Will She or Won’t She? Speaker Pelosi’s Conflicting Impeachment Signals

January 3, 2019 Updated: January 6, 2019

News Analysis

Newly returned to the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi recently received an odd compliment from daughter Alexandra.

“She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding. That’s all you need to know about her,” the younger Pelosi told CNN.

Oddly, Alexandra Pelosi has yet to get any grief for what could be seen as an approving allusion to comedian Kathy Griffin’s disreputable 2017 photo of her holding up a fake severed head that resembled President Donald Trump.

Trump favors Fox News, so odds are he didn’t see the interview. Even so, the lack of pushback for Pelosi’s daughter’s ill-advised gory comment is a useful reminder to the president that Nancy Pelosi didn’t get where she is a second time by being Miss Sugar and Spice.

The reality is that the numbers in the 116th Congress make Pelosi far more dangerous to Trump on the issue likely to dominate U.S. politics in 2019 than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Pelosi only needs 217 votes, plus one, from her 235 Democrats (or 236, depending on the outcome of a disputed North Carolina election) to gain passage of an impeachment count against Trump.

Compare that to Schumer, who not only must keep the votes of all 45 Senate Democrats, plus the two Independents who caucus with them, he also must somehow win the support of at least 20 of the 53 Senate Republicans in order to reach the 67 votes required to convict Trump on a House-approved impeachment count.

That makes Pelosi’s attitude about whether House Democrats should legislate or investigate a key question.

Focus on Legislation?

Frequently mentioned in the discussion of impeaching Trump is the 1998 impeachment by House Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, of President Bill Clinton.

The Republican-led Senate refused to convict Clinton, voters rebelled in the November election, Gingrich lost the speakership, and the president’s public-approval ratings remained strong through the end of his second term.

Democrats in 2018 surely don’t want a repeat of the Republicans’ impeachment backfire, the argument goes, so the smart strategy for Pelosi is to focus on compiling a record of legislative accomplishment on issues that matter to voters.

Pelosi seemed to be thinking along those lines during a Dec. 14 news conference when she remarked that “I wish that the press would spend a lot more time on what we need to do here to meet the needs of the American people instead of morning, noon and night allegations about the president.”

She has also called impeachment efforts “divisive,” and noted that “if the case is there, then that should be self-evident to Democrats and Republicans.”

More than three dozen newly elected Democrats expressed similar views in an early December letter to Pelosi urging her to make legislative matters the top priority.

‘Check and Balance’

Such remarks seem at odds, however, with Pelosi’s vow shortly after the networks began projecting the Democrats’ House takeover:

“Make no mistake, Democrats will honor our constitutional responsibility to exercise oversight of the Trump administration and get the American people the answers they deserve,” Pelosi said in an election night victory statement.

“Voters delivered a check and balance on the president that will hold him and his administration accountable for the abuses of power and culture of corruption that have consumed Washington.”

The answer to Pelosi’s true intentions may be the fact there is no reason she can’t keep everybody in her caucus happy by legislating and investigating, while waiting for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

Blasts from the “subpoena cannon” spoken of by gleeful Democrats shortly after the 2018 election conveniently serve both sides: The impeachment radicals get more chances to build their case, and the pragmatists’ legislative work is made easier, because the Trump White House must devote so much energy to responding to subpoenas, preparing legal briefs, and negotiating document productions.

It’s a reality highlighted by a former top Trump aide in a Dec. 23 interview with The New York Times.

”It will be a challenge not to be consumed by it,” former White House legislative strategist Marc Short said. ”It would only be human when it’s the coverage leading the news every day to be distracted, but it will be important to have the internal discipline not to be.”

Right on cue and only a few hours before being handed the ceremonial speaker’s gavel by newly minted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Pelosi refused to rule out the possibility of a Trump indictment by Mueller, a move that would flatly contradict long-standing DOJ guidance.

“I do not think that that is conclusive,” Pelosi said of the guidance.

“I think that that is an open discussion. I think that is an open discussion in terms of the law,” she told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.

Deep Stater

And Pelosi appears to have hired the perfect person to oversee the multiple Democratic investigations, new House General Counsel Douglas N. Letter, a 40-year career litigator in the Department of Justice (DOJ), who left the department in February 2018 to join a liberal non-profit.

Letter was the director of the DOJ’s civil division appellate staff from 2012 to 2018 and senior counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder under President Barack Obama. He also served prior stints as associate counsel to Clinton, and deputy associate attorney general under Attorney General Janet Reno.

Letter’s commitment to protecting the “deep state” prerogatives of the DOJ, CIA, and FBI was seen in a controversial 2009 case in which he “cited the state secrets privilege in asking a federal appeals court to uphold dismissal of a lawsuit accusing a Boeing Co. subsidiary of illegally helping the CIA fly suspected terrorists to allied foreign nations where they would be tortured,” according to AP.

Letter knows as few others do the ins and outs of protecting executive-branch prerogatives against Congress and the public, which makes him the ideal defender of the actions of DOJ and the FBI in 2016 and since in the “Resistance” to Trump.

Trump—a frequent critic of the deep state—is the shared enemy of entrenched Deep Staters and of Pelosi’s Democratic Party. Thanks to the now-restored Speaker of the House, Letter has a unique opportunity to make both groups happy by keeping that subpoena cannon fully loaded in the months ahead.