The conversations, while tentative, underscore the serious shift in Pelosi’s thinking about impeachment in recent days. Pelosi has been reluctant to endorse impeachment, resisting the extraordinary step for months despite pressure from the party’s liberal base and several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. She has argued that neither the public nor the Republican Party, which controls the Senate, supports impeachment and that could prove politically costly to the moderate Democrats who helped deliver the House majority last year.
Recent reports, however, that Trump may have used his power to pressure a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political foe, former vice president Joe Biden and his family, have galvanized the push for impeachment. In the past few days, Pelosi has been sounding out Democrats about whether to proceed on impeachment. She also intends to make a statement on the matter on Tuesday, she told reporters.
And the floodgates have finally opened. Partly, when people like Congressman John Lewis say it’s time, the moral authority is there. Partly, Speaker Nancy Pelosi cannot hold on to those gates and keep them shuttered.
The mechanism that Pelosi is following is one that will take control away from Jerry Nadler, chairman of the Justice Committee, which has led the way. Reportedly, she prefers Adam Schiff as chair of this committee. This is a smooth way to keep throwing sand into the gears because forming a committee will mean that a lot of the things done already by Judiciary will be slowed down.
There is a concern that the way the Judiciary has done things has not been particularly effective. For example, they have not yet moved the needle among most Americans. Even if impeachment is still favored by more now, than at the beginning of Watergate. These details do matter. Why? Creating a whole new committee may be a way to try to control this process.
I invite you to also consider the impeachment of Andrew Johnson after the civil war. The cliffs notes at the Senate site, provide a good introduction.
The initial response to a Johnson presidency was optimistic. Even the so-called Radical Republicans, who would pursue impeachment proceedings three years later, supported the new president. “By the Gods,” proclaimed Senator Ben Wade of Ohio, “there will be no trouble now in running this government.” Such good relations quickly soured, however, as Johnson’s views on Reconstruction surfaced. Within weeks, Johnson opposed political rights for freedmen and called for a lenient reconstruction policy, including pardoning former Confederate leaders. The president looked for every opportunity to block action by the Radical Republicans. He had no interest in compromise. When Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill in February of 1866, he broke the final ties with his Republican opponents in Congress. They responded with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising political rights to African Americans. In March of 1867 they also passed, over Johnson’s presidential veto, the Tenure of Office Act which was designed to limit the president’s ability to shape his cabinet by requiring that not only appointments but also dismissals be approved by the Senate.
By mid-1867, Johnson’s enemies in Congress were repeatedly promoting impeachment. The precipitant event that resulted in a third and successful impeachment action was the firing of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a Lincoln appointee and ally of the Radical Republicans in Congress. Stanton had strongly opposed Johnson’s Reconstruction policies and the president hoped to replace him with Ulysses S. Grant, whom Johnson believed to be more in line with his own political thinking. In August of 1867, while Congress was in recess, Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant as secretary of war ad interim. When the Senate opposed Johnson’s actions and reinstated Stanton in the fall, Grant resigned, fearing punitive action and possible consequences for his own presidential ambitions. Furious with his congressional opponents, Johnson fired Stanton and informed Congress of this action, then named Major General Lorenzo Thomas, a long-time foe of Stanton, as interim secretary. Stanton promptly had Thomas arrested for illegally seizing his office.
This musical chair debacle amounted to a presidential challenge to the constitutionality of the Tenure of Office Act. In response, having again reinstated Stanton to office, Radical Republicans in the House of Representatives, backed by key allies in the Senate, pursued impeachment.
We have a president that is challenging not just norms, but also American law. We have a man who believes he is above the law, and as president more like a king than an elected leader.
This is an attitude that makes the president increasingly dangerous to democracy. But what about Pelosi?
She learned the wrong lessons from the Bill Clinton experience. Our current situation has very little to do with the present situation. The president is not screwing an intern, not that this was not an abuse of power, between a powerful man and a young woman. That it was. The president is attacking institutions and the constitution. In that sense, there are far more parallels with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and to a point Richard Nixon.
There is something here that matters. Nixon quit before the trial in the Senate. He quit before he was impeached as well. He was told by Republicans the votes were there. So he chose to get out while the getting was good, and not risk it. The pardon was his only, and significant, acceptance of guilt. We can argue if he should have been tried. However, he resigned.
Johnson was impeached, and like Clinton, the Senate failed to convict, ergo they both remained in office. Until Nixon, Johnson was the only cautionary tale. It took another century for another president to face the wrath of the House and the Senate. Starting with Nixon, we have a threat of impeachment often, which points to the dysfunction of the system.
It may be the nature of the imperial presidency. Or perhaps that we have a Republican system that is transforming into something different. We know a similar process happened to both Greece and Rome. They went from a form of democracy to empire, to the end of history. We also know that we are at a moment in time when a few people are trying to hold history back. This includes Trump.
However, while Pelosi is finally going to announce the process, she is doing in such a way that it will slow this down. Judiciary is already doing the job. However, there is a conflict between Nadler and Pelosi, since the former wants to do what needs to be done. She has been slowing the process. And while there are politics behind this, one also has to wonder if partly it is a defense of her class.
We knew to wait for the process to finally begin, and for the sake of the country, her way better not be more sand into the gears.