Did Pelosi cave on impeachment? Depends on who you ask: ANALYSIS

Democrats say she forced a debate on fairness and exposed GOP fault lines.

January 11, 2020, 9:04 AM

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waited more than three weeks to deliver the impeachment articles for President Donald Trump -- a seemingly odd move after Democrats spent weeks arguing that removing Trump was urgently needed to protect the integrity of the 2020 election.

Even as some Democrats joined Republicans in calling for the articles to move, Pelosi coolly responded that she would do so only when she was good and ready.

"It cracks me up to see on TV, ‘Oh, the pressure,'" Pelosi told reporters Friday, just moments before telling her colleagues in a letter that she was ready to send the articles -- even without seeing the text of impeachment trial rules from Senate Republicans she had insisted was necessary.

“Where’s the pressure? I have news for them. You don’t have a story,” she said.

In the end, Pelosi’s maneuvering might have some Americans scratching their heads. Democrats insist her delay was about maximizing leverage, and that she got as much as she could. Republicans counter she undercut her own argument of urgency and lost momentum.

Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff, said he thinks she got what she wanted. By the time the Republican majority votes to acquit Trump as expected, Democrats will insist it was a “tainted trial,” he said.

“This has been a strategy that essentially shines a bright light on the question of fairness,” Elshami said.

Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Democratic Sens. Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy, agreed.

"Among other things, it drove the president nuts while also forcing Republicans repeatedly to defend their lack of willingness to call witnesses as part of a determined effort to hold a real trial in the Senate," he told ABC News.

PHOTO: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi walks off the House floor in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 10, 2020.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi walks off the House floor in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 10, 2020.
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA via Shutterstock

What Pelosi got: A public debate on trial rules and exposed GOP fault lines

One concern among Democrats was that Trump’s acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate would be swift without allowing for witnesses and documents, essentially flipping headlines from “Trump impeached” to "Trump acquitted" without giving voters time to absorb the details.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had already mocked the House inquiry as “weak” and promised to conduct a Senate trial “in total coordination” with White House lawyers.

“We all know how it’s going to end,” McConnell said in a December interview with Fox News Sean Hannity. “There is no chance the president is going to be removed from office.”

Those comments though triggered GOP moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to speak out, telling a local news affiliate she was "disturbed" by the comment and stirring speculation she might side with Democrats to propose certain rules or subpoena witnesses or documents.

Then came the unsolicited offer by John Bolton – Trump’s former national security adviser -- to testify.

Another witness had already testified in the House that Bolton had privately compared the White House pressure campaign on Ukraine to a “drug deal” cooked up by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

New evidence surfaced, too. An Aug. 30 email leaked to the public quoted a White House budget official telling the Pentagon that it was “clear direction from POTUS to hold” military assistance for Ukraine despite repeated warnings that doing so was probably illegal.

The result was mounting pressure on moderate or vulnerable Republicans to agree to allow new witnesses and other evidence introduced into the Senate trial.

“I’d like to hear what John Bolton has to say,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

McConnell ultimately said he would propose rules “similar” to those agreed to by Senate Democrats for President Bill Clinton’s trial. Those rules would allow for new witnesses and documents, but later in the trial if 51 senators agree.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he wasn't happy with the idea, noting differences in the Clinton and Trump cases. But he seemed pleased with what Pelosi had done.

“If she had sent them (the impeachment articles) right away, McConnell could have well just voted for dismissal the day before or after Christmas," he told ABC's "This Week." "Now, in the last two weeks, where we haven't had the articles, lots of new evidence that bolsters our case for witnesses -- for witnesses and documents has come out.”

Pelosi's caucus fell in line without argument.

“I think her judgment has been uncanny, and I am not about to second-guess her,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., a progressive and early impeachment advocate who was critical of her stance on impeachment early last year.

PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to a briefing with national security officials on the details of the threat that prompted the attack on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, Jan. 8, 2020 on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to a briefing by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and other national security officials on the details of the threat that prompted the U.S. to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, Jan. 8, 2020 on Capitol Hill.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

What McConnell got: GOP unity on process and the talking point that Democrats were playing political games

For Republicans, Pelosi’s delay only undercut Democrats’ own argument that they needed to act urgently because Trump’s actions were so dire.

“For months, House Democrats said @realDonaldTrump was a national security threat and that impeachment was urgent,” wrote Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, in a tweet refired by Trump. “Where’s the urgency now?”

The delay also gave McConnell space to assert himself and take control. All eyes were on the GOP leader this month as he delivered blistering floor speeches knocking Democrats for playing politics.

“House Democrats are treating impeachment like a political toy -- a political toy -- treating their own effort to remove the commander like some frivolous game,” McConnell said shortly before Pelosi announced she would transmit the articles. “These bizarre stunts do not serve our Constitution or our national security. They erode both.”

McConnell also was able to cobble together a party agreement to support the Clinton trial rules. While that approach includes an opportunity for Democrats to demand witnesses, it’s not guaranteed and Democrats wouldn’t be able to raise the idea until after opening arguments are made and senators have submitted questions.

“What was good enough for President Clinton is good enough for President Trump,” he said.

Collins and Romney said they were on board. But on Friday, Collins suggested the matter wasn't over yet and confirmed she was talking with her GOP colleagues on “how we can adhere as closely as practical to the precedent” of Clinton’s trial, including an eventual decision on witnesses.

“I am hopeful that we can reach an agreement on how to proceed with the trial that will allow the opportunity for witnesses for both the House managers and the President’s counsel if they choose to do so,” she said.

“It is important that both sides be treated fairly,” Collins added.

ABC News producer John Parkinson contributed to this report.