WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would be publicly calling for the immediate impeachment of President Donald Trump right now — if only she lacked guile, strategic sense and the ability to count votes in the House and Senate.
Across the country, many Democratic activists — or at least, active Twitter users — have been in an uproar over Pelosi's acknowledgment in a Washington Post interview published Monday afternoon that she's "not for impeachment."
This isn't a change in position for Pelosi, but alongside a jab at the president — he's "just not worth it" — her remarks represent her most firm declaration yet that she's not ready to force a House vote to indict the president on charges of high crimes and misdemeanors and possibly push the Senate to hold a trial on whether to remove him.
But her comments make political sense for so many reasons it's hard to count them all.
For starters, the House is already pursuing an impeachment track. There are several committees — including Judiciary, Oversight and Reform, Ways and Means, and Intelligence — currently conducting investigations designed to produce evidence that could be used in developing articles of impeachment against Trump.
Pelosi is well aware of what her chairmen are doing. There are plenty of meetings about jurisdiction and witnesses and timing. To listen to Pelosi's words without considering the context of the actions her committees are taking is to deny her guile, her power and her understanding of the institution she runs.
She may even have lulled Trump into a false sense of security in January by assuring him that it's not her intent to impeach him.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an interview on Fox News on Tuesday that the battle within the Democratic Party is evidence that Pelosi isn't fully in charge — but that she's on the right side of the fight.
"I think she's clearly starting to lose control of her party," Sanders said. "I'm glad she sees what the rest of us see, that there is no reason, no cause for impeachment."
But it would be counterproductive for Pelosi to rush.
It's not clear that there are now — or ever will be — enough Democratic votes in the House to impeach the president. If she says she's reached a conclusion that the president should be impeached before the committees have done their work, it will make her less influential both with other lawmakers and with the American public.
While the media stars of the Democratic freshman class so far are its most vocal liberal members — such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who promised to impeach Trump in memorable language — the party's majority is contingent on the re-election of lawmakers who won in swing districts where it won't help them to be regarded as highly partisan.
For Pelosi to have credibility with that part of her caucus, and for those swing-district Democrats to have credibility with their voters, she's going to have to show that Democrats can govern. If the moderate freshmen are ever to get to a place where they can vote to impeach Trump, they will have far better standing with their constituents if they've already demonstrated an ability to legislate.
Whether or not there's ever an impeachment vote, their first priority will be showing they can do substantive work.
John Lawrence, who served as chief of staff to Pelosi the last time Democrats were in the majority, said she had emphasized the need for her party to prove it could do legislative work when some Democrats were calling for President George W. Bush's impeachment in 2007.
That's what she's likely to do now, as she tries to protect her majority.
"Both for political and substantive reasons, she’s going to stay focused on these other objectives," said Lawrence, who also previously worked for then-Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a member of the post-Watergate class of House Democrats. "It’s sort of a two-track process."
While Pelosi doesn't want to force the question now — and while she is trying to provide cover for lawmakers and presidential candidates who aren't ready to answer it — Trump is anxious to get Democrats on record.
"Every single Democrat running for president should be made to answer: Do they agree with the Speaker who stands in opposition to baseless impeachment charges, or will they risk fracturing the country by bowing to the radical elements in their party who want to disenfranchise the American people and overturn the legitimate and lawful result of the last election?" Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement on Tuesday.
The investigative track will take a long time, possibly going deep into the 2020 campaign season. It may be that Democrats conclude they are more likely to incur electoral damage on Trump with ongoing inquiries than they are to see him removed from office in the midst of an election. And if Democrats can put out all the negative information on him without forcing their members to put up divisive votes, that could be a win-win for their party.
There are certainly Democrats who argue Pelosi has a moral obligation to move forward with the impeachment process now because they believe there is already ample evidence that Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors — the constitutional threshold for impeachment.
"We have a duty to impeach when we see that crimes have been committed or that harm to society is being done in such a way as to create circumstances where people are being hurt," Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, who introduced an article of impeachment against Trump earlier this year, said at a news conference Tuesday.
But he is in the small minority of Democrats who are publicly calling for the president's removal from office.
Even if Pelosi had the votes in hand in the House, Democrats who agree with the way she has handled the question have long pointed across the Capitol to the Senate, where it would take at least 20 Republican senators to remove the president from office.
Many House Democrats worry that if they impeach Trump only to watch the Senate come up short of the two-thirds threshold necessary to remove him from office, they will send a signal to the electorate that they over-reached for partisan political gain.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the Trump operation's ties to Russia, said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Tuesday that in the absence of a "clear and compelling" case for impeachment, it becomes a a "partisan exercise doomed for failure," and that putting the country through the "trauma of a failed impeachment" is the only thing worse than the divisiveness of the process.
Two presidents have been impeached in American history — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — and both were acquitted by the Senate. Pelosi served in the House during the Clinton impeachment, and she is old enough to remember that when the House and Senate were on the verge of removing President Richard Nixon from office, he resigned rather than facing that fate.
That is, if public sentiment turns enough on Trump, the House may not have to act at all.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former House Democratic Caucus chairman who was a close ally of Pelosi's in the House, laid out the best posture for Pelosi and her fellow Democrats in an interview Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"It should always look, feel and taste totally professional," he said.
Calling for impeachment now would look, feel and taste totally political to Americans, and lawmakers, who haven't seen evidence that it's warranted.
But by holding her fire, Pelosi has reserved her ability to make the case for a future effort to remove Trump.