itself.

“Would I rather be speaker or would I rather 20 million people have health care?” she asked in the interview.

Nor, she says, is she concerned about polls showing public support for impeachment and her own approval ratings dropping.

“My numbers are better than Trump’s,” she shot back. (In a poll published Tuesday, CNN found that Trump’s job approval rating was 43%, while Pelosi’s was 39%, though the margin of error was 4%, which means they are essentially tied.)

It is not Pelosi’s style to twist arms to keep her Democratic members in line, but her subtle tactics should not be mistaken for laissez-faire. She is exacting in her expectations, insists on and richly rewards loyalty, and is known to hold grudges against those who cross her.

She is not “whipping” the impeachment vote — congressional jargon for leaning on members to vote a certain way. She did not have to. Pelosi knew she had the votes when she announced the inquiry; she would not have moved forward otherwise.

g_125261_impeachpelosi4_bg_280x210.jpgHouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) claps at President Donald Trump during his State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 5, 2019. Vice President Mike Pence is at left. Pelosi wants to be remembered for her legislative accomplishments, like passing the Affordable Care Act. But her legacy is now tied to the impeachment of the 45th president. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

“She will keep the caucus together, not by twisting arms but by the example that she has set, or words that she has delivered,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in an interview last week. “She’s leaving every decision to each of these individuals as she’s making the case in a restrained way that has appealed to some of the members who have very difficult districts.”

In many respects, Pelosi’s management of the impeachment process recalls the tactics and style she used to push through the Affordable Care Act, and to work her way into the speaker’s office for a second time. Her grasp on the speakership seemed tenuous after the 2018 midterm elections. A number of incoming freshmen Democrats, including many moderates, said they would not vote for her.

“I was one of them; I thought it was time for new leadership,” said one of those freshmen, Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota. “And I’ve got to tell you, thank goodness. Thank goodness that we have Nancy Pelosi speaking for the House of Representatives, because I do not think there is a better, more qualified, more principled person for these circumstances.”

At the time, Pelosi promised her fellow Democrats that she would serve no more than four years as speaker. But Pelosi is not a woman to box herself in. In the interview, she would not renew that commitment.

“I’ll make a judgment as I go along,” she said. “I’m on a mission. I’m not on a timetable.”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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