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Nancy Pelosi’s refusal (so far) to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, explained

Her efforts have bought extra time for Democrats to build their case.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) listens during a press conference with House Democrats held to highlight the legislative accomplishments of the year on December 19, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now has the support to move forward with a partisan vote establishing the rules for the impeachment trial, an update he made clear earlier this week. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t blinking just yet.

Pelosi on Tuesday emphasized that she will not send over the House articles of impeachment for President Donald Trump until she sees the Senate protocol for the trial in writing, the latest move she’s made to dig in on her position.

Previously, Pelosi’s decision to withhold the articles — which are needed in order for the Senate to begin the trial — was seen as an effort to pressure the Senate to come up with what Democrats viewed as a fair approach. The trial, after all, will determine whether Trump is ultimately convicted and removed from office over his attempts to coerce Ukraine into investigating his political opponent.

Back in December, it was unclear if all Republicans — particularly a trio of swing senators — would back McConnell in advancing a rules package along partisan lines from the get-go. By hanging on to the articles, Pelosi could both hammer Republicans with negative messaging about their decision to not immediately call witnesses for the trial and buy more time to pressure this group of pivotal moderates.

These swing senators, however, have since indicated that they stand with McConnell. And some Senate Democrats have started urging her to transmit the articles.

“I think the time has passed. She should send the articles over,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) recently told the Washington Post.

So why is Pelosi still holding on to them?

Pelosi is still building the argument against the GOP-controlled Senate’s handling of trial process — to mixed success

The speaker, who has kept her cards close to the vest for the entire impeachment process, is reportedly even tighter-lipped about her strategy for the articles. As CNN’s Manu Raju wrote earlier this week, Pelosi had, at one point, not told Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer or her “closest confidantes” about her plans.

When she does discuss it, she’s pressed the Senate to offer concrete commitments. On Tuesday, she said she’s still waiting on the rule specifics from the upper chamber before transferring anything, though McConnell has chafed at this request.

“It is important that he immediately publish this resolution, so that, as I have said before, we can see the arena in which we will be participating, appoint managers and transmit the articles to the Senate,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to her House colleagues on Tuesday.

Getting these rules in writing — as unlikely as that prospect might be — would enable the House to have a better sense of how its impeachment managers will have to operate as the trial unfolds, former Pelosi Chief of Staff John Lawrence told Vox. Although the trial takes place in the Senate, the House will continue to have a central role, he said, seeing as how House members will effectively be serving as the prosecution.

But there are a couple of other factors at play, too. A House Democratic leadership aide noted that some of Pelosi’s reasons for holding the articles in the first place still stand.

For one: Since the House’s impeachment vote in December, more and more documents — including Pentagon emails about Ukraine aid — have leaked out and strengthened Democrats’ case, further building the public record for the Trump impeachment charges. Depending on how long she keeps the articles, it’s possible even more information will emerge that makes Republicans’ take on trial procedure look even worse.

“[Former National Security Adviser John] Bolton’s statement on Monday and new emails showing the Pentagon was concerned about President Trump’s freeze on Ukraine aid are significant developments that demand a fair trial in the Senate — and wouldn’t have happened without Speaker Pelosi holding the articles,” the aide says.

Additionally, this extra time has meant that Democrats can continue to press Republicans about what they see as a “sham” trial, an effort likely aimed at shifting public opinion on the issue.

It’s not clear how successful that push is. In December, before the holiday break, 54 percent of voters favored the Senate calling more witnesses for the impeachment trial, according to Morning Consult; 57 percent of voters did in January, marking only a slight uptick. (A separate poll from LawWorks recently found that 67 percent of voters in six battleground states were interested in a full trial with fair consideration of the evidence versus a speedy acquittal.)

Trump himself has seemed distressed by the delay, if the number of tweets he shared about it over the holidays is any indication.

Even so, the growing Senate comments from Pelosi’s party signal that the pressure is increasing on the speaker to send the articles, prompting some to speculate that it could happen soon. Still, it remains to be seen just how long she’s willing to wait for the assurances she’s interested in getting from the Senate.

“Mrs. Pelosi plays three-dimensional checkers and sometimes it takes a while to figure out all the moves,” says Lawrence. “I’d be very surprised if she wants there to be a lengthy delay, but she’s not going to telescope her endgame.”

There has been growing pressure for Pelosi to turn over the articles soon, though House Democrats are still backing her strategy

A handful of Senate Democrats have joined Republicans in the push for Pelosi to transmit the articles, as lawmakers get antsy about completing a trial. House members, meanwhile, emphasized that they backed her efforts to raise awareness about the partisan nature of the Senate process.

“She is right to highlight what some of the Republicans, including the [House majority] leader, have said, which is anything but impartial,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the House Oversight Committee, told Vox.

“When the Senate majority leader says there will be basically no daylight between his coordination with the White House, as it pertains to the process, I think the speaker was absolutely correct to hold on to the articles of impeachment until we know what the rules are,” Rep. Val Demings, a House Judiciary member, added.

Pelosi’s decision to keep the articles has shifted the expected Senate timeline somewhat. Based on the original plans, there was a sense the trial could start as early as January 6 and run for most of the month. Given the delay around the articles, it’s now uncertain when it will kick off, as the 2020 presidential primary looms in the background.

Murphy hasn’t been the only Democrat to express his concerns, Politico reports. Others, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), have suggested the delay is undercutting the urgency of the impeachment process, as Democrats’ leverage wanes. “If it’s serious and urgent, send them over. If it isn’t, don’t send it over,” Feinstein told Politico.

The timing around the articles is still unknown, as both chambers also continue to grapple with the recent US airstrike that killed Iranian official Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian response. While there have been questions about whether Pelosi might hold on to the articles indefinitely, this outcome doesn’t feel particularly likely.

“She’s a big believer in process, and that leads me to suggest she would send them over sooner rather than later,” Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told Vox.

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