When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked late Wednesday night what she would consider a fair trial in the Senate, she defined it in the negative.
“This is what I don’t consider a fair trial,” she said, referencing a piece of paper in her hand, “that Leader [Mitch] McConnell has stated that he’s not an impartial juror, that he’s going to take his ‘cues’ from the White House, and he is working in total coordination with the White House counsel’s office.”
The House of Representatives had just completed its historic vote to impeach Donald Trump—only the third American president in history to achieve that distinction—and Pelosi was putting McConnell on notice that he couldn’t blithely get away with staging a bogus trial in the Senate. In fact, Pelosi had just informed reporters at the press conference that she wasn’t prepared to transmit the articles of impeachment to the GOP-led Senate until she had a better sense of the trial they would present to the American people.
Frankly, it was genius. Any voter who had missed McConnell’s pledge of fealty to the White House during his Fox News appearance last week was brought up to speed by Pelosi on a night when all eyes were on her and her Democratic caucus. With one brief answer, Pelosi had wielded McConnell’s own words to put his conduct on trial in the court of public opinion. And guess what: The court of public opinion was already weighted against him. According to ABC/Washington Post polling out this week, 71% of Americans want Trump’s top aides to testify in the Senate trial, including 2 in 3 Republicans. Additionally, more than 60% of voters of every political persuasion expect to see a “fair trial” in Senate, including 64% of independents. McConnell has already made a public promise to deny Americans both witnesses and impartiality, and Pelosi was making sure they knew it.
In doing so, Pelosi has given Democrats leverage in a setting where they had little: the Senate trial. Senate Democrats want a lengthier trial with witnesses precisely because the facts are on their side, and the more the American people are privy to them, the better. Republicans want an abbreviated trial with zero witnesses for the very same reason: Trump is guilty. No point in reminding people. By depriving McConnell of a precise time for transmitting the articles, Pelosi has strengthened the hand of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as he tries to negotiate fairer terms for the trial in the upper chamber. McConnell is now caught between Trump, who is desperate for Senate acquittal, and his vulnerable GOP senators, who at the very least need the appearance of a fair trial to paper over the reality that they’re simply a rubber stamp for Trump.
McConnell clearly took umbrage at the half nelson Pelosi had just put him in. On Thursday morning, he presented what amounted to a 30-minute tirade from the Senate floor, however stoically delivered. Despite all evidence to the contrary, McConnell argued that House Democrats had “succumbed to partisan rage” by impeaching Trump and that the Senate would have to rein them in. After rushing the impeachment process, he charged, Democrats were “too afraid to transmit their shoddy work product” to the Senate. But his jabs were laughable. Nobody had telegraphed a more solemn, steady, and “prayerful” process than Pelosi. As Schumer pointed out in his response to McConnell, “Is the president’s case so weak that none of the president’s men can defend him under oath? If the House case is so weak, why is Leader McConnell so afraid of witnesses and documents?”
At Pelosi’s press conference following McConnell’s floor speech, she downplayed her refusal to be pinned down on timing of the transmittals as the power play that it actually is. Instead, she said she simply needed to know the scope of the Senate trial before she could commit to naming floor managers for the process. “I’m not prepared to put the the managers in that bill yet because we don’t know the arena that we are in,” she offered. But a few minutes later, she tightened the screws again, reminding everyone of McConnell’s partiality pledge. Reflecting on the nation’s Founding Fathers, she observed that they had anticipated that we might have “a rogue president” one day. But, she added, “I don’t think they suspected we could have a rogue president and a rogue leader in the Senate at the same time.”
What Pelosi has been setting up from the start on impeachment is a contrast in caucuses. She has repeatedly and consistently signaled great reluctance to impeach Trump, promised that her caucus would “follow the facts,” and insisted that Trump’s actions left Democrats “no choice” but to act in order to live up to their sworn oath to protect the Constitution of the United States. When a smattering of cheers started to erupt in the lower chamber following the initial vote to impeach Trump, Pelosi silenced it immediately, leveling a brief hand gesture and a look of death at her caucus.
By comparison, McConnell has played right into Pelosi’s hands by prejudging the Senate verdict on national television. On Wednesday night, she leveraged her platform to make certain Americans were aware of the stark and substantive differences between the Democratic and the Republican processes.
Washington pundits are fond of observing that McConnell is a masterful tactician. But what McConnell’s best at is exercising raw power in order to tear down institutions and rewrite the rules to his advantage. What Pelosi excels at is understanding the power of the people and the politics of vote-counting through that lens. Oftentimes, a politician’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Pelosi has put McConnell’s “greatest strength” on trial for the American people to judge in 2020. And, based on the polling, nearly everyone outside of Trump’s cultists is predisposed to side with Democrats.
Pelosi gets this, and she also knows that the longer she waits to transmit those articles, the worse it gets for McConnell. Trump will get absolutely rabid in his desire for acquittal, making vulnerable GOP senators even more anxious. And the more time that passes, the greater the likelihood of good court rulings that put more documents and witnesses in the offing. Refusing to take them up will only make McConnell look more partisan, more unfair, and more unfaithful to democracy. So Pelosi might take a bit to transmit those articles to the Senate.
“Nancy’s gonna hold it in her pocket,” former RNC chair Michael Steele predicted Thursday on MSNBC. “She’s going to wait and see what McConnell puts on the table and she’s going to force the negotiation between Schumer and McConnell on her terms.”
Pelosi signaled as much during her Thursday press conference, asserting, “Frankly, I don’t care what the Republicans say.”