For months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept a wary distance from fellow Democrats clamoring to impeach President Trump. She wanted her tenure defined by legislation, not litigation.
But once Pelosi agreed to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry, she leaned in — and made herself manager, chief strategist and public cheerleader for the Democrats’ drive to remove the president from office.
The leader second in line to the presidency invited me and several other columnists to her office in the Capitol this week to explain her thinking. We sat at a polished conference table, under a portrait of a young Abraham Lincoln, by windows overlooking the National Mall.
She began by warning, as a ritual disclaimer, that the House has not decided whether Trump’s conduct merits impeachment. But America’s most powerful woman left little doubt where her heart lies.
“When we have what we need, we will be ready … and we will be ironclad,” she said.
She has also escalated her indictment of Trump, whom she has described as both a danger to the republic and a “grotesque personality.”
For Pelosi, this isn’t only a struggle over the constitutional powers of the presidency and Congress. It’s personal too.
“There is something wrong” with Trump, she said. “He doesn’t know right from wrong — or doesn’t really care.”
“He’s always projecting,” she said. “If he says this about Adam Schiff, he means it about himself. He says that about me, he means it about himself … . He says, ‘She’s in meltdown,’ means he’s in meltdown.”
Trump accused Pelosi of a “meltdown” after their latest tense face-off in the White House, on Oct. 16, when she accused him of being in thrall to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A photo showed her standing and pointing at the president, an image that became a kind of political Rorschach test.
Pelosi recounted the story without being asked.
“He wasn’t going to send the military assistance to Ukraine. Who benefits from that? The Russians,” she said. “He did what he did in Syria, who benefits from that? Putin.”
“That’s what I was saying to him the other day, ‘All roads lead to Putin,’” she said. “I thought I was only stating a fact.”
And how did Trump react?
“He was furious!” she said with a smile of unmistakable satisfaction.
Wait, one of the columnists asked: Are you accusing the president of treason?
“I don’t know if he’s guilty of treason,” she said. “I’m not going to that place.”
“All I know (is that) he is absolving Putin of any responsibility” for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. “It’s curious, it’s just curious … . What is it the Russians have on the president politically, personally or financially?”
What Pelosi does know, she said, is that Trump has violated his oath of office and needs to be removed from the White House, whether through impeachment or defeat in the 2020 election.
For either strategy to work, she needs to swing public sentiment more strongly against the president. Pelosi noted that polls already have shown a shift in opinion since she announced the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24. Recent surveys show that about 48% of voters favor Trump’s removal from office, with about 44% opposed.
“I think we’re on a good path,” Pelosi said.
The next step, she noted, will be public hearings in the House Intelligence Committee to examine Trump’s request to Ukraine for “a favor” — an investigation of Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden — while the president withheld nearly $400 million in military aid.
“I do think we have enough” evidence for impeachment, she said, but “as long as there’s corroboration, we might as well get some more.”
After that, she said, House Democrats must decide whether to expand the probe beyond Ukraine, and how long to wait before drafting any articles of impeachment. Neither question has been settled.
She wants any articles of impeachment to be “focused (and) indisputable,” perhaps “three or four” charges — but not a laundry list of Democratic complaints.
That probably means an article on Ukraine, an article on obstruction of justice and an article on refusing to comply with subpoenas from Congress, but not much more.
As for timing, she said, “How much drama can the American people handle? Where is it that the law of diminishing returns sets in?”
The speaker claims she doesn’t care that the Republican-controlled Senate will brush the charges aside and refuse to remove Trump from office. “The courage of the House … is not affected by the cowardice of the Senate,” she has said.
Other Democrats argue that even if Trump stays in office, impeachment hearings could damage his prospects for reelection.
But Pelosi portrays the battle in more high-minded terms, as a struggle to preserve the Constitution’s balance of power against a president who has asserted that Article II allows him to ignore the will of Congress.
She’s fond of quoting the founding fathers — and she’s found a new favorite from the revolutionary-era pamphleteer Thomas Paine that reflects her sense of the moment: “The times have found us.”
“The times have found us to protect our Constitution,” she said.
Pelosi was already assured a place in history as the first woman elected House speaker, and as the legislator who steered President Obama’s healthcare bill into law.
Now, at 79, she’s in the ultimate battle. She has become the anti-Trump: steely, disciplined and implacable. It is the president’s misfortune that his principal adversary is at the top of her game.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.