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How Pelosi Got Her Impeachment Trump Card

Because Trump gave it away. As usual.
December 21, 2019
How Pelosi Got Her Impeachment Trump Card
(Photo: GettyImages)

Nancy Pelosi’s threat to not transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate is extraordinary. But in another sense, it is completely ordinary. Pelosi’s maneuver is the direct result of something President Trump did two months ago, when he did what he always does: telegraphed his needs to his opponents.

On November 21, the day after Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified before the House Intelligence Committee, Politico reported that if the House were to vote for impeachment, then President Trump would not want the Senate’s trial to be just a perfunctory dismissal of the charges. That evening, the White House’s deputy press secretary appeared on Fox News, criticizing the impeachment inquiry and announcing that President Trump wanted a full Senate trial to exonerate him and expose his enemies:

In fact, I spoke to the President about this tonight, and I don’t think anyone knows this yet: We were in the Oval Office and we were having a conversation about these hearings. The President did nothing wrong—he wants that plain and clearly explained to the American people—but he also feels there’s no basis to move forward at all in the House. But if they do, he wants a trial in the Senate. He wants to be able to bring up witnesses like Adam Schiff, like the whistleblower, like Hunter Biden, like Joe Biden. And he says, if the House moves forward with this sham, and they continue to push these fake, illegitimate proceedings on to the American people, then he wants it to go to the Senate, and he wants a trial.

The next morning, the president dialed into Fox & Friends and reiterated these demands:

The bottom line is, all of those witnesses, they’re all shifty-shifts. Don’t forget there was no due process. You can’t have lawyers. We couldn’t have any witnesses. We want to call the whistleblower, but you know who I want as the first witness. Cause frankly, I want a trial. I think I could have it whatever I want …

Brian Kilmeade, evidently surprised, tried to interject—“You want a trial?”—but the president rolled on.

Anyone looking for the roots of Speaker Pelosi’s new strategy can find them in those interviews. Because that is the point at which President Trump made unmistakably clear that his frustrations with the House hearings had left him craving a hearing that he could control, where his enemies—Schiff, the Bidens, the whistleblower—could be made to suffer.

By making clear how intensely he desired a Senate reality show trial, Trump had shown his cards to Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues and given the Democrats great leverage in the inevitable negotiation over the Senate impeachment trial rules.

Now that the House has impeached President Trump, Pelosi’s greatest advantage is House’s ability not to act—to delay the beginning of a Senate trial, or to refuse to participate in a Senate trial that they deem unsatisfactory. Senate Democrats, too, might wield leverage by refusing to participate in a Republican trial. A Senate trial without House managers, and without Democratic Senators in the seats, would deny Trump the sort of forum that he palpably desires: a real Senate trial, taken seriously by the nation and the world, in which the president and/or his allies can embarrass his enemies.

On that point, we should not fixate on the specific procedural mechanism that’s been discussed so far: namely, refusing to “send” the impeachment resolutions to the Senate. As Charlie Sykes notes, that’s the most immediate option.

But even if the House sends the resolution—or if the Senate finds a way to begin the trial without formally receiving the resolution from the House—the basic dynamic would not change. The House managers, and their fellow Democrats in the Senate, might simply refuse to participate in the Senate’s proceedings, depriving the president of the visuals that he so desperately wants.

This is hardly the first time that President Trump telegraphed his priorities to his counterparties, to their advantage. It has been a feature of his negotiations with North Korea, and with China, and throughout his pre-presidential career. He plays poker with the cards on the table, face-up. And now, in the heat of impeachment, he’s done it again, handing leverage to Democrats and leaving Mitch McConnell in the position of having to resist the Democrats’ demands while satisfying the president’s self-destructive wishes.

Of course, Speaker Pelosi’s eager use of that leverage tells us something about the Democrats, too. After spending weeks insisting that impeachment required the swiftest possible action, Democrats are pivoting to a hurry-up-and-wait posture that will make clear that their original urgency was, as Noah Rothman observed, either misguided or phony.

If Democrats genuinely believed that impeachment was necessary for the judgment of history, and if they doubted that the Senate trial would be a fair one, then they should have made their own impeachment a much more thorough affair: calling more witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the president’s actions and intentions and then fighting to compel their testimony through litigation and undertaking their discussions of constitutional law with less palpably ideological Democratic witnesses.

Yet here we are, now wondering if the House that impeached President Trump for obstructing the House’s impeachment investigation will block the Senate’s impeachment trial. And the President so eager to control his own Senate impeachment trial managed to give his opponents the power prevent it.

Adam J. White

Adam J. White is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of George Mason University’s C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.