WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat alone in the eighth row of seats on the House floor late Wednesday morning, flipping through notes as she prepared to open debate on whether to impeach a president for the third time in American history.
It was a moment of calm in a Washington maelstrom. Pelosi seemed almost unaware of Republican Representative Debbie Lesko of Arizona castigating Democrats for “tearing this country apart” on the other side of the chamber.
Pelosi herself used to warn that impeachment was too divisive to be worth it. Now, she was leading the pursuit, flexing her tactical muscles to shepherd fellow Democrats through the perilous political territory that will forge her own legacy.
When her moment arrived, Pelosi smoothed her hair and strode to the lectern, wearing a brooch of the Mace of the House, a symbol of the chamber’s power, that glinted off her black dress.
“If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary,” Pelosi said. “He gave us no choice.”
President Trump’s impeachment will be a historic stain on his record. It fulfills the calls from critics outraged by the pressure campaign apparently waged by Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son. But it also threatens to spark a backlash against Democrats at a time when their House majority and control of the White House hang in the balance.
“What won’t be under debate is that this impeachment — just like it will be for Donald Trump — will be part of her record,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Impeachment will be an important part of how we remember her.”
This was never supposed to be part of the plan for Pelosi, 79, who resisted impeachment from the start. But since the Ukraine whistle-blower complaint was revealed in September, she has deployed her strategic skills and deeply studied sense of her Democratic caucus to unite nearly all of her members in a vote that seemed unimaginable a year ago.
“I think getting to this point was very difficult for our caucus because we represent a very diverse spread of this country,” said New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who once called her party’s refusal to impeach Trump a “national scandal.” On Wednesday, she lauded Pelosi for pulling together members from moderate and deep blue districts.
The praise for Pelosi’s ability to build consensus came this week from all corners of her party. Representative Val Demings of Florida, a member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, compared her to a quarterback able to survey the whole field before taking action. Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas said Pelosi could masterfully knit people’s concerns and perspectives together “like a jigsaw puzzle.”
She worked “meticulously and with a satin glove,” said California Representative Anna Eshoo, a longtime Pelosi ally. “She knows members better than they know themselves.”
Pelosi, a member of Congress since 1987, became the first female House speaker in 2007, but lost the gavel in 2011 after Republicans won the majority in the midterm backlash to the Affordable Care Act she helped pass into law. When the Democrats won the House again last year, there was a failed push by some Democrats, led by Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, to replace her. But Moulton conceded on Wednesday that she “has done a good job.”
Once Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel, she promised to deliver on kitchen-table issues like health care, and to work with Trump as much as possible. And she has worked cannily to deliver legislation on drug pricing and a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada that her members can talk up when the impeachment vote is over.
Mindful that her majority stemmed largely from freshman Democrats who had won moderate or even Trump-supporting districts, Pelosi sought to tamp down talk of impeachment from the earliest moments of her speakership. Instead, she allowed six committees to pursue separate investigations into Trump.
By the summer, the party was deeply divided: A growing number of Democrats had called for impeachment after Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller documented the president’s attempts to block his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s administration was stonewalling Democratic investigations, and there were moments when Democrats seemed unable to agree on whether their investigations had morphed into an impeachment inquiry or not.
The tide turned in September, when a whistle-blower complaint alleged Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine and asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Biden’s son, Hunter, ahead of the 2020 election. On Sept. 24, Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump — apparently believing the time had come.
“I don’t think anyone knows her caucus better than Pelosi does,” said Doug Heye, a political strategist who worked in Republican House leadership. “There was going to be no way that any Democratic speaker could hold back impeachment.”
Pelosi worked closely with committee chairs Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler and kept the impeachment inquiry squarely trained on Ukraine even though many Democrats, including Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, believed the president had also committed impeachable offenses in his efforts to stymie Mueller’s investigation.
Ultimately, Democrats put forth two articles of impeachment related to the Ukraine matter — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — instead of expanding the impeachment to include Mueller-related matters, which Kennedy said was good politics by Pelosi.
“If you are going to engage in an impeachment inquiry, then you needed to make sure that the caucus was ready for it,” Kennedy said. “She was able to proceed with a process that pulled together the greatest amount of support.”
That approach left some liberals feeling unsatisfied.
“If you believed she isn’t bold or progressive enough in the face of Trump, then the narrow and conservative path she took just confirmed your suspicions,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive political strategist. “And if you thought she was an expert in the art of counting votes and keeping her caucus united, then she’s given you plenty of evidence for that, too.”
For all the talk of her tactical skills, Pelosi used a light touch in securing the votes to impeach, letting her most vulnerable members come to their own decisions.
“There are bills that I have been pressured from both sides to vote a certain way, but this one, there was complete absence of pressure,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a first-term Democrat whose Michigan district supported Trump by seven points in 2016.
On Wednesday, the scene on the Democratic side of the House floor was all the more striking given the months of tension and frustration that had led up to it. As Pelosi prepared to speak, the row in front of her demonstrated the complex political task she faced with impeachment.
Four members sitting there represented the poles of the House Democratic caucus. On one end were Angie Craig and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who ousted Republicans in the 2018 midterms and could risk their seats by voting to impeach Trump. A couple seats down sat Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, two liberals who have been vocal advocates of impeachment.
“The president used the power of his public office to obtain an improper personal, political benefit at the expense of America’s national security,” Pelosi said, deploying the security-minded frame that had persuaded moderate Democrats to join the calls for impeachment.
When Pelosi finished her speech, the assembled Democrats broke into applause. More than eight hours later, when she gaveled the historic votes closed, virtually all of them voted in favor of both articles of impeachment.