Finally, on Tuesday, she appeared: the constitutional officer whom the framers envisioned as the check on a rogue executive abusing his power. Earlier in the day, in remarks at the Atlantic Festival, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had referred, as she does often, to the famous Abraham Lincoln quote that “public sentiment is everything.” Then came Pelosi’s announcement that the House of Representatives would open a formal impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Trump. So, it now falls onto Pelosi’s shoulders to move public sentiment with focus and unified purpose.
Pelosi has taken ownership of impeachment. Now she must own the process.
How the impeachment inquiry proceeds — including the possible drafting of articles of impeachment and the vote on them — is as important as the initiation of the formal inquiry. Pelosi has a chance right now to seize the moment and fix what’s gone wrong over these past months of bumbling, disjointed hearings across multiple committees. Yes, important nuggets of evidence have come to light, but there is still no coherent story before the American people, and thus it’s no surprise that the public has a difficult time grasping the seriousness of the president’s aberrant behavior. It has all been a muddle, and it can still get worse — especially if Pelosi’s stated plan goes forward to allow all six committees to retain jurisdiction, with each conducting investigations “under that umbrella of an impeachment inquiry.” That’s tailor-made for the president’s playbook of obfuscation and distraction.
Have Democrats learned the lessons of recent months? We know this: Witnesses will be hostile and belligerent with members. They will refuse to appear, asserting privileges that do not exist in fact or in law. The president and his sycophants in the White House will withhold documents until the courts stop him, if the courts stop him. His allies and protectors will read from Trump’s script. Already, the president has recast his explanation for the decision to withhold Ukraine aid to dissatisfaction with European contributions. Just as he did to Hillary Clinton, Andrew McCabe, James B. Comey and Robert S. Mueller III, the president is trying desperately to flip the script, this time away from his solicitation of the Ukraine president to former vice president Joe Biden. The fog is rolling in, and to pierce it, the impeachment inquiry must weave the threads of the president’s behavior into a singular, clear narrative with one bright spotlight shining on it. Not six committees, six investigations, six stories.
The allegation that Trump solicited a foreign government to investigate a political opponent is the Russia investigation in real time. The distinction here is that Trump, as president, has done what he could not do as a candidate in 2016 — press a foreign leader for dirt on an opponent and withhold millions of dollars in desperately needed aid as a condition of compliance. This story, carefully documented, can provide the lens for understanding so much of Trump’s troubling behavior, as a candidate and as a president, till now.
There is still time to pull the six chairmen onto a select committee. There is still time to consolidate and prioritize the investigations, to put the questioning in the hands of an able committee lawyer and to establish rules to enable a report out to the House in short order. And what better way to avoid having the full House be drawn in the impeachment inquiry? If the six committees proceed simultaneously as planned, it means that more than half of the Democratic caucus will have a foot in the impeachment room — that sounds like a six-ring circus to me. The last thing America needs right now is a series of competing witnesses, overlapping hearings, repetitive questions and dueling subpoenas. Not everything is important. A single committee can sort what matters from what doesn’t.
One committee. One chairman. One lawyer asking the questions. It will not be popular in her caucus. But the speaker has to set the terms. After all, she will bear the consequence of a process that flounders.