Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

How to Impeach Donald Trump

The Republican Senate won't do it. The Democratic House won't do it. But there is a way, if Nancy Pelosi wants to do it.
June 18, 2019
Featured Image
(Digital collage: Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Library of Congress)

Why is Nancy Pelosi slow-walking impeachment?

Is it because she thinks impeachment would be too divisive? That there’s insufficient public support? That the virtual guarantee that the Republican Senate would not convict makes it a lost cause not worth pursuing?

These are the obvious considerations and certainly all of them are at play in her thinking. But there’s another consideration which seems to have escaped the notice of most observers.

It’s the House.

Yes, the Democratic House. Nancy’s own domain.

You don’t have to be the speaker to know that the votes aren’t there. Just take a look at the New York Times’ running total on where House Democrats stand on impeachment: There are 235 Democrats in the House, more than enough to impeach if all of them were on board. But they aren’t.

Just over 60 of the 235 unequivocally support launching an impeachment inquiry. Approximately twice that number are either against or undecided. Another 100 or so have ducked responding to the Times inquiry.

Which means that if only 18 of the publicly undecided Democrats (or of the 100 Democrats who haven’t yet weighed in) were to vote against impeachment, it would fail.

Many of the House Democrats who already oppose impeachment are from swing districts that handed Congress to the Democrats in the 2018 election. They won because they carefully avoided making their campaigns about Trump, focusing instead on issues such as health care and education. They can’t be counted on to vote for impeachment. It’s not hard to imagine that if put to a choice, enough of them would vote no to kill any chance of winning an impeachment vote in the House.

And that would be a disaster.

A failed impeachment vote in the Democratic House would be far worse than a failed conviction in the Republican Senate.

Which means that it’s not just a Senate vote that needs to be avoided. It’s a House vote.


I suspect that the prospect of losing a vote in the House is precisely what is behind Nancy Pelosi’s slow-walk on impeachment. Nobody is better at counting votes than Pelosi. Nobody is more pragmatic than Pelosi. She’s not going to lead her caucus off a cliff.

But avoiding an impeachment vote doesn’t necessarily require avoiding an impeachment inquiry.

So why is Pelosi opposed even to that?

I suspect that the answer for the pragmatic Pelosi has more to do with timing than anything else.

It’s too soon.

How long can House Democrats string along an impeachment inquiry that by necessity can’t end in an actual vote? How long until the public gets sick of it, and turns on the Democrats for running a pointless, never-ending political show? Right now the election is almost a year and a half away. That’s too long.

The alternative is to run a stealthy, undeclared impeachment process. Call it an investigation, call it oversight, call it anything you want—but don’t call it impeachment. In fact, make a big show of being against impeachment because it would be so divisive, and such an obstacle to the House doing its real job of work for the American people. And while you’re doing that, call witnesses, force Trump to stonewall, and win one court battle after another.

Then wait until the presidential campaign is in full swing—when it’s too late to get to an impeachment vote—and announce that the president has left you no choice but to start a formal impeachment inquiry: We might not be able to remove, or even impeach him, but we owe a duty to the Constitution and to future generations not to turn a blind eye to his misconduct.

Never finish.

Right up to the election.

Philip Rotner

Philip Rotner is a columnist whose articles appear in national publications and on his website, philiprotner.com. Philip is an attorney who has practiced for over 40 years, both in private practice and as the general counsel of a global professional services firm.  Philip’s views are his own, and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.