An ugly year lies ahead in US politics — and Nancy Pelosi leads The Resistance
Having come this far, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seems determined not to back down in the face of President Donald Trump’s calumnies, name-calling and temper tantrums. But America’s politically divided government is unlikely to give either side what they want in the struggle over the impeachment of a president.
Back in 1956, the South African women’s march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the extension of domestic passbooks, the dompas, to African women was accompanied by a song specially composed for the occasion, Wathint’ Abafazi Wathint’ Imbokodo, or, in English, You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock. In the 1980s, that same resonant phrase became the title for a vibrant, deeply engaged, but poetic work of protest theatre, created by the Sibikwa Theatre Company under the guidance of Phylis Klotz and Smal Ndaba. The play has had numerous revivals, and its portrayal of the struggles and strengths of South African women remains timely.
While circumstances are obviously very different between either 1950s or 1980s South Africa and Donald Trump’s contemporary America, nonetheless, the forces aiming to impeach the president have found a champion, a political rock of their own. This is the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.
She has been able to fashion a consensus on the way forward for impeachment from the usually fractious Democratic caucus. This has been difficult, especially since some members have been early supporters of the president’s impeachment; some members were not initially in favour of giving Pelosi a second term as Speaker; and some members have already been drawn in different directions as part of the ongoing struggle for the party’s nomination for president by various Democratic senators spread across the party’s ideological spectrum.
Pelosi eventually authorised the holding of the special impeachment inquiry by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, headed by a Pelosi favourite, the virtually unflappable and uber-diligent California congressman, Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor and someone — like Pelosi — with an uncanny ability to get under the skin of the president.
Following the hearings that brought forth some damning testimony about the Trump administration’s manipulations on security aid to Ukraine from a whole group of mid- to senior-level (mostly) career civil servants and diplomats to national notice, the president’s supporters have gone on the belligerent (albeit contradictory, as with arguments that the process is going too fast, or too slow) defence.
The now-publicly released, blistering findings of that committee have become the technical basis to shift further action to the House Judiciary Committee, under New York Congressman Jerry Nadler. This committee is empowered to conduct further hearings, and, so far, it has held one day’s worth with a posse of constitutional scholars. (The Trump administration is standing fast, so far, that none of its senior officials will testify at all.)
That day-long session featured four law professors, Noah Feldman from Harvard, Pamela Karlan from Stanford, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University and Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina. Of the four, only Turley, the Republican’s selected witness, equivocated in any way about there being ample proof of the president’s impeachable behaviour. The other three gave Donald Trump a very firm thumbs down on his deeds and character.
The highlight of the day may have been Professor Karlan’s rebuke of Donald Trump’s assertion that as president he can pretty much do what he likes, arguing in rebuttal, for example, that just because the president named his son “Barron” did not mean it would make him an actual member of the nobility.
That metaphor, or analogy, or figure of speech, brought down upon Karlan’s head the white-hot, burning Greek fire of some feigned outrage from the First Lady and the Trump cult: how dare that law professor drag an innocent, teenaged boy into this meretricious, fake, hoax of a congressional proceeding. Shame! Shame! Shame!
Given this crime, one could virtually hear the beheader’s axe being sharpened on the whetstone to dispatch yet another one of those denizens of the great swamp Trump had gone to Washington to drain.
Karlan dutifully, even obsequiously apologised, even as it has been nearly forgotten the president himself had recently heaped bluster, anger, outrage and obloquy from his bully pulpit upon a certain teenaged Swedish girl who had had the temerity to speak ill of Trump’s climate change denialism. (Does nobody in the White House have a sense of poetic justice or remember the old adage, “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander”?)
Thereafter, following this crash course on the constitutional principles of impeachment, after any further witnesses who might be called, Nadler’s committee would be poised to draft the actual, formal articles of impeachment, effectively a document that would be a criminal indictment of the president, if this was a standard criminal trial. Then, after the committee’s determination on those articles of impeachment, the full House of Representatives will vote on those articles. If the House votes to impeach (a near certainty, given Democratic control of the House), the president’s trial takes place in the Senate, with all 100 members of that body serving as a super-sized bench of judges.
Of course, an impeachment is not a criminal trial. It is a major congressional power and political prerogative expressly and explicitly defined in the country’s constitution as being the appropriate remedy for dealing with a president (or a judge) accused of bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanours. This provision was designed to remove a president by other means than through a regularly scheduled election, given the presidential tenure of fixed, four-year terms, if the behaviour warrants it.
Of course, given the party division in the Senate with a 53-47 split in favour of the president’s party, the likelihood that 20 Republican senators (the number needed to give a two-thirds vote to convict) will join the Democrats is very low, unless some truly appalling evidence comes to light with Trump’s genetic signature right on it. But the vote not to convict would certainly put Republican senators in the position of explicitly endorsing the president’s extraordinary behaviour, and making them defenders of the president and his deeds in the upcoming general election in November 2020. Never forget that that election is coming up in less than a year from now.
And so we now return to the saga of Nancy Pelosi. Last week, she had announced that after a long and painful contemplation of the issues and the evidence, she herself had come down on the side of voting to impeach the president (implicitly sending a message to her caucus that this was now the political version of a “Come to Jesus” moment, or else).
The Speaker’s position in the US Congress has real power, and defying that office-holder’s wishes can have real consequences for all kinds of outcomes desired by a particular member. True, unlike a British parliamentary system, the party cannot actually enforce a member to vote a particular way, but the American speaker can make a recalcitrant member’s life “complex” thereafter, in the face of refusing to follow “guidance” on a particularly important vote.
But then there was the moment at her regular Thursday media conference last week that showed the steel in Pelosi’s spine, or, perhaps, the rock in her core. Asked right at the end of her press conference by a reporter who has been a particular bete noire of hers over the years, why she hates the president, she whipped around to say she doesn’t hate him — in fact, she prays for him daily, but she certainly hates some of the policies and measures he has been pursuing as president.
As a practising Catholic, she explained she had been brought up to hate the sin, not the sinner. If there was a graphic novel version of this exchange, there would have been the words “Thwap! Smack! Sock!” in a balloon over the Speaker, while the image of her questioner (as seen on television) actually had the look of someone who had been simultaneously sucking a lemon, while being klapped on the head and punched in the solar plexus by that normally polite, even-tempered, diminutive, 79-year-old woman in the white pants suit and high heels.
The president must have been seething from that performance. He visibly hates being upstaged by anyone, but most especially by women such as Pelosi or, say, Marie Yovanovitch, the career diplomat and US ambassador to Ukraine Trump had fired on the say-so of Rudy Giuliani and his band of miscreants. The ambassador had then turned around and testified to the Intelligence Committee about the strange dealings of those people led by Guiliani on behalf of Trump, but far outside normal diplomatic practice.
And then there was the former National Security Council Russia/Ukraine specialist, Fiona Hill, who had next struck a sharp smack at the White House’s band of zanies (and those in Congress) who continued to predicate their behaviour on the thoroughly debunked theory that all of the electronic hanky panky in the 2016 election had been carried out by Ukrainians, rather than Russian operatives. This was despite the entire US intelligence community’s assessment that it had been Moscow’s doing — directly or indirectly.
But Nancy Pelosi’s verbal assault must have cut the worst. Here was a politician with decades of experience as a California congresswoman, and then as Speaker (twice), and minority leader in between those two speakerships. Her own district is so safely Democratic she barely has had to fundraise or campaign for decades, helping other more vulnerable candidates instead. And she is someone the president and all his minions are totally unable to cow, and who seems to bring no automatic deference to Trump as a person and politician, although yes to the office itself.
She is, after all, someone whose political roots and experience run very deep. As a young woman, she had been an aide on Capitol Hill to one of Maryland’s senators, and her father and brother both had been mayor of Baltimore, and her father had been in Congress before that as well, giving her a chance to learn retail politics from real experts — right from childhood, over dinner.
As a result of all this, expect a tightly managed process of marshalling the evidence for impeachment, as well as an almost certain vote to impeach formally a president for only the third time in the country’s history. But also expect the Senate not to vote to uphold that decision, leaving the politics of the country in turmoil, and as the general ill-will infests the Democratic primaries and the general election campaign as well. It will, in short, be an ugly year in American politics. Such circumstances may well push the president into more intemperate acts both at home and abroad.
But don’t expect Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to fold their hand in this card game. DM