During a holiday party at the Capitol last week, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, took a break from sampling chocolate desserts and greeting guests to indulge a moment of private merriment. In a corner of the walnut-panelled reception room, an Army country-bluegrass band called the Six-String Soldiers was playing “Lay Down Sally.” Pelosi smiled and began to sway, her knees bouncing ever so slightly. The party, for the congressional press corps, had been planned well in advance—a Christmas truce—but it happened to fall on one of the most consequential days of Pelosi’s second stint as Speaker, one that had marked a crucial test, if not quite a culmination, of a political strategy that she had been pursuing for months.
That morning, in the same reception room, Pelosi and the chairs of six House committees had announced that two articles of impeachment, one for abuse of power and another for obstruction of Congress, would be brought against the President. Pelosi, in a purple suit with a glittering brooch in the shape of an American flag, had filed sombrely with the other Democrats to a lectern that stood in front of a life-size portrait of George Washington. After a brief press conference, they left the room almost as quickly, without answering any questions from reporters. An hour later, she appeared at another news conference, in a different room and in a very different mood. This time, Pelosi was beaming—buoyant, even—as she announced that the negotiations over a new trade deal, United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, had produced a result that satisfied not only her caucus but the White House, the other countries involved, and even Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. “This is the day we have all been working to and working for,” she said. “We are so proud of the distance we have come from where we started with the Administration on this legislation.”
Pelosi opened the floor to questions. When a reporter attempted to ask her about impeachment, she quickly shot him down. “We’re taking questions on the subject at hand,” she said.
Several House Democrats I spoke to last week—including the Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, Pelosi’s second-in-command—insisted, not altogether convincingly, that the timing of the two press conferences was a coincidence. But at least a few allowed that they were not displeased about how the day had played out. When I mentioned to Representative Eric Swalwell, of California, that the U.S.M.C.A. got a four-column headline in the next morning’s Wall Street Journal, while impeachment got just one, he said, “We’re O.K. with that.” Similarly, Tom Malinowski, a freshman congressman from New Jersey, told me last Thursday, “I do not mind the confluence of those two events. I think it actually helps prove the point that Democrats have been making.” To beat back Donald Trump’s repeated tweets about “Do Nothing Democrats,” Pelosi and her colleagues had deployed their own overworked slogan—“legislate, investigate, litigate”—to highlight that they were capable of operating on multiple fronts. Malinowski noted, with more than a little exasperation, that the same Republicans who had accused Democrats of setting aside the U.S.M.C.A. deal for impeachment were now accusing Democrats of pushing through U.S.M.C.A. because of impeachment. “Whatever,” he said. “We’re working on both. That’s the point.”
Not everyone in the Party was so sanguine. “I’m really concerned we’re handing the President a giant victory on U.S.M.C.A.,” Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told me recently. “People will forget that the Democrats passed a U.S.M.C.A. that actually is dramatically better than NAFTA. It’s going to be Trump’s deal, because Trump stole that narrative from us in 2016.” Off the Hill, the criticism was even more intense. On the “Pod Save America” podcast, Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser in the Obama Administration, called the trade agreement a “pretty large unforced political error.” The agreement, he suggested, gave Trump “a win that will help him specifically in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the three states that he absolutely has to win to get to two hundred and seventy” electoral votes in the next election. Paul Krugman, the Times columnist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on international trade, expressed similar doubts in a series of tweets. “Can someone explain to me why Dems appear about to sign on to Trump’s USMCA trade deal? It’s basically no change from NAFTA as is, but Trump will claim it as a triumph. Why give him that?”
These concerns spoke to a deeper anxiety. Once it became clear that no set of facts, however damning, was likely to persuade the Senate to remove the President from office, the political stakes of impeachment appeared to be up for grabs. With the 2020 election less than a year away, why was Pelosi helping Trump score a crucial victory at exactly the moment that she was pressing the case that he was unfit for office?
One answer, the easy answer, is that the House Democrats are doing things like passing U.S.M.C.A. because passing U.S.M.C.A. is the kind of thing House Democrats believe they were sent to Washington to do. Unlike the Freedom Caucus (whom John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House, has described as “anarchists” who “can’t tell you what they’re for”) or Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader (who said in 2010 that his first responsibility was to make Barack Obama “a one-term President”) Pelosi and her party do not accept a zero-sum conception of politics. “If you’re trying to hurt Trump when he’s doing things that are good for the American people, then you’re going to hurt the American people,” Hoyer told me. “And that’s not good politics. Certainly not good policy, but it’s not good politics, either.”
As House Democrats tend to remind any reporter within shouting distance, they have passed more than four hundred bills this year, more than two hundred and seventy-five of which had at least some bipartisan support. In the past three weeks alone, they have passed a new voting-rights act, the annual defense-authorization bill, a drug-pricing bill, and two so-called minibus appropriations bills, which will allocate $1.4 trillion in government spending. “The public thinks we haven’t done stuff because the Senate hasn’t passed anything.” Hoyer told me. “Our message to the American people is, you elected us to be the majority in the House, and we passed all these bills, which carried out the promise we made to you when we were elected. We don’t control the United States Senate, and we don’t control the President of the United States.”
Another answer has to do with the particular makeup of the Democratic caucus that was elected to the House in 2018, and with what Pelosi believes she needs to do to maintain her majority. In the wake of the midterms last year, some commentators saw in the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and others the stirrings of a broad Democratic realignment. According to this theory, the shocking failure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign, along with Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly competitive primary run, had unleashed progressive energies that had been restrained for too long by the centrist Democratic establishment. But once the session began, in January, and particularly after a public spat between the Speaker and Ocasio-Cortez last summer, it became clear that Pelosi was not as engaged with the left wing of her party as she was committed to protecting the more moderate representatives who flipped Republican seats and gave the Democrats their majority. “I think it fair to say that the caucus went to the center” in 2018, Hoyer told me. “We are still a left-of-center party. But, if you look at who was elected, the net forty seats we picked up”—Democrats added forty-one seats in 2018 but lost Katie Hill, of California, who resigned in October—“there are not forty liberal seats out there that we didn’t have. The seats we picked up are moderate seats.”
Many of the most vulnerable Democratic members of the House—known in Party argot as “front-liners”—were elected in districts that voted for Trump in 2016, which is one reason Democrats have been so keen to prove that impeachment is not an all-consuming obsession. “It was Trump who argued that impeachment made it impossible to make progress on trade and the economy and health care and infrastructure,” Malinowski said. “It was always the Democrats in the House who were calling B.S. on that argument.” Sean Patrick Maloney, of New York, who is not a front-liner but holds a seat in a district that Trump won by two points, told me, “I would be embarrassed to go home and have to say that, because of impeachment, everything else got monkey-wrenched.”
The influence of the front-liners also helps explain why, since September, Pelosi has taken great pains to suggest that the facts of the Ukraine case are so damning as to make impeachment entirely unavoidable. She is fond of quoting Thomas Paine, who said, “The times have found us,” and, in the course of the inquiry, has repeatedly said that “the President gave us no choice.” At some level, of course, this was untrue, especially coming from a politician widely recognized as one of the most powerful Speakers of the House in recent memory, who last year warned the President, in a televised meeting, not to “characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats.” Still, it’s no surprise that Democrats would want to downplay the extent to which impeachment was, in fact, an active decision. “It’s hard on people,” Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California and one of Pelosi’s closest allies in the House, told me. “I’ve been through it before. The reason that it is hard on people, that it’s really divisive, is that it’s in our American DNA that we don’t unravel elections.”
The front-liners also made their influence felt in the shaping of the articles of impeachment. After the special counsel Robert Mueller documented ten examples of potential obstruction of justice in his report, in May, more than forty House Democrats announced their support for an impeachment inquiry. According to one Democrat I spoke to, who was close to the deliberations, many members of the caucus were in favor of including a third article, based on those allegations. “I think what is lost on some people is just how tough a call it was,” the Democrat said. There was a concern that pending court cases related to the Mueller investigation might complicate matters, and a fear that the article could allow the Senate to put “the entirety of the special counsel’s investigation essentially on trial.” Ultimately, the Democrat told me, the question came down to what would succeed on the floor. Many front-liners had been wary of impeachment until the Ukraine story broke—it was their support that helped persuade Pelosi to formally authorize the inquiry—and they lobbied successfully to block an article based on the Mueller report.
The basic political reality that the front-liners provided the Democrats their majority in the House is not lost on more liberal Democrats. Lois Frankel, a member of the Progressive Caucus from Florida, told me, “I’ve been in the minority my whole career here. I’m in my fourth term, and, I’ll tell you, I like being in the majority.” For this reason, Frankel suggested, it was appropriate that the front-liners’ concerns would weigh heavily on Pelosi’s mind, especially when it came to a subject as fraught as impeachment. “I think there are a lot of people who were worried,” she said. “My district is pretty Democratic, and I can pretty much vote my conscience. But I was concerned for the people who have more marginal seats. I do think that when these folks really stepped up, very courageously, it said to people like me, ‘O.K., we can do this.’ They’re risking everything—their political career, really. I think they really turned the tide on this.”
Other progressives, however, are concerned that a competition for the dwindling number of undecided voters in swing districts will not inspire the sort of groundswell necessary to beat Trump. “We cannot lose the Presidency,” Jayapal, the Progressive Caucus co-chair, told me. “As soon as we get through this impeachment and into 2020, that is going to be what all of us have to fight for. I think the challenge is, what is the strategy that wins us the Presidency?” Jayapal suggested that whereas Trump, in 2016, worked relentlessly to turn out his base, the Democrats “have had a strategy of catering to the small slice of the middle, at the expense of our base.”
In some ways, she said, “the ideological battle that we have in the caucus is the same battle that we’re having in the Presidential debates.” At a recent hearing on Medicare for All, she told me, one Democrat defended a less ambitious plan by reminding his colleagues that it would help seniors, who tend to vote in larger numbers than other groups. “Which is true,” Jayapal said. “But my first thought to that was, What about all the people out there who we ignore because we don’t think they vote? They’re black and brown folks. They’re young people. They’re women, often. Those people should be thought about just as much by us, but that’s not how the political system works.”
Jayapal was careful to note that several front-liners are members of the Progressive Caucus, and she told me that she is close to a number of moderate freshmen in vulnerable districts, including Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia, and Max Rose, of New York. “They face a level of attack that we don’t face, no question,” she said. “They have to answer questions from people who can unelect them, so they do have to be more concerned about that. I don’t really have a problem with that.” At the same time, she said, within the caucus, “it’s sort of like, ‘Oh no, you guys are the smart progressives. You understand politics. You understand that we have to cater to the front-liners, and so you should just come along with us.’ And so our job is to say no, sometimes that’s not the thing we need to do. But you’ve got to pick carefully. You can’t do that all the time.”
On Wednesday morning, before the House gavelled into session to debate and vote on the articles of impeachment, Al Green, of Texas, one of the first Democrats to call for Trump’s impeachment, wandered over to the Republican side of the House floor. He joined several members of the Freedom Caucus—including Andy Biggs, of Arizona, and Mark Meadows, of North Carolina—who have been some of the President’s most stalwart defenders. Soon, the whole group was laughing. Biggs had been teasing Meadows for wearing a blue tie. “I said, ‘Man, it’s red-tie day,’ ” Biggs later told me. “ ‘What are you doing wearing a blue tie?’ And Al comes over, and Al’s got a red tie on.” Biggs told Green and Meadows, “ ‘You guys are going to have to change ties. You can’t do this. You can’t wear the other team’s uniform.’ ”
Several members of Congress I spoke to said that there had not been much in the way of cross-party conversations about impeachment—“it’s so divisive that you don’t even get close to it right now,” Meadows said—but, on a day marked by extreme polarities, some seemed determined to salvage whatever sense of common ground they could find. Around noon, in a marble hallway off the House floor, Steve Scalise, the Republican Minority Whip, wrapped Anna Eshoo in a hug. “She’s the best,” he said to me. “The best.” (I caught up to Scalise a few minutes later and asked him about the hug. He pivoted, without a pause, from insisting that Pelosi had a “personal vendetta against the President” to speaking of the “deep respect” that he and Eshoo had for each other, and the “special relationship that we’ve built up over years.”)
Around noon, and nearly twenty-one years to the day after Clinton’s impeachment, Pelosi, dressed in a dark suit with a brooch in the shape of the Mace of the Republic—her “power pin,” according to the Times—delivered the first speech in the debate over the impeachment articles. “We gather today under the dome of this temple of democracy to exercise one of the most solemn powers that this body can take,” she said. “It is tragic that the President’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”
After she finished, she remained on the House floor for nearly all of the eight hours of speeches that followed. Occasionally, she conferred with one or another member, but for most of the day she sat by herself, near the back, listening to her colleagues and checking her phone. The speeches had been full of dark portents—there were references to Pearl Harbor, Pontius Pilate, and Vladimir Putin—but the mood seemed to lift when the voting began, around eight-fifteen. Many members, of both parties, opted to vote with colored cards, instead of using the usual electronic voting system, in order to capture the moment for the cameras. I asked Eshoo how she thought the day would affect the Speaker’s legacy. “Well, she’s a woman of all seasons,” Eshoo said. “I don’t believe that she views this as an accomplishment, but her steady hand has helped to bring members to be deeply reflective about how serious this is. She understands what the word ‘conscience’ means.”
In the run-up to Wednesday’s vote, the House Democratic leadership had repeatedly insisted that they would not pressure their members in favor of the articles. When we spoke last week, Hoyer told me, “I haven’t asked a single member, ‘How are you going to vote on impeachment?’ Which, in terms of any other issue, would totally be, ‘Hoyer, you ought to be fired. You’re not doing your job.’ ” Hoyer said that he and Pelosi decided not to whip the vote because “we really do believe when you get to an issue of this magnitude and this consequence, every member has to represent what they believe is their duty, not the politics of it, but their duty to the Constitution. And that sounds somewhat trite, I suppose, and it sounds somewhat self-serving: ‘Oh, do they really mean that?’ We really do mean it.” On Thursday, Elissa Slotkin, a front-liner from Michigan, confirmed that, while she had been whipped on other bills, “on this one, there was just a complete absence of pressure.”
The strategy paid off. As recently as last week, political commentators were expecting as many as six or eight defections from Democrats in swing districts. But, when Thursday night’s vote came, only two of them voted no on the abuse-of power article: Collin Peterson, of Minnesota, and Jeff Van Drew, of New Jersey, who, at a White House meeting on Thursday, pledged his “undying support” for Trump and announced that he was joining the Republican Party. (Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, voted present on both articles, and Jared Golden, of Maine, voted no on obstruction of Congress.) The near-unanimity of the Democratic caucus prompted praise even from Pelosi’s opponents. “To be able to hold as many people she’s going to hold today,” Biggs told me on Thursday, “that’s pretty impressive.”
The results of the vote spoke to Pelosi’s deep understanding of her caucus. Almost uniformly, her members praise her appreciation of their psychological and political needs. Last week, Eshoo had told me that Pelosi “knows members, in many cases, better than they know themselves.” Malinowski noted, “It is really hard to corral two hundred and thirty-five or so Democrats, all of whom are free agents who believe, as I do, that no one tells me what to do.” Nevertheless, he said, “She knows when to ask people to stand together, and when the moment is perhaps not right to do that. So far, I think her instincts have been spot-on.”
On Thursday, Jayapal told me that impeachment had prompted a noticeable dampening of tensions within the House Democratic caucus. “There was a lot of hugging happening yesterday,” she said. The question now is whether that détente will survive. A few hours after we spoke, the House passed U.S.M.C.A., by a vote of 385–41, a lopsided result for a deal whose survival was far from assured even a year ago, when the Democrats won the majority. Many front-liners saw U.S.M.C.A. as a top priority. Malinowski told me that “for people who believe in free trade, like I do, to be able to negotiate an agreement that genuinely addresses the concerns of trade unions that have seen jobs lost to China and other countries over the last twenty years, is a tremendous achievement that gives us the chance to build sustainable support for free and fair trade for many years to come.” Slotkin told me, “People say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to give the President a win.’ That’s crazy, you know? I just don’t feel like many of us are making decisions based on that cynical of a political calculus. For me, a deal that’s better than NAFTA is a good deal for my state. It might not be perfect, but I can’t worry about who’s getting credit.”
Even so, a third of the Progressive Caucus, including Jayapal, voted no on the deal. “It is better than NAFTA,” Jayapal told me, “so this is a bit of a tough one, because NAFTA was disastrous. If NAFTA was an F, this is a C-minus. And it’s a C-minus only because we”—the Democrats—“intervened. If we had left it to Trump, it would have been an F.” Jayapal ultimately came down against the bill, she said, because of concerns by unions in her district and insufficient environmental protections. But she also noted that, with a bill that doesn’t require the Progressive Caucus to pass, “there’s more opportunities, sometimes, for progressives” to stake out “what the best position would be.”
Though headlines on Thursday afternoon mostly validated the concerns of Jayapal and others, describing U.S.M.C.A. as a victory for Trump, Pelosi clearly saw the deal as a personal triumph. Not only was it a chance to rewrite a trade agreement that many Democrats have long loathed and a political accomplishment for front-liners to take home over the holiday break; it was also the result of a particularly complex set of negotiations. “If she had a different mind-set, there wouldn’t have been ten minutes put into it,” Eshoo told me. “Maybe, maybe, met a couple of times and said, ‘This is the worst thing we’ve ever seen.’ ” Instead, the Speaker chose a negotiating team that spanned the ideological breadth of her caucus, who worked with the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, and with Trumka, at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to substantially rewrite the agreement. “I think the challenge of it is: it’s a high mountain, it’s not a gradual climb,” Eshoo said. “There are twenty-seven ways that you could fall off and lose your life. That’s her job. She likes that, she really does.”