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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Power politics

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That phrase comes to mind as America witnesses an inter-governmental standoff regarding President Donald Trump’s impeachment. The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole authority to impeach a president; it affords the Senate the sole authority to place on trial a president who has been impeached. The Senate then votes either to acquit or to convict the president. If the latter occurs — and it never has — the president is removed from office. Impeachment is a rare and solemn political process that exists within a broad legal framework. I say “broad” because the Constitution is not very prescriptive regarding how the two chambers should execute their duties. And therein lies the challenge in this hyper-partisan era. 

The House voted to impeach Trump last month. In the case of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, the trial started within days; in the case of Bill Clinton (who was impeached exactly 20 years earlier than Trump), the trial started in a few weeks. As of this writing, no date has been set for the Senate to begin its trial of Trump. Most Democratic observers speculate that this is due to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, wanting to ensure that the Senate trial is orderly, transparent and non-partisan. The Republican view is that Pelosi wants to first embarrass the president and his party, and second, to impact the 2020 election.  

Given the three major personalities involved — Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — the standoff has the potential to become a full-blown constitutional crisis. Pelosi reserves the right to determine the timing and process for delivering the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate. Again, given that the Constitution is not very prescriptive, Chief Justice John Roberts and his SCOTUS colleagues may need to weigh in. (Roberts, who is notoriously loath to engage in public political battles, is probably in a corner praying for a resolution.)  

Pelosi is the matriarch of power politics. She is the first, second and only woman to serve as Speaker of the House. (She is also the first person to return to that role after an absence since the legendary Sam Rayburn did so in 1955.) Of course, I’m old enough to remember when there was a major debate within the Democratic Party as to whether Pelosi should again be voted in as Speaker. Some inside and outside the House’s hallowed halls argued that it was time for new (i.e., younger) leaders to assume power. After rancorous debates, Pelosi prevailed. This was one of many examples in which she demonstrated that she knows how to play the quintessential “boys’ game” — and to play it superlatively well.  

Pelosi reminds me of that person who actually reads their company’s privacy policies. The person who, upon hearing the phrase “read the fine print,” gets goose pimples. In short, she is like the annoying person who knows all the arcane company rules that her co-workers are supposed to know — but don’t. (Incidentally, that is a key reason why she is someone whom Donald Trump should fear.) 

Washington insiders know that it’s not a good idea to cross Pelosi. She has a lot of power — which she is not afraid to wield. Trump found out as much when Pelosi stared him down regarding his 2019 State of the Union address, which Presidents have traditionally delivered from the House of Representatives. (Of course, the “Pelosi clap” during the address will live forever in internet lore.) Trump is scheduled to offer his 2020 Address on Feb. 4. It is anyone’s guess as to whether he will have been acquitted in the Senate by then. In addition to substantial power, Pelosi possess two other key attributes in spades: intelligence and patience.   

It is important to emphasize that Pelosi did not want to impeach Trump, which she knew would be a major distraction. She also understood the political risks of doing so. In order for her to succeed in executing her agenda in the House, it is imperative for her to maintain the Democratic majority. She also wants to ensure that a Democrat is elected president in 2020. Thus, she largely ignored impeachment calls from many people in her caucus (and from the general public), especially following the release of the Mueller Report.

Pelosi was goaded into pursuing impeachment following the revelation that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine, which was an illegal act. Of course, Republicans (including Trump) have argued that Pelosi is threatening the Republican-led Senate’s authority to conduct the “trial” phase of impeachment. However, just this week, Leader McConnell has said that he has enough votes to change the Senate rules for impeachment without any votes from Democrats.) 

Trump’s polarizing words and tactics, including calling out “business-as-usual” politics, are designed to excite his base and extend his power. He has more than met his match in Pelosi, who is also shaking up things in Washington. She understands what she can and cannot do legally. Democrats view Pelosi’s stance as principled, as well as a counterweight to the public stance that McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham have taken. (Both have “stacked the deck” by indicating they’ll vote in acquit Trump.) Time will tell who prevails.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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