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Wilentz writes: "Crises make and break historical reputations. In our current constitutional emergency, a few unlikely figures, above all the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have upheld the rule of law, possibly redeeming their places in history."

Nancy Pelosi has been reluctant to impeach Donald Trump, but denying the reality of his transgressions will only perpetuate his narcissism and enable him politically. (photo: Mark Peterson/Redux)
Nancy Pelosi has been reluctant to impeach Donald Trump, but denying the reality of his transgressions will only perpetuate his narcissism and enable him politically. (photo: Mark Peterson/Redux)

Nancy Pelosi, Impeachment, and Places in History

By Sean Wilentz, The New Yorker

13 July 19


rises make and break historical reputations. In our current constitutional emergency, a few unlikely figures, above all the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have upheld the rule of law, possibly redeeming their places in history. Many others, above all the current Attorney General, William Barr, seem determined to irretrievably sink theirs. Now the reputation at risk is that of the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

With regard to the debate over the proper response to Donald Trump’s brazen deeds, Pelosi has not taken impeachment off the table, saying, “I don’t think you should impeach for political reasons, and I don’t think you should not impeach for political reasons.” Yet political reasons seem to be preventing her from pursuing constitutional concerns. Her reasoning is clear: if the House were to launch an impeachment without “overwhelming” evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors and strong bipartisan public support, Trump’s inevitable acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate would only strengthen him, and he could cruise to reëlection. But, in this instance, Pelosi’s normally acute political judgment is failing her, and the historical precedent she is evidently relying on—the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—is not analogous. In fact, based on the past half century of political history, suppressing an impeachment inquiry seems more likely to help insure Trump’s reëlection. If this happens, Pelosi’s formidable reputation, based on a lifetime of public service and her role as the first female Speaker of the House, will suffer.

The basic historical error behind suppressing an impeachment inquiry confuses the genuine crisis surrounding Trump with the manufactured one that engulfed Clinton. In 1998, the House Republicans, lacking public support and all but assured that the Senate, though it was controlled by their own party, would not convict Clinton, impeached him anyway, which only served to win him sympathy and drive up his popularity ratings. Pelosi apparently sees the same thing happening now, but the two cases are very different.

When the scandal involving Clinton and Monica Lewinsky broke, in January of 1998, Republicans had been pursuing both Bill and Hillary Clinton for more than five years, and they had come up with nothing. In the view of most Americans, the Lewinsky story, although pathetic and unnerving, never amounted to a case sufficient to justify Clinton’s removal from office, even when attached to Clinton’s dissembling under oath about the matter. Moreover, Clinton, unlike Trump, was a broadly popular President: when the scandal broke, his approval rating hovered around sixty-six per cent; on the day he was impeached, it rose to seventy-three per cent; the week after his acquittal, it was the same as it had been at the beginning: sixty-six per cent.

Trump, by contrast, is the least popular President of the postwar period, who enjoys a fiercely loyal base but so far has failed to win the support of more than half those Americans polled. More important, the evidence presented in the Mueller report—regarding the Trump campaign’s expectation that it could benefit from Russian interference and hacking efforts, and numerous contacts with Russians, as well as the President’s subsequent attempts to obstruct justice—is formidable, if, in Mueller’s view, insufficient to “establish” that members of the Trump campaign actually conspired or coördinated with Russia. (The insufficiency, of course, may have been due to the efforts at obstruction that the report describes.) Despite Barr’s efforts to obscure the fact that Mueller’s report does not exonerate the President, only thirty-three per cent of Americans, according to a Quinnipiac poll, believe that the Attorney General has accurately represented the report’s conclusions. That number may fall further after Mueller’s testimony before Congress, which is scheduled for next week.

The more relevant historical analogy to Trump’s situation is that of President Richard M. Nixon, during the last two years of his Administration. Nixon won reëlection in a historic landslide in 1972, but his public standing eroded during the summer of 1973, when the televised Senate hearings chaired by Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, began to reveal the extent and the seriousness of the Watergate crimes. Even so, at the start of 1974, less than thirty-eight per cent of the public were in favor of removing the President from office, and support for Nixon among Capitol Hill Republicans remained strong. A major reason for Nixon’s continued support was the effectiveness of his Administration’s stonewalling strategy of denial and redaction—the same strategy that the Trump Administration has pursued in fighting subpoenas from several current House committees. (On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee voted to issue subpoenas to a dozen people associated with the White House, including Sessions and Jared Kushner.) Still, support for Trump’s impeachment stands at forty-five per cent, according to a June Gallup Poll.

In 1974, the Democrats did not flinch. Based on what was known after the Ervin Committee inquiries—which was nowhere near as conclusive as the evidence amassed against Trump by Robert Mueller—the House Judiciary Committee authorized its chairman, Representative Peter Rodino, of New Jersey, to undertake an impeachment inquiry. That inquiry, alongside the continuing work of the special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, produced the evidence and sustained hearings that decisively turned public opinion—and led to Nixon’s resignation.

In short: Nixon, a popular President who retained public support, finally succumbed to powerful charges once the House fulfilled its constitutional duty. Yet now an unpopular President may get away with acts at least as grievous as Nixon’s because the House will have evaded its constitutional duty. The blame for that evasion would fall on Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi, more surprisingly, is also ignoring the chief political lesson of the Nixon impeachment. The case against authorizing an impeachment inquiry rests in part on polling, which shows that the public over all remains unconvinced that an impeachment inquiry is warranted—though the number in favor keeps growing. Yet had the House Democratic leadership come to the same conclusion in early 1974—when, it needs remembering, public support for impeachment was actually weaker—Nixon would have finished out his second term. The lesson is simple: on matters as serious as a Presidential impeachment, the opposition must lead, not follow, public opinion; it must examine and develop the evidence in plain view, and not permit the White House to persist in shaping perceptions through concealment and lies.

Another lesson follows from this one. Asserting that a Senate acquittal would allow Trump to claim vindication elides the fact Trump has already claimed vindication, a falsehood which the Democrats’ failure to pursue impeachment would only strengthen. It also overlooks how a Senate trial always reinforces either the severity of the alleged crimes and the persuasiveness of the evidence, or the lack thereof. Nixon resigned only when Senate Republicans told him that his case would not survive a trial. Trump’s domination of the G.O.P. does make it all but impossible that the Senate would vote to remove him. But evidence presented by the House impeachment managers would enrage independents as well as Democrats, on the eve of the election, putting pressure on vulnerable Senate Republicans as well as on Trump. The electorate would, in effect, do the job that the Senate refused to do.

Pelosi, viewing the House and Senate proceedings narrowly, argues that Trump is best contested not with impeachment, which would be divisive, but by replaying the kitchen-table issues that won the Democrats the House majority in 2018—health care, immigration, and climate change. But that strategy would commit the classic military blunder of fighting a war on the basis of the last successful campaign, regardless of the facts and context. It’s one thing to defeat Republicans in congressional races in which Trump’s name does not appear on the ballot. It’s quite another to defeat them when the charismatic Trump heads the ticket and is able to claim that he is exonerated because Democrats did not pursue an impeachment inquiry. In any event, the campaign so far has showcased that Democrats are far from united on a number of kitchen-table issues, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to think of an electorate in modern times any more split than the one that exists today, which Trump is powerfully dividing, on his own anti-liberal terms. Pursuing a fully justified impeachment inquiry, however, would turn Trump’s demagogy against him. It would reframe the division on constitutional terms, not with empty insults but with hard evidence, televised daily—the kind of evidence that could turn crucial independent opinion and energize a Democratic base. The principal issue that truly unites and mobilizes the fractured Democrats, and with them a majority of Independents, is the clear and present danger of Donald J. Trump. To this extent, Trump’s narcissism has succeeded in making American politics revolve around him—but to deny that reality will only perpetuate it and enable him politically. To expose his actions in detail, however, starting with his manifest failure to defend the national security against continuing Russian cyberattacks and Putin’s open support for the evisceration of “obsolete” Western liberal democracy, would put the matter differently—and put him on the defensive.

Such proceedings would also accentuate the now-or-never importance of the 2020 election. Think of Trump in a second term, backed by a compliant Supreme Court, bolstered by a Senate perhaps still led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and guided by an Attorney General set on realizing the dream of a “unitary executive.” The recent Supreme Court ruling giving license to the wholesale gerrymandering of congressional districts, along with Trump’s defiant order to include a citizenship question in the census, are just two indications of where we would be headed.

On May 19th, Nancy Pelosi was the recipient of the Profile in Courage Award, bestowed by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. She was rightly given the prize for her advocacy of the Affordable Care Act, the basis of a universal health-care system, which took decades of struggle to enact, and which she defended to help win a Democratic majority of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. The history of the Congress has been filled with profiles in courage, including, in recent times, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, standing to censure Senator Joseph McCarthy; Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, conducting hearings on the Vietnam War, despite his friendship with President Lyndon Johnson; and Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican of Arizona, telling President Richard Nixon that he must resign or face removal from office.

Nancy Pelosi knows that history. In accepting her Profile in Courage Award, she said, “In my public life, I have seen leaders who understood that their duty was not to do what was easy but what was right.” She added, “In the darkest hours of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, ‘The times have found us’ . . . and today the times have found us to strengthen America. It is not about politics but about patriotism.” The choice is hers. More than her reputation rests on it.

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-40 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-13 15:50
The author above is a professor of American history at Princeton. I pity poor Princeton students who have to take a course from this guy. He thinks Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will go down in history as a great Attorney General. This neo-confederate who launched the most vicious crackdown on migrants and refugees in all US history.

History is not some malleable set of pseudo facts that one can use to justify the political hatred of the day. This author's Trump Derangement Syndrome is clinical and probably will be fatal before the 2020 elections come around. It is the logic of his argument that shows his near brain death. He twists logic and law to try to make us believe that evidence insufficient even to file an indictment against Trump is "formidable." In law practice, if there is insufficient evidence against a suspect even to file an indictment, then the person is innocent and the case is closed. There is no formidable" evidence that leads to nothing. A prosecutor either indicts or he has nothing.

He also misrepresents Pelosi's problem. At the moment, there are only 76 democrats in favor of impeachment and 1 or 2 republicans. They know their constituents at home are more concerned with other issues. Opening hearings won't change that. Even impeachment hawks like Adam Schiff are now backing away.

The problem is that TDS sufferers like Wilentz just won't give up. They cannot. It is their disease. They are headed for the ash-heap of history.
+26 # Farafalla 2019-07-13 19:21
Doing your pro-Trump duty as usual RR.
-4 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-15 11:57
FF -- I don't see anything particularly pro-Trump in what I just wrote. But ---

"Hey hey, my my
Rock and roll can never die
There's more to the picture
Than meets the eye.

Out of the blue and into the black
You pay for this, but they give you that
And once you're gone, you can't come back
When you're out of the blue and into the black.

The king is gone but he's not forgotten
Is this the story of johnny rotten?
It's better to burn out 'cause rust never sleeps
The king is gone but he's not forgotten."

Neil Young, "Rust Never Sleeps"
+49 # futhark 2019-07-13 17:58
I read John F. Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" in 1962. I was in the 6th grade and Mr. Kennedy was still president. My recollection is that the book celebrated established politicians who put their continuing careers and reputations at stake by promoting unpopular positions. I even did my 11th grade American History term paper on one of the subjects examined in the book: then Representative Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri who spoke out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act that seemed to open the way for legalized slavery in Kansas as it entered the Union.

Ms. Pelosi has come far in her political career by taking positions that she has been confident were safe. However, now is the time to take a risk in promoting the impeachment of Mr. Trump, which may lead to a trial in the Senate that is likely not to convict because of political considerations. However, it is the right thing to do, sending a signal to all future presidents that they are subject to Congressional oversight.
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-14 09:23
I read Profiles in Courage at about the same time. I guess we all did.

As you say, Pelosi has come far in her career and she's now near the end of it. A transition to a younger and more progressive generation will take place. The transition can be collegial and gracious or it can be ugly. The media wants ugly because that will make the new party leaders seem ugly to their elders. Pelosi is somewhat ugly, but rather I think she is just out of touch with the younger generation as many older people are. I blame the media more than I blame her. I've never agreed with her policies but I understand what sort of a politician she is.

So far, I'm skeptical of impeachment. You've made good points on it all along and I recognize those. I just think Demos have bungled their reaction to Trump's 2016 victory at every stage. I'm not sure how they would do impeachment right now.
+29 # coberly 2019-07-13 18:23
well, i think Wilentz is right, though there is some possibility Pelosi is a smarter politician than he is. it may be that Trump can win re-election if only enough of his followers show up to vote, while the divided Dems stay home and sulk.

and i'd hate to see Mike Pence become President.

that said, i think trump needs to be impeached because he is destroying the constitution, never mind doing it to enact policies that are evil. the constitution does not protect us from policies that are evil... except that we can vote the bad guy out. but ignoring the power of the purse, and ignoring the judges who rule against him renders the constitution null. of course meanwhile we have a judiciary and a congress wholly owned by the insane money-interest, so maybe it's all moot anyway.

btw Wilentz did not say Sessions would go down in history as a great attorney general, only that he had partly redeemed his reputation as a fairly evil man by upholding the law as he understood it. while Rodion indulges in pretty childish rhetoric that makes it hard to take him seriously even when i agree with him.
+5 # economagic 2019-07-13 21:06
"Wilentz did not say Sessions would go down in history as a great attorney general, only that he had partly redeemed his reputation as a fairly evil man by upholding the law as he understood it. while Rodion indulges in pretty childish rhetoric that makes it hard to take him seriously even when i agree with him."

Correct re Sessions, and agreed re RR. Lots of knowledge but often unable to put it together into a coherent argument. Reminiscent of Vonnegut's "Galapagos," the theme of which was that the Big Brain Experiment was a failure.
-1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-14 11:59
cob -- well, OK. But read the sentence again:

"In our current constitutional emergency, a few unlikely figures, above all the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have upheld the rule of law,"

In our current emergency, Sessions stands "above all" as the one who has upheld the rule of law." That's pretty great. He did not name Mueller. Sessions is, apparently, above Mueller. Above all is pretty high praise.

But also, he is just trying to draw the contract with AG Barr who will in Wilentz's view be relegated to the lowest rings of hell.
+6 # dquandle 2019-07-13 20:50
Pelosi's $200 million pile is doing stupendously under Trump, and the "Republican" tax cuts, and hence there is no need or desire to impeach him, on her part.
+2 # LionMousePudding 2019-07-13 22:26
It is very clear to me that Pelosi wants Trump to win.

People claiming she has a long game are delusional.

If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck

Other than scoring a few personality points at the beginning, Pelosi has done nothing but support Trump. She just gave him the money we have been denying him for his wall, because he used kids as poker chips, and did not bother to save the kids.

How much more obvious could it be? She is in the Trump camp.

Why? All I can think of is she knows the only other person who could win an election is Bernie.

Or she is being blackmailed because she is as compromised as any other politician. I am sure she has plenty of skeletons in her closet.

The main thing is, she is NOT on the side of the American people.

She is a traitor to our country as she has the job under the Constitution of impeaching a rogue President

No one has ever been 1/10 as bad as Trump (Nixon is a speck of dust compared to Trump). But they will be.

Pelosi needs to be impeached herself.
-1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-14 11:43
I just want to correct two factual statements above. Here they are --

"To expose his actions in detail, however, starting with his manifest failure to defend the national security against continuing Russian cyberattacks and Putin’s open support for the evisceration of “obsolete” Western liberal democracy, would put the matter differently—and put him on the defensive."

1. All nations engage in cyber spying. The Pentagon has a division called Cyber Command which is parallel to the Air Force, Navy, Space Command, etc. Trump has pumped more money into cyber defense than anyone. There’s no evidence for anything other than the usual Russian cyber spying.

2. Putin does not use the term "western liberal democracy" as Wilentz dishonestly inserts here. Putin does criticize “western liberalism,” but he means by that “neo-liberalism ” or western dominated globalism – both polar opposites of “liberal democracy.” The article Wilentz references in the Financial Times says this: “Mr Putin’s evisceration of liberalism — the dominant western ideology since the end of the second world war in 1945.” Wilentz inserts “liberal democracy” and omits the reference to the US dominated world order since 1945.

continued below ---
-1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-14 11:45
continued from above --

Putin does say that neo-liberalism and the post-WW II US dominated world economic order are “obsolete.” I think a majority of Americans would agree with him. That’s why Sanders and democratic socialism are doing so well. They too reject the economic world order that destroyed labor unions and the middle class and has brought corporations into control of government via neo-liberal trade agreements like the WTO, GATT, or NAFTA. It is generally understood that fascism means the corporate control of government; so how can this have anything to do with “liberal democracy.” The “liberalism” of the US post-WW II era really should be called the period of the full implementation of fascism. This is what Putin thinks is obsolete.

Moreover, there has been a consistent Russian critique the decadence, atheism, and materialism of the west since the early 1800s. Putin shares this Russian Slavophilism. And why shouldn’t he? Is there anything in the Euro-American model to hold up as a standard? Liberal democracy in the West has always been a fraud and a false front for militarism, colonialism, and oligarchy. In fact, the major social movement of the second half of the 19th century in Europe is called itself “decadence” and it proclaimed the death of “liberal democracy” in the exploitation of excess. See Gautier, Zola, Huysmanns, Baudelaire, or Oscar Wilde.

continued below --
-1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-14 11:55
continued from above --

Anyone with an understanding of Russian or European history would understand Putin's opinions about the West. But if your goal is to make people hate or fear Russia, then you would misrepresent Putin’s opinions in the way Wilentz does. Hate and fear are Trump’s tactics. We should want nothing to do with them.

Pelosi is a figure at the end of a phase in the democratic party dominated by its center right faction --Clintons, Podestas, Pelosi, etc. They are passing. This same thing is happening on the world scale to the Post WW II world order. It is no longer a uni-polar world. Asia is emerging to re-take a central place in the world economy. Russia straddles Asia and Europe. The US is fading; when the tyranny of the dollar goes, so will the US.

Transition and change are OK. They are in fact necessary. The younger generation replace the older. This is good and necessary. American world domination is obsolete and is passing. This, too, is good and necessary.
-1 # coberly 2019-07-14 18:39
good point about Putin re "liberal democracy v neoliberal

as for "above all" i don't know how to translate that, so i ignore it. i guess i was taking it to mean Sessions was the most unexpected champion of rule of law. i'm not so sure, 'rule of law" has always been a right wing holy icon, never mind justice or decency.
+4 # RLF 2019-07-14 14:49
Pelosi is an example of everything that is wrong with the moderate Dems. She stands for nothing because of her fundraising among the wealthiest and she fight only those in her own party. When Trump wants some border spending money, she is more than happy to give it to him with narry a word! What a piece of crap!
+4 # dandevries 2019-07-14 21:46
Wilentz' commentary regarding impeachment would all be well and good enough, except that it continues to beat the dead Russian horse. The problem is no Drumpf's nor his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia. The problem is his essential criminality in matters both domestic and international, only a minor portion of which (the money laundering) involves Russia.
0 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-07-15 18:27
dan -- you have it right. Why is this so hard for so many people to see. Trump is awful not because he conspired with Putin but because he is just awful and always has been.
0 # coberly 2019-07-15 19:09

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