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The Pelosi Factor

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If you were going to draw up a list of the people most responsible for the latest indictment of Donald Trump, the former president himself would be at the top, followed by the prosecutors who have brought the case. Republicans in Congress perversely deserve a great deal of credit, too, since they could have exiled Trump from political life and perhaps spared him more intense legal scrutiny if they had voted to convict him in the impeachment trial over his role in the siege of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Ultimately, however, you cannot tell the story of Trump’s historic indictment without Nancy Pelosi. It was the then-Speaker of the House who insisted that there be a congressional inquiry following January 6. And it was the work of the select committee she fashioned that finally appears to have spurred a reluctant Justice Department to action, setting in motion a more intense phase of criminal scrutiny focused on Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The resulting indictment closely tracks the select committee’s work and findings, presenting a factual narrative that traces — almost identically — the evidence presented by the committee of a sophisticated, multipronged effort by Trump to remain in power that culminated in the mayhem at the U.S. Capitol.

“I knew on January 6 that he had committed a crime,” Pelosi told me late Friday afternoon, squeezing me in for a roughly 30-minute interview at the tail end of a remarkable week in Washington.

I wondered what was going through her head as someone who had played an essential role in bringing about the most important criminal prosecution in the history of our country, and I was curious, in particular, when it had occurred to her that Trump’s conduct following the 2020 election had not merely been politically destructive or outrageous but may have crossed the line into actual criminality.

During the Trump administration, Pelosi emerged as one of Trump’s most persistent and effective political antagonists, and the personal rancor between the two was often on public display. She went toe to toe with him in the Oval Office. She authorized the third-ever impeachment of an American president after Trump’s effort to shake down Ukraine’s president to get dirt on Joe Biden. She famously tore up Trump’s 2020 State of the Union speech while standing behind him. As Trump’s supporters began to approach the Capitol on January 6, Pelosi said that if Trump joined them, “I’m going to punch him out. I’ve been waiting for this. For trespassing on the Capitol grounds, I’m going to punch him out. And I’m going to go to jail, and I’m going to be happy.”

The rioters proceeded to ransack her office, and instead of punching Trump, who was prevented from going to the Capitol by the Secret Service, Pelosi impeached him again. To this day, Pelosi seems to get under Trump’s skin like no one else. Early Sunday morning, Trump called her “a sick & demented psycho who will someday live in HELL!”

Long before January 6 itself, Pelosi had been preparing for Trump to try to disrupt the transfer of power. “During the election, I thought, ‘He’s going to try to pull a stunt and we have to try to have as many states in the Democratic column as possible,’” she told me, contemplating the possibility that Biden’s victory might not be certified and that the House would have to move to an obscure procedure in which each state’s congressional delegation would cast a single vote to determine the next president.

Trump promptly proceeded to validate that concern, undertaking an extraordinary effort to remain in power after Election Day by falsely claiming that he had won and by trying to work various levers of official power to stay in office. “As we got closer to January 6, I knew he was cooking up all these things, but what was he going to do about it?” Pelosi recalled. “It was clear that he knew he did not win the election,” she explained. “It was clear, and he had to disrupt” the joint session of Congress to certify the election. As the indictment alleges, Trump did this not only by pressuring Vice-President Mike Pence to illegally cast aside Biden’s electoral votes but also by watching with apparent pleasure as a mob tore through the Capitol and by exploiting the violence fed by his lies.

“When we saw what he did on January 6, I knew that was a crime,” Pelosi added. She acknowledged that it is not possible to predict “what can be proven” successfully in court, “but I know he committed a crime that day.”

After Biden’s inauguration, Pelosi set about to organize a bipartisan 9/11 Commission–type investigation into the events that led up to January 6, but she was repeatedly stymied by congressional Republicans. “We yielded on every point,” Pelosi recalled of the negotiations with her Republican counterparts at the time. “We gave them an equal number of commission members, which we always would have done — equal member staff, equal member funding for everything — and equal subpoena power, which the majority never gives away, but nonetheless, we did it because this was so awful for our country, so necessary to have this.”

In what turned out to have been a historic miscalculation, Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell blocked the initiative in the Senate. “He went around to members and said, ‘Do me a personal favor and do not vote for this,’” Pelosi told me. “Even though he knew that night — and said — that the Republican president was responsible, they didn’t even want to have an investigation.”

Pelosi has earned a reputation as one of the most tactically savvy leaders in the history of the Congress, and she chuckled as she recalled McConnell’s maneuvering. “People said to Mitch, ‘You think Nancy is going to let this go?’ What could he have been thinking?”

Pelosi then shifted gears to negotiating over a select committee in the House with Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who took the project about as seriously as McConnell had by proposing to name, among other people, bomb-thrower Jim Jordan to the panel. Pelosi quickly decided the negotiations were not going anywhere, explaining that McCarthy wanted to appoint members who would “totally undermine” the committee.
“Okay,” she recalled thinking. “That’s really nice. So you get consultation as to who will serve [on the committee], and I have consulted with you, and I’ve said ‘no’ to who you want. That’s the power of the Speaker.”

Pelosi then assembled a group led by Democratic chair Bennie Thompson and Republican vice-chair Liz Cheney, along with six other Democrats and Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger. It did not take long for observers to conclude that McCarthy may have monumentally misplayed his hand, particularly after the committee produced a riveting series of hearings last summer that were mercifully free of the clownish and disruptive antics of the House GOP’s right flank.

In the course of our discussion, Pelosi was reluctant to take any sort of credit for the committee’s work or Trump’s indictment with the exception of taking “credit for the appointees” on the committee, whom she described as providing a “beautiful balance” in their approaches and a crucial “seriousness of purpose.”

Pelosi said she knew from the beginning that, in order for the committee to succeed, it could not operate in the way of typical committee hearings, and she worked to ensure that the members shared that perspective. “When people were accepting the offer to be on the committee, they knew that it wasn’t going to be every five minutes that they’d be speaking,” she said. “It would be part of the plan [to present] a narrative for the public to understand.”

In the end, Pelosi told me, “the quality of the membership, the effectiveness of the staff, and the excellence of the presentation made it one of the best presentations in the history of our country.”

Meanwhile, there were questions about what the Justice Department was doing to address the potential criminal culpability of Trump and those in his orbit. The committee’s members and staff were uncovering — and presenting to the public — damaging evidence that they had obtained from Trump administration officials, but the DOJ was not pursuing those same threads — despite public frustration among some observers — seemingly content with focusing on the people who had stormed the Capitol or who played a role in organizing the violence that day.

I asked Pelosi whether during this period she had ever tried to speak with Attorney General Merrick Garland, President Biden, or anyone in the White House about making sure the Justice Department was properly investigating Trump’s conduct. “No,” she quickly responded, telling me that she did not think it was appropriate for her to try to influence the department’s work behind closed doors.

“I did want them to pay attention, and I hope that we got their attention,” Pelosi told me. “That’s why the presentation — the narrative — had to be the way it was,” she explained, so that the public record could be as clear and credible as possible. “We couldn’t have people, like the Republicans wanted to put on, who would be disruptive, disruptive, disruptive. Too much was at stake.”

Still, there was palpable anxiety among House Democrats about the Justice Department’s progress — or lack thereof — investigating Trump directly. That anxiety may have reached a high point this June, when the Washington Post published a remarkable 8,000-word story providing the most comprehensive account to date of the department’s investigation into Trump’s conduct.

According to the Post, it took “more than a year” after January 6 “before prosecutors and FBI agents jointly embarked on a formal probe of actions directed from the White House to try to steal the election,” and “even then, the FBI stopped short of identifying the former president as a focus of that investigation.” One source told the paper that “it felt as though the department was reacting to the House committee’s work as well as heightened media coverage and commentary” as the department’s investigation finally gathered steam last year.

“When the Washington Post article came out,” Pelosi told me, “not that it was a complete shock or surprise to our members, but they were very concerned about it.”

Now that Trump has been indicted over his effort to steal the election, we are in the midst of a singular moment in American history — one that will have dramatic long-term implications for our country and one that will likely be covered in history books for generations to come. The difference, of course, is that as we live through this period, we have no idea how it will end — with Trump in prison or with Trump in the White House again.

I asked Pelosi how she thought this would all end, and she struck a tentative but cautiously optimistic tone. “As we always say, it all depends on what happens at the end of the day, but you have to determine what the end of the day is. Yesterday was the end of a day. The former president of the United States was arraigned, and that was a triumph for the truth.”

“The indictments against the president are exquisite,” Pelosi added, referring to both the latest set of charges and the earlier federal indictment over Trump’s hoarding of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago and his subsequent efforts to obstruct investigators. “They’re beautiful and intricate, and they probably have a better chance of conviction than anything that I would come up with.”

As for the prospect of a second Trump term, Pelosi immediately recoiled when I brought it up. “Don’t even think of that,” she told me. “Don’t think of the world being on fire. It cannot happen, or we will not be the United States of America.”

“If he were to be president,” she continued, “it would be a criminal enterprise in the White House.”

There was a time in American life, not that long ago, when that would have been clear hyperbole. These are categorically different times.

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