It's time for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stop slow-walking the impeachment of President Trump.
Not because members of the House Judiciary Committee are pressing for an impeachment inquiry. Not because influential Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, wants impeachment, too. And not because polls show momentum for impeachment is growing — quickly — among Democratic voters.
The real reason Pelosi should, at long last, get out of the way and permit the impeachment process to begin in earnest is that, for all her talk of "following facts" and allowing the process to work, she knows deep down that Trump should be removed from office.
Indeed, the case for impeachment gets stronger every day: Consider the evidence of obstruction contained in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, the Trump administration's growing defiance of Congress' constitutional role in governance, and his decision to ignore the emoluments clause and cash in on the presidency. Some of the president's critics even advocate an "all of the above" case for impeachment — no single scandal might be worth removal, they say, but the sheer number and breadth of the president's offenses, taken together, could do the trick. "Trump's critics have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to presidential scandals," Keith E. Whittington noted last year at the Lawfare blog.
Pelosi knows this, and even though she's not taking action yet, her words betray her beliefs. On Wednesday, she told reporters: "We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up."
The remark was provocative enough that the president threw a tantrum, walking out of a planned meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), then holding a press conference to highlight his hurt feelings. "Instead of walking in happily into a meeting, I walk in to look at people that have just said that I was doing a cover-up," Trump said. "I don't do cover-ups." (Fact-check: Yes he does.)
If the president is indeed engaged in a cover-up, that would seem to cry out for Congress to take dramatic action to hold him accountable. Yet Pelosi is probably the single biggest reason Trump isn't already facing an impeachment inquiry. This dissonance — the gap between Pelosi's words and her actions — simply isn't sustainable.
Why are Democrats seemingly stuck in neutral, then? The most obvious reason is that Pelosi fears the party will suffer the same sort of electoral backlash that Republicans did during the 1998 impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. And it's not an unreasonable fear: The same poll that shows growing Democrat enthusiasm for impeachment shows that a significant portion of the rest of the public — 41 percent of registered voters — say it shouldn't happen at all.
That's not a majority, but it's still a scary number for a politician who wants to build her majority in Congress.
If Pelosi is going to let electoral politics guide her decision-making on impeachment, though, it's worth diving deeper into the numbers. Baby Boomers, it turns out, are the only age cohort that clearly opposes impeaching Trump: Fifty-three percent of voters over the age of 55 say it should not be done. Generation X-ers, those between ages 39 and 45, are roughly split between opponents and those whose say impeachment should be a priority.
But younger voters — millennials and so-called "Generation Z" voters under the age of 22 — have a clear preference for impeaching Trump: Among voters ages 23 to 38, 50 percent say Trump's impeachment should be a priority. Just 28 percent are flat-out opposed. And no wonder: Republicans are hemorrhaging young voters thanks to Trump's ugly brand of politics; it's the kind of trend that could give Democrats a long-term advantage.
But will voters who feel alienated by Trump really turn to Democrats if the party appears cowardly and feckless in the face of the president's provocations? Pelosi is playing for 2020 — her real goal is to "turf Trump out of office in November, 2020," The New Yorker says — but the consequences of her actions (or inaction) could play out for a generation or more beyond the next election. There is a long game to be considered.
In the short term, Trump certainly isn't ceasing his provocations. Every day brings some new grift, some act of constitutional abuse, some policy that shocks the conscience. Every day Trump leaves Pelosi less room to criticize him without taking actions that match her words. The president, she said just a few weeks ago, "is self-impeaching."
That's the language of an official who knows the president is unfit for office, but who can't quite bring herself to take the risks necessary to do something about it. Indeed, even as she provoked the president on Wednesday, Pelosi was still trying to slow-walk impeachment. "We do believe that it's important to follow the facts," she said. It looked for all the world like she was using process not as a foundation to take action, but as a shield against it.
The speaker of the House is up against a president who is practically begging to be impeached. She knows he must be removed, and she is running out of time to act. If she won't make a move, her caucus probably will. Her choice isn't whether or not to impeach — it is whether to lead, follow, or get out of the way.