The president stormed out of a meeting with speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi and senate minority leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday after three minutes, saying he couldn’t work with Democrats while they were pursuing investigations against him. It may have been showboating – CNN said he was “orchestrating a public display of fury” – but it showed how bitter the battle between Trump and the Democratic leadership has become.
Pelosi has, so far, been resistant to stepping up a level to impeachment. “Impeachment is 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, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it,” she told the Washington Post in March. But sticking to that approach has become more and more difficult for the speaker in recent weeks, as the Trump White House has hardened its approach towards the various Democratic-led congressional committees investigating the president – and his opponents have hardened their approach in response.
But pressure has been steadily increasing on the speaker. Several high-profile candidates for president – including senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro – have officially called for impeachment. Even a Republican congressman, Michigan’s Justin Amash, has called for impeachment proceedings based on the findings of the Mueller report, meaning support is for impeachment is now bipartisan.
Perhaps more pressingly, within Pelosi’s caucus, the popular new wave of progressive Democrats who swept in to the House of Representatives in 2018’s midterm elections – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose immense social media star power makes her the de facto leader of the party’s progressive wing – are also pushing hard for impeachment.
Following its release, it quickly became clear quite how much Attorney General Bill Barr had misled Congress and the country over Mueller’s report. Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May in a testy hearing in which he behaved more like the president’s personal defence attorney than any impartial law enforcement official. The following day, when he was supposed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, he cancelled his appearance at the last minute, leading committee chair Jerry Nadler to instigate proceedings to hold Barr and the Justice Department in contempt of Congress.
The tension ratcheted up another notch on Monday when the White House directed former White House counsel Don McGahn, who is a key witness in the redacted version of the Mueller report that was released to the public in April, to defy a subpoena to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, leading Nadler to again begin to prepare proceedings for a contempt-of-Congress vote.
Trump seems aggravated by all the subpoenas he’s receiving from committees in the House, which are investigating him from a wide variety of different angles – from possible obstruction of justice, to his taxes and business interests, to his inaugural committee, and dozens of others besides. The White House is now in a siege mentality, denying Congress their constitutional right to oversee the executive branch. Barr’s role as attorney general now seems to be mainly stretching for dodgy legal justifications to stop former aides from answering Congressional subpoenas.
Some of the administration’s attempts at stonewalling are working, but others are not. On Monday, in a big win for Democrats, a federal judge blocked the White House’s attempt to resist turning over Trump’s financial records to the House Oversight Committee. On Wednesday, Nadler’s Judiciary committee issued a subpoena for Hope Hicks, a former close aide to Trump – though it is overwhelmingly likely that she, like McGahn, will follow the White House’s lead and refuse to testify.
Still, Pelosi seems set against attempting impeachment. In a turbulent meeting of House Democrats in the speaker’s office on Monday, several representatives pressed her to change course. Pelosi pushed back, telling the group: “This isn’t about politics at all. It’s about patriotism. It’s about the strength we need to have to see things through,” according to Politico.
In part, Pelosi may have hoped that by holding off on impeachment she has an opportunity to work with the White House to pass crucial legislation. Wednesday’s meeting, for example, was supposed to be about passing a much-needed infrastructure bill.
But the main reason for her reluctance is likely tactical. As 538.com points out, Pelosi was in Congress in 1998, when Republicans instigated impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky and subsequently suffered a backlash. She fears impeachment proceedings would give more fuel to the outrage machine that powers Trump’s activist support, and drag Democrats off-message during the 2020 campaign. “Trump is goading us to impeach him,” she said in May. “That’s what he’s doing. Every single day he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.”
She may be right. Impeachment polls fairly poorly among independent voters, who opposed it 51 per cent to 40 in a May NPR/Marist poll. It also showed that, even among self-described Democrats, 23 per cent oppose impeachment proceedings. A CNN/SSRS poll this month showed 59 per cent of Americans opposed to impeaching the president. And, of course, with Republicans still in control of the Senate, which ultimately decides on impeachment, the proceedings would not be anywhere near likely to succeed.
But progressive Democrats think this isn’t the whole story. They may be banking on a repeat of the Nixon impeachment proceedings, where – despite never reaching completion in the Senate – the national spectacle of laying out the evidence against the president, over the course of the months-long proceeding, ended up bringing public opinion around – eventually leading to his resignation. As I wrote in a piece considering the possibility of impeachment after the elections in November 2018:
An impeachment trial, even before an intransigent Republican Senate, would be an opportunity for the orchestration of a grand political spectacle on the largest possible world stage. Nothing like it has yet been attempted in the internet age.
It could definitely be risky: no one has proved themselves more difficult to out-spectacle so far than Donald Trump. Worse, political theatre like this could very easily backfire and end up serving only to energise his base – in fact, they are already screaming about the mere possibility of it – but it could also be incredibly rewarding.
Those facts haven’t changed, except that the Mueller report has given Democrats plenty of ammunition to engage in impeachment proceedings. In fact, the report specifically stated that: “The conclusion that Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.” Many read that as a direct impeachment referral.
On Wednesday, in impromptu remarks after he stormed out of the infrastructure meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump told reporters: “I’ve said from the beginning – right from the beginning – you probably can’t go down two tracks. You can go down the investigation track or you can go down the investment track.” But, by deciding to batten down the hatches, resisting all attempts to investigate him past the point of instructing even former staff to refuse subpoenas, Trump may end up making impeachment proceedings an inevitability, if the rising frustration of the Democratic caucus overwhelms Pelosi’s instinct to avoid the confrontation.
As with all things Trump, it is unclear whether this is by design – whether he is intentionally goading Democrats into taking the leap in order to fire up his base about “presidential harassment,” as Pelosi seems to believe – or just by accident, through sheer stubbornness.