WASHINGTON — The impeachment vise is closing — on Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
As it gets tighter, Pelosi's fortitude — and the strength of her strategy — will be tested.
After a string of House Democrats endorsed beginning a formal impeachment inquiry over Congress' August recess, the Judiciary Committee moved last week to bless its own investigation without the imprimatur of a vote on the House floor. As a result of that, and of individual political messaging needs, Democrats have been wildly inconsistent in describing whether they are pursuing impeachment or not.
Nonetheless, the probe will ramp up with a hearing featuring 2016 Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski on Tuesday.
At the same time, Trump's Justice Department is using mixed messages coming from House Democrats about their impeachment intentions as part of the case against giving lawmakers access to secret grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
All of that amounts to a squeeze on the strategy devised by Pelosi, the California Democrat charged with the constitutional role of leading the House and the political role of keeping her party's majority.
All year, Pelosi has been trying to balance between her political base's demand to move against a president it sees as criminally corrupt and her priority of avoiding a series of impeachment-related floor votes that expose her party's most vulnerable incumbents to anger back home from either liberal constituents or swing voters.
She appears to have landed on a one-vote strategy: let Judiciary draft articles of impeachment and then conduct just one House floor vote — or series of votes — so that lawmakers in tough districts don't have to walk the plank over and over again.
"There are some of our members who are ready to vote to impeach and remove the president tomorrow. And there are some who believe that we should not impeach him because it will be a failed exercise in the Senate," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "But the vast majority of our caucus, including our leadership, is of the view that we should do the investigation before we determine whether the president should be impeached. That's the category that I fit in and that's the work that we're doing."
Pelosi's approach will give an avenue to pro-impeachment Democrats to air their case while keeping it off the floor — and out of the minds of swing voters — for now. But the issue is sure to get thornier for her soon, in part because the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest is heating up.
While the topic was ignored in last Thursday's candidate debate on ABC News, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who built his public image and campaign on calling for Trump's ouster, has qualified for an Oct. 15 debate in the Columbus, Ohio, area.
"Tom Steyer will hit the presidential debate stage two years after he first began running impeachment ads," said Rebecca Katz, a veteran Democratic strategist and former congressional aide. "House Democrats have already twisted themselves into quite the incoherent pickle on impeachment and Steyer’s prominence only puts them more on the defensive."
But Pelosi has been unmoved by political pressure on her left flank, acting as a bulwark against the passions of partisans and the various political and legal arguments advanced by colleagues who favor impeachment.
Former Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., wrote in The Washington Post a week ago that Trump's actions not only merit impeachment by the House but demand it. If lawmakers don't ask, she argued, his successors will be unfettered in their use and abuse of power.
"Should House Democrats choose not to act on this laundry list of obstruction, abuse of power and emoluments violations, they alone bear the responsibility of forever changing the lines of demarcation for future presidents," Edwards wrote. "It really is that simple."
It could be that frustration with Pelosi among Democrats inside and outside Congress boils over and she is forced to change her course.
But if Pelosi's calculations are right, she is suffering short-term pain in service of a plan that will have Trump replacing her between the jaws of the impeachment vise in due time.