Hoyer responded that he’d come to the same conclusion over the weekend following a wave of stunning news reports about Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine — and potentially withhold military assistance from the U.S. ally — for his own political benefit.
“The facts drove the timing and the decision,” Pelosi told POLITICO in a brief interview. “And that’s what I’ve said all along — when we get the facts, we will be ready. And we’re ready.”
Pelosi’s decision followed months of Democratic infighting. She had also faced a barrage of criticism from the party’s activist base, which had begun to question her once-impeccable progressive credentials.
And the move comes with risks. Public opinion, for now, still remains against impeachment, and the inquiry could jeopardize her majority in 2020 while giving Trump a boost in his reelection bid.
But Pelosi had also maintained her keen sense of the caucus, and knew that Democrats were erupting in the days after the Ukraine scandal began to unspool.
While on a plane back to Washington that night, Pelosi scrolled through a Washington Post op-ed that had published minutes earlier from seven vulnerable Democratic freshmen — and long-time impeachment holdouts — backing proceedings to remove Trump from office. The op-ed underscored how quickly the political ground was shifting among Democrats.
In fact, Pelosi had spoken to the group on a conference call on Monday night, offering guidance before their op-ed went live.
She then started jotting down notes, the first draft of her own speech endorsing an inquiry — words that would not only formalize the House investigation but potentially change the course of the nation and define her storied career.
But there was a hiccup: “I put down some notes on the plane at 10 p.m. at night but then I left it on the plane,” Pelosi said.
Less than 24 hours later, after first informing her 235-member caucus of the decision in a private meeting, Pelosi walked out to a podium on the speaker’s balcony, in front of a wall of American flags, and spoke to the country.
“The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law,” Pelosi declared, describing Trump’s actions as a “betrayal of his oath of office.”
And then Pelosi went where she hadn’t been willing to go before publicly: “Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.”
For the Democrats who had been pressing for an impeachment probe for months — at times experiencing Pelosi’s wrath along the way — the speaker’s words were stunning. Just a week before, those very same Democrats were privately lamenting that their campaign to impeach Trump was quickly running out of time after several attempts to win public support had failed to materialize.
Now, the pro-impeachment forces feel vindicated.
“I’ve always thought it was inevitable,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said of impeaching Trump. “Here, he essentially bragged about what he had done. And the truth is plain to see. The Latin phrase is res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.”
‘LET ALL THIS MUELLER STUFF GO’
Four months earlier, Democratic leaders worried they were on the verge of losing control of the impeachment narrative.
It was May 22, and two days before, Trump had barred former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about the president’s alleged obstruction of justice.
Furious with Trump’s stonewalling — and the missed opportunity to hear from special counsel Robert Mueller’s star witness — a few members of Pelosi’s leadership team clashed with her privately over the issue and were now getting ready to break with the speaker and openly call for impeachment proceedings against the president.
So Pelosi, who keeps a notoriously tight grip on her members, convened her lieutenants in bid to rein in the pro-impeachment revolt before it was too late.
That was when Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois moderate who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign arm, made a pronouncement that stunned the room.
“We just need to let all this Mueller stuff go,” Bustos said, according to three sources who attended the meeting.
Bustos’ comment reflected a deepening sentiment among senior House leaders and a faction of Democratic moderates who wanted nothing to do with impeachment talk. Bustos has said publicly that she supports the House’s Mueller-related investigations, but she has also long argued that voters care more about kitchen-table issues.
But to the faction of Democrats seeking formal impeachment proceedings, Bustos’ suggestion had come at precisely the moment they needed to get more aggressive with a hostile White House. The Trump administration would soon stonewall Congress on a host of subpoenas for witnesses and documents, effectively making a mockery of lawmakers’ constitutional oversight powers.
That meeting was the beginning of a rupture that consumed the Democratic Caucus for months. It marked one of the first times Pelosi tried to walk the tightrope between the liberals who helped elect her as speaker and the moderates who delivered Democrats the House in 2018 — a delicate balancing act that became ever more difficult to manage.
It was also when Democrats who backed impeachment made a conscious choice: they weren’t going to simply fall in line with their party leaders and were going to continue organizing colleagues to join the impeachment cause.
“I believe we had enough to file articles of impeachment right after the [Mueller] report initially came out,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), one of just three lawmakers who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
In the weeks and months following the release of the Mueller report, pro-impeachment Democrats believed that the holdouts in the caucus were underestimating Trump’s ability to “self-impeach” through his actions and penchant to seek revenge against political enemies.
“I feel like we were indecisive and overly cautious,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), an early impeachment supporter. “And frankly we did way too much political parsing when we should have taken this obvious bombshell, added it to the many other obvious impeachable bombshells that we already had, and begun doing our job.”
But the caucus was divided and the fracture was getting harder to ignore.
Pelosi and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) had been sparring for months over the issue. Just last week, Pelosi criticized the Judiciary Committee’s handling of impeachment in harsh terms behind closed doors and even encouraged people in the room to leak her complaints.
And then, just as the impeachment effort appeared to be sputtering, everything changed.
A nondescript, late-night press release from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) landed in reporters’ inboxes on Sept. 13 revealing the existence of an intelligence community whistleblower that the Trump administration had refused to let talk to Congress. Within days, the Trump-Ukraine scandal had exploded across Washington.
PELOSI MAKES HER MOVE
The calls started rolling in to Pelosi in earnest last Friday night.
Earlier that week, the Washington Post had revealed details about a mysterious whistleblower complaint being withheld from Congress. It involved a “promise” Trump made while talking with a foreign leader.
Then a blockbuster follow-up report from the Wall Street Journal a few day later blew apart Democratic leaders’ delicately knitted attempt to hold off an impeachment investigation. The report detailed how Trump “repeatedly” pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son in a July phone call while simultaneously withholding military aide from the country.
For many Democrats, that was what was missing from previous Trump scandals. Trump was allegedly using his office to extort a foreign leader to help benefit his reelection campaign, a move that smacked of the Richard Nixon era for many in the party.
“Here we’re talking about potentially ongoing, gross abuses of power. We’re talking about a sitting president, not a candidate for president. And we’re talking about the current campaign, not a past campaign,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in an interview just minutes after viewing the classified whistleblower complaint in the Intelligence Committee’s underground bunker at the Capitol Wednesday night.
As the Ukraine scandal quickly ballooned, progressive activists got restless. Late Saturday night, freshman liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that Democratic leaders’ refusal to impeach Trump was “the bigger national scandal” than the president’s “lawbreaking behavior.”
But Pelosi wasn’t going to rush into any decision. She was a rising backbencher when the House impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998, and she knew that impeachment proceedings against Trump would be just as divisive to the nation.
Pelosi was also convinced that it would distract from her party’s legislative priorities on health care and drug costs, gun violence and other key issues. The Democratic domestic agenda — as well as Trump’s growing unpopularity in the suburbs — had driven the party to a huge House win in November and vaulted Pelosi back into the speaker’s chair after eight years in the minority.
The California Democrat also knew that Trump’s stranglehold over the GOP meant no Republicans were going to back impeachment unless there was an air-tight case against the president. And she feared that impeaching Trump on partisan lines was a risk to the Democratic majority.
So Pelosi took the heat from the Democratic base — and within her own caucus — over her resistance to impeachment. She at times grew exasperated by the criticism, privately clashing with some members of her leadership team while asserting publicly that Trump “isn’t even worth” impeaching.
One other important factor weighed heavily on Pelosi — her “frontline” members in the toughest swing districts were overwhelmingly opposed to impeaching Trump, and some had directly told her so. It was her duty to represent the whole caucus, so Pelosi did what she felt she had to do as speaker: Say no to impeachment.
But the Ukraine scandal upended all that.
By Saturday morning, Pelosi informed her staff to be ready to prepare a statement endorsing an impeachment inquiry. She continued to field calls from dozens of Democrats throughout the weekend in between delivering back-to-back eulogies — first for the veteran journalist Cokie Roberts on Saturday and then for Mrs. Clyburn in South Carolina on Sunday.
Dozens of other House Democrats had also traveled to South Carolina to pay their respects to Emily, Clyburn’s wife of 58 years. But on the sidelines of the weekend’s memorial events, impeachment chatter dominated the conversations.
“She was in regular contact with the entire spectrum of the House Democratic Caucus over the last few days,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
Meanwhile, a thousand miles away, other Democrats were also coming to their own painful conclusions about Trump’s alleged behavior and what needed to be done.
‘I’VE DONE MY JOB’
For two of Minnesota’s vulnerable Democrats, the move to support impeaching Trump was a deeply personal decision made at 30,000 feet.
Rep. Dean Phillips emailed his staff to inform them he’d decided to endorse an impeachment inquiry while on a flight returning to Washington on Sunday. On her own D.C.-bound flight the next day, Rep. Angie Craig, who sits in a bordering district, said her thinking also crystalized mid-air.
When the two of them spoke on a panel on Capitol Hill Monday, Craig pulled Phillips aside afterward to tell him of her decision to call for an impeachment inquiry — and learned that he’d already drafted a similar statement to release that afternoon.
Within hours, the two Minnesota freshmen became the first battleground Democrats to back impeachment following Trump’s own admission that he pressured Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden. It was the beginning of a wave of support that would ultimately push the number of impeachment inquiry backers in the House to a majority — 218 members — by midweek.
“At the end of the day, I asked myself, if this were a Democratic president with exactly the same set of admissions, or behavior, would I have the courage to stand up and call for an inquiry on my own Democratic president?” Craig said in an interview.
In Washington, much of the attention on the shift within the caucus has focused on the seven battleground freshmen who published the op-ed on Monday night. That 427-word statement came after days of nonstop texts and conference calls among a tight-knit group of lawmakers who all have backgrounds in national security , including in the military and CIA.
But Trump himself contributed to the momentum for impeachment as well. Many Democrats say it was Trump’s defiant comments on Sunday, directly acknowledging that he had spoken to Ukrainian officials about investigating Biden, that made lawmakers feel they could no longer ignore the situation.
Some called senior members in their state delegations and conferred with Pelosi about how to proceed. Others were deciding at home with family or out in their districts. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who endorsed an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, made up her mind while speaking at a Democratic picnic near a playground where she grew up.
Some freshmen were still deliberating when they returned to Washington on Tuesday, where the issue came up at a closed-door meeting of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition and resistance to impeachment lingered.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who survived the Democratic wipeout in the 2010 midterms, offered a warning to the undecided freshmen in the room.
“Don’t get caught up with the party,” the conservative Democrat cautioned. Other party elders, like Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), nodded in agreement, according to multiple people in the room.
Cuellar and Schrader are among the few remaining Blue Dogs who lived through the party’s humiliating defeat eight years earlier, when the moderate caucus’ ranks were depleted by half after a series of tough votes, including on Obamacare.
This time, if Democrats were going to take a vote that could wipe them out, Cuellar said they needed to vote their conscience.
Multiple freshmen in competitive districts said that they tried to put politics aside. But they couldn’t entirely ignore the idea that impeachment could cost them their seat.
“If I serve one term, and do it with honor and principle, and lose because of that, so be it. I’ve done my job,” Phillips said. “Has it crossed my mind? Of course. But it’s very liberating to reflect my truth, and I think the nation’s truth.”
‘GIVE US A GODDAMN MESSAGE’
Hours before her historic announcement on Tuesday, Pelosi received a call from Trump. The conversation was ostensibly about gun control, but Trump veered into the Ukraine controversy.
Trump then told Pelosi that he wasn’t personally holding up the whistleblower complaint. “Well, then undo it,” she told him, relaying the conversation to lawmakers later in the day.
But even after it became clear that an impeachment inquiry was inevitable, Democrats were still far from agreement over the actual mechanics of it.
Swing-district lawmakers, in particular, were actively pushing Democratic leaders to adopt an entirely new strategy from their Mueller days — one that didn’t involve what they saw as overly aggressive members of the House Judiciary Committee,
On Tuesday morning, a handful of Judiciary Committee members met with some of the national security-minded freshmen who wrote the op-ed the night before. The meeting was organized by Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), another vulnerable freshman Democrat who also sits on the Judiciary panel.
The Judiciary members had a key goal: Convince these influential freshmen that their panel was best equipped to carry out an impeachment proceedings, rather than a select committee handpicked by party leaders, as some moderate lawmakers had been advocating for in recent days.
Still a concern of many was a circus-like hearing the week before featuring former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who sparred with Democrats and defiantly refused to answer questions about his role in the Mueller investigation.
Democrats privately described the showdown — the first public hearing with a Mueller-report witness — as an embarrassment, and they blamed Nadler for the mess. Pelosi herself said in a closed-door meeting that she would have held Lewandowski in contempt immediately, a comment several attendees viewed as a dig at Nadler.
Judiciary Committee members pushed back during the meeting with frontliners, arguing that they understood the gravity of the Ukraine scandal and why it was different than the myriad other investigations Democrats have been pursuing against Trump.
In fact, Democratic leaders are now coalescing around a strategy to narrow the focus of their impeachment inquiry to the Ukraine scandal, in part because it has unified the party in outrage.
In the end, the Judiciary members won out and Nadler’s starring role in the impeachment drive was preserved. Pelosi held a private meeting with six committee chairs on Tuesday afternoon and told them to come up with their best cases for impeachment and send them to the Judiciary Committee for potential consideration of impeachment articles.
Yet even after Pelosi helped steer the party to an impeachment inquiry, holding her members together over the next critical weeks and months could prove difficult.
A closed-door session with the full caucus on Tuesday made that clear, as some moderates complained that they weren’t being given a clear message to deliver to voters about why proceeding toward impeachment was necessary on Trump’s Ukraine maneuverings.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) was the most colorful, grousing that Democratic leaders needed to “give us a goddamn message to stay on,” according to lawmakers and aides in the room.
“I think we all know we’re at a historic moment,” Slotkin later told reporters. “Obviously we have a lot of investigations already ongoing. But I think it’s important that we focus on this one. It’s clear, it’s understandable, it’s strategic, and we need to bring along the country with us.”