The surprising success of Nancy Pelosi's plan to box Trump in

The surprising success of Nancy Pelosi's plan to box Trump in
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi // CBS

With the support of 10 Republicans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led her chamber to impeach President Donald Trump for a historic second time in just a little over a year. Though it appears the effort is unlikely to lead to what she wants most — Trump's immediate removal — her strategy is already paying dividends.

First, she divided her opponents. This is always an advantage in politics, and it helps when you can do it while also believing you're doing the right thing. When your opponents are attacking each other, they're not attacking you. It's possible the fights over Trump will pull the Republican Party further to the extremes by ousting members who have turned against the president. But that too can benefit Pelosi, who will be fighting hard to defend her majority in 2022. If more moderate members of the House GOP in swing districts are replaced in primaries by pro-Trump extremists, she may have a better chance of maintaining power.

Second, the fight over impeachment on the House floor had a surprising and likely unforeseen benefit for Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. Even as most of the GOP caucus made speeches denouncing impeachment and the Democrats, they repeated a talking point over and over that just a few days ago they were reluctant to say out loud: By this time next week, Trump will not be president. Biden will.

It may seem like a small thing, but it's potentially a big deal. Countless ordinary Republicans have believed in the two months since Biden was declared the election's winner that Trump would nevertheless find a way to stay in power. This delusional belief fed into the storming of the Capitol, as many of the insurrectionists believed that somehow Biden's win could be undone. The Republicans making speeches on Wednesday weren't intending to debunk this belief, of course — they were trying to argue that impeaching Trump at this point was futile and petty. But it may have been an important dose of reality for some portion of viewers sitting at home to learn that even Trump's co-partisans admit his administration is ending.

Third, Trump himself seems to be chastened by the development. On Tuesday, the president gave a statement to the press sounding like his usual self. Despite widespread condemnation of his speech on Jan. 6 for inciting the riot at the U.S. Capitol, Trump claimed it was "totally appropriate."

He also seemed to be stoking further outrage over impeachment. "For Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to continue on this path, I think it's causing tremendous danger to our country and it's causing tremendous anger," he said, though he added: "I want no violence."

But by Wednesday afternoon, as the House approached its impeachment vote, he seemed to be grasping for a different message.

"In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind. That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for," he said in a White House press release (he has been banned from Twitter). "I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers. Thank You."

And in a video posted after he was officially impeached, Trump didn't really sound like himself at all.

"I want to be very clear," he said. "I unequivocally condemn the violence that we saw last week."

Though he included statements gesturing toward complaints about his being banned from social media and "cancel culture," the video remarks mostly focused on preventing further violence. He didn't go as far as telling his supporters to abandon future protests, citing their First Amendment rights, but the speech clearly sought to discourage a repeat of the Capitol siege.

These remarks came after reports broke on Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was pleased to see Trump getting impeached for his conduct and believed he committed impeachable offenses. And in a letter on Wednesday, McConnell took an entirely separate tack to the one he adopted during Trump's first impeachment by suggesting he might vote to convict.

"While the press has been full of speculation," he wrote, "I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate."

He also made clear that he will not agree to go along with a plan to start the Senate trial immediately, all but ensuring that Trump won't be removed. But Trump clearly seems to fear the trial anyway, which could potentially bar him from federal office in the future. It's likely that, even apart from the legal consequences of a conviction, Trump would feel completely humiliated if he was the first president in history to have two-thirds of the Senate vote against him in a trial. (Some have speculated that McConnell may also be strategizing to disrupt the early days of the Biden administration by dragging out the trial, a potential downside for Pelosi's strategy, though it's unclear how that will play out.)

"I think this is the first time Trump has recorded a video FOR an audience of one (McConnell), as opposed being the audience of one himself," said Maggie Haberman of the New York Times.

Her point was that Trump seems to be highly motivated to do what it takes to convince McConnell not to vote to convict. If McConnell were to vote against Trump, that might encourage enough other Republicans to vote for conviction as well to deny the president a second acquittal. And despite his previous commitments, McConnell could turn on a dime and hold a snap trial to remove Trump should it become immediately necessary.

While this may seem to put McConnell in the driver's seat, the result is Pelosi's doing. The House's powers to constrain a president are limited. But by passing an article of impeachment, and with McConnell open to the idea, Pelosi has effectively boxed Trump in. He may still act out in disturbing and dangerous ways, but his last two statements show he's responding to the pressures created by her impeachment. He may also be concerned about the possibility that the vice president could use the 25th Amendment to remove him, which the House passed a resolution calling for, but Mike Pence has seemed to have ruled that out. (Trump also faces serious criminal and civl legal exposure, though at this point there's probably little he can do to reduce it.)

Some often complain when too much focus is put on Trump's changes in rhetoric rather than his actions. And it's true that it has often been exaggerated when Trump has a "new tone," and he'll often quickly revert to form. It's certainly possible that will happen again before his term in office is up. But for now, he seems to be responding to the incentive structure Pelosi has constructed, and that may keep his rhetoric tempered — which is no small feat. His words and lies helped fuel the dangerous attack on Jan. 6. If they can be tamped down until Biden is president, it will be a major success for Pelosi's strategy.

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