November 19, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Does Nancy Pelosi Have a Fallback Plan for Impeaching Donald Trump?

The Democrats want to know if the president lied to Mueller.

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Everyone is paying attention today to a third round of impeachment testimony, as everyone should. But keep on an eye on what might be a fallback plan for the Democrats. Try as they might, House investigators might end up returning to the original allegation against the president, which was colluding with Russia to win.

Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have kept a tight focus on Donald Trump’s attempted bribery of Ukraine’s president. The thinking is that going all-in on impeachment means the Democrats must make the inquiry about something simple and dramatic in order to claim that Trump did something wrong for the wrong reasons and that he might do it again if he isn’t stopped. So it’s been all Ukraine all the time.

The Democrats wanted to leave Mueller behind, but Roger Stone’s conviction changes things.

Importantly, Pelosi and others wanted to move away from the messiness that was the Robert Mueller investigation. As damning as it was, the Mueller report didn’t move public opinion the way the Democrats had hoped it would. As they inch closer to indicting a president for the third time in our history, they want to avoid appearing to prove the false allegation that they are trying to undo the last presidential election.

But last week’s conviction of Roger Stone shook things up a bit. Stone, as you recall, is a political operative, a con man, a fraud, a former advisor to Richard Nixon and a Trump confidante. He was convicted last week of witness tampering and lying to the Congress in connection with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference.

Turns out that yes, Stone knew Wikileaks had emails that the Russians hacked and stole from the Democratic National Committee; and it turns out that yes, Stone was in contact with the president about Wikileaks’ release of a tranche of DNC emails that upended the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It’s established fact that Stone communicated with Trump. The question is whether the president lied to Mueller in written statements. More importantly, what did he know and when did he know it?

House lawyers want a federal judge to release redacted portions of the Mueller report to find out the answer. (It’s a federal felony to lie to the FBI). But Mueller himself has already said he knows. During his testimony, he said Trump was “generally” untruthful in written statements. If House investigators can verify, then the president would be in a similar situation that President Bill Clinton found himself in the late 1990s. As a reminder, the House Republicans indicted and tried Clinton in the Senate for lying under oath in order to cover up a sexual relationship he had with Monica Lewinsky.

There is some risk to making the comparison. Most Democrats, and a majority of the American people, thought Clinton’s impeachment was illegitimate. (Indeed, the more the Republicans tried to bring him down, the more popular he got.) If House investigators were to focus solely on lying, they’d risk casting the Democrats as a party of hypocrites, underscoring the claim that today’s impeachment is merely political.

The GOP once thought lying about sex was enough to impeach. So far, betrayal of one’s country isn’t.

Of consequence, however, isn’t whether Trump lied. All presidents lie (though none nearly as prolifically as Trump has). Of consequence is what Trump lied about. Again, Clinton lied because a blowjob from a White House intern half his age was going to look bad to liberals and conservatives alike. Trump, however, lied to Mueller’s team (“generally”) because it looks bad to be seen conspiring with a foreign enemy. The question, therefore, is which of these rises to a “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Republicans once thought sex was enough. So far, betrayal of one’s country isn’t.

Again, this could be a fallback plan. Pelosi and the Democratic leadership have said they want to wrap up impeachment proceedings in the House by year’s end. In the meantime, the federal judge presiding over the decision of whether to release redacted portions of the Mueller report has set a hearing for Jan. 3. It might be all over by then.

Will it? I’m doubtful. The more witnesses come forward, the more damning their testimony will be. The Democrats, meanwhile, have incentive to let them talk and talk and talk. They have to persuade Americans that he did something wrong for the wrong reasons and might do it again if not stopped. So I don’t see why they’d stop people from testifying when every word creates one damaging headline after another. By then, the House Democrats might be willing to return to the original charge against him.

May it be so.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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