Members Only | September 23, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pelosi Faces a Crisis of Confidence

On impeachment, her position can no longer be defended.

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I have spent considerable time and energy defending the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I have praised her poise and her shrewd leadership, especially her permitting an impeachment inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee to move forward while shielding simultaneously the most vulnerable Democrats. I have even heralded her as the most effective member of the Trump-era resistance. But now?

I’m done.

In the past, I gushed over Nancy Pelosi’s brilliance in playing both sides of the impeachment question. I loved how she said that the House would follow the facts wherever they may lead, even if the facts led to impeachment, while at the same time saying that impeachment was divisive and, therefore, required bipartisan support. I believed her ambivalence was defensible on the grounds that it allowed the Democrats to deliberate without giving away the game. But that ambivalence has resulted in something dangerous and unacceptable: a president with no one holding him back.

Pelosi’s position can no longer be defended.

Moreover, I believe she faces a crisis of confidence if this week she fails to choose wisely. She has been exceedingly concerned about the fears of a minority of Democrats, particularly those who won Republican-leaning districts last year. She has been exceedingly unconcerned about the demands of a growing majority of Democrats who stand appalled at the sight of a president sabotaging the American people.

The Speaker of the House risks complicity in our slow-motion cataract into autocracy. 

After Thursday, the House Speaker may end up forfeiting the moral authority she has worked hard to earn. She must understand that inaction equals action, and that if she chooses unwisely, she risks complicity in our slow-motion cataract into autocracy. 

Donald Trump is above the law. This is a fact.

This is a fact that none of us cares for, that none of us condones, and that most of us fear. But it is a fact, nonetheless, because no one with constitutional authority has been willing to check Trump’s lawlessness. He is committing crimes others would be prosecuted for. He is thus beggaring any meaning of equality before the law. He is untouchable. Recall what Stephen Miller said in 2017: “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” 

Trump was not protecting our country, of course, when he demanded that the new Ukrainian president help him win reelection in 2020 in exchange for millions in US aid. Trump was selling out his country. He was undermining the people’s sovereignty. He was betraying public trust and the common good. He was misusing tax-payer dollars. (His gambit was extortion after all.) He was abusing the powers of his office. And this is only what we know about. Corruption of presidential magnitude tends to be a “vampire squid.” Its tendrils go everywhere sucking the virtue out of everything. 

Yet the “most effective member of the resistance” had little new to say Friday except that she hopes to pass future laws authorizing future prosecutors to be able to indict future presidents of alleged future crimes. She did draw a bright line, though.

We must hold her to it.

She said that if the president continues to obstruct the Congress in its investigation of the whistleblower complaint (which is what started all this) he then “will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation” (my italics). The speaker said that she expected the acting National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire to hand over the complaint when he testifies on Thursday.

What happens if he doesn’t?

If she does not escalate the conflict between the branches of government—that is, use the tools available to her, including arresting and detaining uncooperative administration officials—she risks surrendering the moral high ground. If she fails to act, in other words, she cannot continue to speak morally while acting amorally. The speaker cannot keep using, unchallenged, the language of the constitution and democratic norms if she proves unwilling to do everything in her power to stop the president’s lawlessness and to restore equilibrium to the constitutional order. 

If she does not take meaningful action after the administration crosses her bright line (assuming that it does), Pelosi will in effect reveal her weakness as a leader as well as her complicity in Trump’s lawlessness. She can be honest, or she can be dishonest. The speaker can say she won’t act out of fear that her party will lose its majority in the House. That would be honest. But she cannot accuse Trump of profaning the rule of law if she won’t defend it. That would be dishonest. Worse, that would be fraudulent.

The Democrats won the midterms on the promise that they would check the president’s power and hold him accountable by way of congressional oversight. If Pelosi does not appropriately counter the president’s blatant disregard for the law and for congressional authority, she may as well admit the midterms were a con, that the Democrats only said all that good stuff to get voters to put them in the majority.

Either she means it when she says the constitution must prevail or doesn’t.

The speaker is facing a crisis of confidence. I hope she chooses wisely.

—John Stoehr

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

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