The president admitted it to me on the phone without even any embarrassment.” Nancy Pelosi, super Speaker, on Trump’s unfitness, the decision to impeach, and “weaving” her fractious caucus.
Lost in the wilderness of the Trump era, Democrats looked long and hard for a champion: Robert Mueller, the media, even Michael Avenatti. But when the party retook the House in November and Nancy Pelosi began her historic second term as speaker, no one doubted the search was over. She’d been a GOP target and, some centrists thought, an electoral liability given her San Francisco roots. But now no one doubted that she was the indispensable Democrat, cheerfully jousting with AOC and “the Squad,” mediating the hoary conflict between the party’s left and its center (she describes herself as “a weaver,” which is a nice word for how she sometimes has to operate), winning with substance (her party’s focus on health care) and imagery (the famous Max Mara red coat, the donning of the sunglasses after her triumphant border wall meeting with Trump and Senator Chuck Schumer), and holding fire on impeachment until precisely the right moment. The Speaker talks to Abigail Tracy about the road to impeachment, how the Democrats won in 2018, why Trump is unique among presidents she’s known, and the work to be done after Trump is gone.
Tell me about the moment you reached the decision to go down the impeachment path.
I take a lot of guidance from the vision of our founders, and our founders fought very hard for our democracy, for our country, for our Constitution. In the dark days of revolution, Thomas Paine said, “The times have found us.” We believe that the times have found us to keep the republic from all enemies, foreign and domestic. And that would be those who say things like, “Article II says I can do whatever I want.” That’s not a republic, that’s a monarchy. That’s not what we have.
Do you think President Trump understands why people think what he said in his call with the Ukrainian president was wrong?
I don’t know what he understands. But if he understands that Article II lets him do whatever he wants, then it’s a big misunderstanding.
How did your experience as a legislator during the Bill Clinton impeachment shape your view?
The Clinton impeachment was totally, totally wrong for our country. The president, of course, was personally wrong to do what he did. But that’s not an impeachable offense. I was very concerned at the time—because I do take impeachment seriously—that the Republicans were using it very frivolously and were disrespectful to the Constitution.
When I became speaker, people wanted me to impeach President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq. And I said, as the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, that the intelligence did not support the threat. They were misrepresenting to American people what was happening in Iraq. But I didn’t think you could impeach one president and then go impeach the next president, and then that would become a way of life for our country. So if other people wanted to develop their case, then I let them do that, but I was not going to initiate it on President Bush.
Many of your members, especially after the Mueller report, were eager to impeach, but you resisted. Why?
There is plenty of grist for the mill in the Mueller report. But not the actual, “What was the obstruction of justice about?” With Ukraine, we had what his violation of the Constitution was about. It just made all the difference in the world. It was the dawning of a new day, crossing the Rubicon—any analogy you want to use or metaphor you want to use. We had no choice, I had no choice but to go forward. Especially after the president admitted it to me on the phone without even any embarrassment about what he did and got caught doing.
Some members in your caucus credit excitement from the base and a desire for a check on President Trump to your victory in the midterms in 2018. Others argue it was the messaging around issues like health care. What is your diagnosis?
Oh, it was health care. We had a very disciplined campaign in terms of a purpose. “For the people” was our agenda. We were going to lower health care costs by lowering costs of prescription drugs and preserving [protections for] preexisting conditions. Two, we were going to increase paychecks by building infrastructure in a green way. Three, we were going to have cleaner government by reducing the role of big dark money in politics and ending voter suppression others inserted in the bill. And the issue of health security, it’s just very dominant. People have determined it is “the issue” and this is the difference between Democrats and Republicans.
In terms of the base being motivated by Trump, well, he turned out to be a good recruiter of candidates for us, a good fundraiser for us, and a great mobilizer at the grassroots level. But that’s about elections. That’s not about impeachment.
It is hard not to notice that he has rarely used a nickname for you.
Who cares? I don’t care if he has a nickname, maybe that’s why he didn’t do it.
I treat him with respect. I respect the office he holds. Sometimes I think I respect the office he holds more than he respects the office he holds. I try not to ask him to do something that isn’t in his interest. And it is in his interest to lower the cost of health care, to protect children, to build the infrastructure of America.
I pray for him, I pray for his family, their safety. I pray that he will see the light that we need to protect other families in our country as well.
Compare Trump to other presidents you worked with.
While we had our differences of opinion—even with President George W. Bush—they believed in governance. Trump doesn’t believe in governance. So, it’s very hard to see what would motivate him to do something really good and transformative. The only thing that he has accomplished, and it’s sad to say for our country, is a tax cut that will give 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent. And he thinks that’s an accomplishment.
Have you been at all surprised by the behavior of the broader Republican party in the Trump era?
No. I’m not surprised. I mean, their oath of office is clearly to Donald Trump and not to the Constitution of the United States. Forgetting his personal grotesqueness, there is nothing he is about, in terms of the issues, that they haven’t been there longer and worse. Name any issue— climate, a woman’s right to choose, fairness in our economy, gun safety, how we treat immigrants. Any issue you can name, they have always been there and worse than he is. He is like their JFK. He is their guy.
Nothing surprises me ever. But nothing surprises me about their compatibility with him on the issues, on policy, as well as the concerns they have about how popular he might be in their districts.
Much has been made about a perceived conflict between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic caucus this Congress. Has anything really changed?
No. No, it’s been the same forever. We’ve always had a big tent, we’ve always had different elements of the party. I myself am a San Francisco liberal and I’m proud of that. Republicans bought 137,000 ads describing me as such during the 2018 campaign. It didn’t work for them. We won 40 seats in the most gerrymandered, voter-suppressed districts you can name.
We’ve always had our exuberances, but we’ve always had our common ground. And as I say, “Our diversity is our strength, our unity is our power,” and that’s what President Trump fears most.
Why do you think these divisions have been amplified?
I think some of the press likes to play on it and it feeds right into the Trump agenda to say, “Oh, they’re in conflict with each other.” And I really wish that there would be a little more discernment about what really is a division and what isn’t.
But again, I say this to you, I think the press have been accomplices with the president in undermining opposition to him by saying, “Oh, somebody said this and therefore there’s a civil war in the Democratic party,” when three people said it, and it’s like, what? Which people said it? What’s that? I’m always respectful of my members and their different views, but it’s nothing new. As I said to them, “You know what you’re talking about? I had those signs in my basement from 30 years ago.”
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of your caucus?
I’ve been here a while so I know a lot of them. And then as new ones come in, it’s easy to absorb because I’ve known the others. I do consider myself a weaver. That I’m at this loom and I’m weaving and I want every thread to be in the tapestry. Whether it’s the big tent of where we are—generationally, gender, gender ID, philosophically, ethnically—all of that adds strength to it. And in order to take advantage of all that strength, it’s important to respect what the difference is that it brings to the tapestry. That’s what we are, the Democratic party. We are not a rubber stamp, lockstep party as the Republicans are. We have our beautiful diversity and that, again, is our strength.
One thing people say is that I can bring people together. I don’t unify them; our values do. So I get more credit than I deserve because it’s not me. It’s our values that unite us.