There’s one person in America with the power to make Donald Trump’s impeachment happen, and she keeps insisting she’s not interested. “I’m not for impeachment,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview published March 11. “Unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan,” she told the Washington Post, “I don’t think we should go down that path.”
Pelosi has been giving a version of this answer for more than a year now, but there’s a reason she keeps getting the question. Whether Democrats will move to impeach Trump is the biggest political issue of 2019. And despite what Pelosi says, it’s likely to happen.
Democrats control the House, and about three-quarters of their voters favor impeachment. A well-funded grassroots movement is mounting an aggressive campaign to pressure wavering lawmakers. Multiple investigations into the President, his business and his Administration are under way. The one led by special counsel Robert Mueller may conclude any day, but no matter what Mueller finds, many Democrats in Congress believe there’s already ample evidence that Trump has committed crimes and proven himself unfit to serve. These lawmakers see a moral imperative to seek the remedy prescribed by the Constitution.
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez for TIME
More than a quarter of the 235 Democrats in the House have already expressed support for Trump’s impeachment. Virtually everyone else is taking a “wait for Mueller” approach. But no one is ruling it out. And to many, the prospect of opening impeachment proceedings against Trump seems inevitable. “It’s not a matter of whether, it’s a matter of when,” as Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky told CNN on March 12.
Democrats see a wide range of potentially impeachable offenses, including obstruction of justice, based on Trump’s efforts to impede federal investigations, starting with the firing of FBI Director James Comey; accepting campaign assistance from Russia; violating campaign-finance laws by paying hush money to alleged mistresses; violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause; and abuses of presidential power. While Democrats in Congress expect the Mueller report will bolster the case, many believe they’ve seen ample evidence. “We have already seen deeply concerning evidence of the President’s lack of fitness for office, the degree to which profound conflicts of interest may be guiding his foreign policy, as well as evidence of criminality on the part of the President,” Representative Adam Schiff of California told reporters on March 12.
Conventional wisdom in Washington tends to treat impeachment as a fringe crusade, on a par with campaigns by antifluoridation activists or UFO enthusiasts, and views Pelosi as right to resist this momentum. Many believe it would be a political disaster for Democrats, galvanizing Trump’s base and alienating moderates. Republicans have taken to goading their opponents to try it, while White House officials say they relish the prospect of the Democratic Party tearing itself apart over the issue. “It would play right into our hands,” says a House Republican leadership aide.
But Pelosi is actually playing a deeper game. Her aides note that she’s never ruled impeachment out. All she’s done, they say, is set a standard: increased popular support and some degree of GOP backing. Behind the scenes, she and her team are working to see that standard is met. “The easy thing to do would be to start down the path of impeachment. That’s a trap,” a senior Democratic aide tells TIME. “Now that we have the gavel and can expose all of this wrongdoing, I think you will start to see a shift in public opinion and movement of Republicans.”
For the past two years, the Democrats have coordinated their investigations and oversight of the Trump Administration in a regular Friday-morning staff meeting. Following a “culture of corruption” messaging framework set out in a memo by Representative John Sarbanes, they determine issues and people to target, parceling out document and witness requests to various committees. Even without the House majority, the aide notes, this push contributed to the departure of four Cabinet officials accused of misconduct, and the public has heeded their work: according to a March Quinnipiac poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe Trump committed crimes before becoming President.
Pelosi’s two-pronged test aims to avoid what happened with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which backfired on Republicans and boosted Clinton’s popularity. When she first became Speaker in 2007, Pelosi quashed Democrats’ zeal to impeach George W. Bush for the Iraq War, believing it was misguided. She believes her party won the 2018 midterms by focusing on issues like health care, not Trump.
But there are already signs Pelosi’s standard could be met. Public support for Trump’s impeachment hovers around 45% in recent polls. That’s the highest for any President since Richard Nixon, whose impeachment was favored by 43% of Americans in March 1974, five months before he resigned. Large majorities say they would favor Trump’s impeachment and removal from office if Mueller finds he authorized coordination with Russia or obstructed justice. To date, congressional Republicans hav