Is there any doubt that many Democrats agree with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she says she wants to see President Trump “in prison?” After the Mueller report, House Democrats seem to believe almost unanimously that the president is guilty of obstruction of justice. Their increasingly heated internal debate is whether to impeach Trump now or press for his incarceration after they defeat him next year.
They can impeach the president on their own, anytime they want. But putting him in prison is a much heavier lift, requiring Democrats to first win the White House in 2020 —נnot at all guaranteed — and then hope the justice system would press charges against a former president, and then hope that Trump actually would be convicted of some sort of crime, and then hope he would be sentenced to prison.
That’s a lot of hoping.
Why trade something that can be had today for something that probably won’t ever happen? Does Pelosi really want to put Trump in jail? The public might as well take her at her word. On the other hand, she raised the prospect during a discussion with fellow Democrats who want to move ahead with impeachment. Pelosi opposes impeachment as politically unwise, and she apparently brought up prison to 1) show how tough she is on Trump, and 2) urge lawmakers to forgo impeachment now in favor of future prosecution.
“She’s trying to keep her impeachment mob at bay,” said Rush Limbaugh, in what seems a pretty accurate assessment of the situation.
The problem for Pelosi is that Democrats have been in an impeaching mood since election night 2016. In 2017, in the president’s first months in office, Democratic lawmakers filed two separate sets of articles of impeachment. Several months later, 66 House Democrats voted in favor of moving impeachment forward.
Back then, some Democrats sought to impeach the president for reasons as diverse as firing FBI Director James Comey and for “sowing discord among the people of the United States” with comments on Charlottesville, transgender troops, Muslim immigration and NFL players who would not stand for the national anthem.
That was all before Democrats won the House majority and before special counsel Robert Mueller filed a long report that all but accused the president of obstructing justice. Even though Trump has strong defenses, both on the facts and the law, Democrats have 235 votes in the House. If 218 members — say, 217 Democrats plus the single pro-impeachment Republican, Rep. Justin Amash — vote for impeachment, it will happen.
Pelosi’s statement that she wants to see Trump in prison caused outrage among some Trump supporters. They point out, correctly, that Democrats and their allies in the press have thrown out the presumption of innocence in many Trump matters, and Pelosi’s words seemed like the final step in that process. For their part, Democrats argued that during the 2016 general election campaign, crowds of Trump supporters chanted “lock her up,” referring to Hillary Clinton. Indeed they did. There’s no question Trump enjoyed it, but he mostly answered by saying to the crowd, “Let’s just beat her in November.”
Perhaps the Trump impeachment talk will turn out to be just talk, too. Pelosi’s ability to impose discipline on her conference is legendary. Right now, many Democrats are talking big, while their leader is keeping them in check. In the end, they might not do much at all.