The House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton on Dec. 19, 1998. It was a Saturday. The votes, in which two articles of impeachment passed, were held around mid-day. By 3 p.m., the House had named its impeachment managers and physically delivered the articles to the Senate for trial.
Impeachment was on. The House, controlled by a Republican majority, was serious about its ultimately failed effort to remove Clinton from office.
Contrast that to today. On Wednesday, Dec. 18, at around 8 p.m., the Democratic-controlled House passed two articles of impeachment against President Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately announced that the House would not appoint managers, and the articles would not be delivered to the Senate. The next day, Pelosi told reporters she did not want to talk any more about it, and the House went into recess until Jan. 7.
Impeachment was not on, or at least a Senate trial was not on. Pelosi was holding out, apparently, for better terms in a Senate trial.
That is where events stand today.
Pelosi acted after a Harvard professor and zealous impeachment advocate, Laurence Tribe, published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing the Democratic strategy should be “voting for articles of impeachment but holding off for the time being on transmitting them to the Senate.”
Withholding the articles, Tribe said, would strengthen Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s hand as he negotiates with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the terms of the trial. It would do so, Tribe speculated, “because of McConnell’s and Trump’s urgent desire to get this whole business behind them.”
Without concessions from McConnell, Tribe urged Democrats to withhold the articles indefinitely, because a trial dominated by majority Republicans “would fail to render a meaningful verdict of acquittal.”
It seemed a far-fetched idea, to be generous. McConnell and Senate Republicans would be perfectly happy if they never had to hold a trial; after all, they didn’t impeach Trump. “I admit I’m not sure what leverage there is in refraining from sending us something we do not want,” McConnell said drily.
After the weekly Senate Republican lunch, I asked one GOP lawmaker, via text, what the party’s reaction was. He texted back a one-word answer: “Laughter.”
Nevertheless, Tribe’s idea took off like a rocket in some circles of the Democratic left. His column was published on Monday morning, and by Wednesday night Pelosi had adopted his plan.
Just to be clear: Pelosi has no leverage at all over a Senate proceeding. The Constitution gives the House the “sole power” to impeach, a power Pelosi and her majority used to its fullest. But the Constitution gives the Senate the “sole power” to try all impeachments. The speaker of the House has no role.
Given that, Republicans have been wondering what Pelosi is up to. Crazy theories — at least they seem to be crazy theories — have emerged. Democrats would impeach the president repeatedly. (That was actually a serious suggestion from a New York Times columnist in October.) Or Democrats would never send the articles to the Senate, to keep impeachment hanging over Trump’s head. Or whatever.
The key Democrats involved aren’t saying. But one plausible notion came from The Hill columnist A.B. Stoddard, who keeps a close eye on Democrats. Party leaders have their eye on the ongoing investigations into Trump, Stoddard said on Fox News last Thursday. What about reports of Russian money going to Ukraine figure Lev Parnas’ wife? What are prosecutors in the Southern District of New York doing? Is something big coming? There is, Stoddard said, “a lot of pressure on Democrats to wait this out until there is more to throw at the president.”
It’s not clear precisely how that would work, because the House has already passed two articles of impeachment that make specific accusations against Trump. Beyond that, withholding impeachment indefinitely in hopes that a federal investigation will come up with something big — basically what Democrats did in the Trump-Russia affair — might end in disappointment.
In any event, Pelosi is withholding the articles of impeachment. It is unclear how long she will do it, but it seems they will be withheld at least until Jan. 7, when the House returns for business. That alone will delay a Senate trial significantly. (In the Clinton impeachment, as noted above, the House vote was on Dec. 19, the articles were sent to the Senate the same day, and the trial began Jan. 7.)
In the limbo Pelosi has created, almost anything seems possible. Recently, Brit Hume, of Fox News, tweeted, “If House Democrats continue to play this game, I can’t see what would prevent McConnell and the Senate Republicans from dismissing the articles of impeachment for lack of prosecution. It would take two-thirds to convict, but only a simple majority to dismiss.” That seemed like an entirely sensible option for Senate Republicans, although one certain to draw howls of opposition from Pelosi and Democrats.
During the House impeachment inquiry, Republicans often complained that Democrats did not observe basic rules of fairness. On one hand, Democrats denied it, and on the other, they argued that the majority can do what it wants. It’s true. Given the constitutional authorities involved, the House Democratic majority could do what it wanted during impeachment. Now, if there ever is a trial, the Senate Republican majority can do what it wants. And whatever they choose in the end, Pelosi’s gamesmanship will likely make them more united.