Nancy Pelosi wants Trump imprisoned. He should still be impeached.
She doesn't have to choose
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made her choice. She does not want to see President Trump impeached.
"I want to see him in prison," she said Tuesday, according to a report in Politico.
Here's a question for Pelosi: Why not both?
It's not clear why Pelosi believes she has to choose between the two. According to Politico, now that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report is out in the open, the speaker's preferred path is "to see Trump defeated at the ballot box and then prosecuted for his alleged crimes."
There isn't any precedent for ousting a president and then putting him through a criminal trial, it's true. The closest America has come was in 1974, when then-President Richard Nixon resigned from office ahead of impeachment for Watergate, then was given a full and unconditional pardon by President Gerald Ford before criminal charges could be brought. And it's true that if Trump were somehow ousted from office via the impeachment process, his successor — Vice President Mike Pence, remember — might do him the same favor that Ford did Nixon.
But Nixon's resignation doesn't offer the only precedent. Former President Bill Clinton was impeached, but famously survived the Senate trial and completed his term in office. He did, however, face additional consequences: He was suspended from practicing law in Arkansas, then resigned from the Supreme Court bar before being disbarred by that court. He also paid various fines associated with those punishments — in addition to paying out an $850,000 settlement to Paula Jones to end her sexual harassment lawsuit.
So it's not a case of either-or. The House of Representatives can impeach Trump — and he can also face additional, post-presidential consequences later on, if that's appropriate. And choosing prison over impeachment actually might backfire. After all, Pelosi's proposal depends entirely on Democrats winning the White House back from Trump in November 2020. While that's not a completely unreasonable thought — Trump has never been a popular president, and his approval rating in some key battleground states makes a second term look dicey for him — don't forget that polls and conventional wisdom had Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 election.
In the meantime, Republicans have continued their efforts to disenfranchise Democratic constituencies, and it's not apparent that much has been done to keep the Russians from interfering in the next election like they did the last. January 2021 might well find Trump safely ensconced in the Oval Office, bragging once again about his inauguration crowds.
By choosing prison over impeachment, then, Pelosi runs a real risk that she gets neither. She also increasingly raises questions about her own leadership. Her belief that Trump has run afoul of the law and the Constitution is apparently genuine: As Politico noted, she has stated that Trump "'is engaged in a cover-up,' that his staff and family should stage an intervention, and that the president's actions are 'are villainous to the Constitution of the United States.'"
Despite all that, she apparently remains the biggest obstacle to impeachment. She made her "prison" comment Tuesday, at a meeting where House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) reportedly pleaded with her to open impeachment proceedings. Members of her caucus are getting restless. New lists containing reasons why Trump should be impeached seem to pop up every day. Even Mueller seems to want Congress to act.
But Pelosi apparently still remains concerned about the political fallout. And she's not entirely wrong to wonder what might happen to Trump's popularity — and claims of vindication — if the Democratic-led House impeaches him, only to see the Republican-held Senate find him not guilty of the allegations against him.
Then again, her rhetoric and actions don't seem to be matching up. If she continues to say the president merits imprisonment, then continues to hold back from action, it's possible — even likely — that voters will decide she doesn't mean what she says, or that she lacks to fortitude to follow up on those words.
Still, she's sticking to her guns.
"Make no mistake, we know exactly what path we're on," she told reporters on Wednesday. "We know exactly what actions we need to take."
The future of American democracy may rest on the accuracy of that statement. But Pelosi shouldn't offer her caucus — or the public — false choices. The choices aren't prison or impeachment. If Pelosi is right about Trump's crimes, the correct answer might be the third option: all of the above.