Prologue Prologue March 6, 2019, Washington, DC, and Kyiv, Ukraine
Nancy Pelosi strode into her majestic office suite in the U.S. Capitol, her forehead marked with a prominent black smudge. It was Ash Wednesday, and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had received her ashes that morning from Father Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain.
Father just came at me with a vengeance,” she joked to her waiting guest, Washington Post
reporter Joe Heim, with a big laugh. “People have gotten their ashes off of my forehead today because it was just, like, dripping.”
It was a cold and gusty morning in Washington, which Heim could see through the speaker’s windows, with their stunning view of the National Mall. In her private office, the yellow walls covered with historic and family photographs gave the space a feel both commanding and comfortable. Four upholstered yellow wingback chairs flanked a fireplace. Her desk had no computer. The highest-ranking elected woman in American history still preferred face-to-face talks and phone calls to email. On display was a favorite gift—pink boxing gloves, monogrammed for the five-foot-two-inch fighter.
Heim was there to interview Pelosi for a Q&A to be published in The Washington Post Magazine
. He didn’t cover Congress. He had never met Pelosi. But he had immersed himself in her biography, a mixture of privilege, promise and prowess: Her political lineage, a mini-dynasty, her father winning five terms in the U.S. House, her father and brother each serving as Baltimore’s mayor. Her family’s towering influence on that city, wielding its power from a red-brick house in Little Italy with portraits of FDR and Harry Truman on the wall. Her early real-life lessons as the youngest of six children, and the only girl. Her formal education at an all-girls Catholic school and then at all-women Trinity, a small Catholic college in Washington, just three miles north of the Capitol, where she watched President John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president, give his inaugural address on that frigid January day in 1961.
Then, coming into her own: Her move to San Francisco, where she raised five children. Her immersion in community issues while her husband built the family’s wealth through real estate and other investments. Her volunteer work for local Democrats, gradually establishing her own political base. Her 17 terms in Congress and her rise to the top of her party’s ranks. Her election as speaker of the House in 2007, the first woman ever in the powerful post. Her strategic finesse in beating back a challenge to her leadership after the Democrats recaptured the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Her second stint in the job, a resurrection of sorts. Her current difficulties in controlling her rowdy and diverse caucus.
Pelosi had also done her homework on Heim. She had learned he was a fellow Catholic who had spent five childhood years in Kenya, where his father had worked for Catholic Relief Services and his mother had been a State Department nurse. Heim was surprised by Pelosi’s preparation and attention to detail. “Tell me about growing up in Kenya!” she said, and then told him of taking her children to Kenya when they were young, going on a safari and a dig with famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey.
“I feel close to Kenya,” she said. “I found an ancient tooth there on an excavation.” She paused, adding dryly, “Not mine.”
Preliminaries done, rapport established, Heim eased into the interview. It started with a no-fireworks discussion about the country’s political divisions, standard fare. Pelosi was waiting. She had a message to convey, something she wanted to say explicitly, more explicitly and forcefully than she had ever said it before. She didn’t need to force an opening. She knew Heim would ask the question. He had to. Members of her own caucus were asking it, too. She couldn’t avoid it, so she might as well confront it, contain it, control it.
The Q&A format was perfect. She could guarantee the way her answers came out, without a media filter. She had a good phrase, she thought, a phrase that would stick, a phrase that CNN, Fox, MSNBC, all the other networks could reduce to one of their crawls at the bottom of the TV screen.
The moment came, more as a statement than a question, as she was making light of her combative relationship with Donald Trump. Heim said, “There have been increasing calls, including from some of your members, for impeachment of the president.”
She pounced. Leaning forward in her chair, she said deliberately, so deliberately that Heim could tell it was planned: “I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
She pointed her index finger at Heim and, with an actor’s timing, slowed her delivery even more, making each word its own weighted sentence: “And. He’s. Just. Not. Worth. It.”
The day before, in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, nearly 5,000 miles away, U.S. ambassador Marie “Masha” Yovanovitch had given a strikingly direct speech about the country’s pernicious and persistent corruption, a subject that had become her specialty during more than 30 years in the State Department.
Danger isn’t always a part of a career diplomat’s biography, but it was central to Yovanovitch’s.
She had been caught in crossfire during a violent showdown between Russia’s president and parliament, worked in an embassy in Uzbekistan sprayed with gunfire, served amid civil war in Somalia and heard the thud of falling artillery shells on the front lines of Ukraine’s war with Russia. She had managed to reach the age of 60 without getting hurt and without a blemish to her reputation.
The diplomat’s life suited Yovanovitch. She was good at it. That’s what her colleagues and her awards told her. Her name wasn’t well known in Washington, but in the circles where she traveled, in the outposts where she had learned her craft, she had a reputation for being tough, fair and direct. Two U.S. presidents, first a Republican, then a Democrat, had shown their confidence in her. George W. Bush had picked her for two ambassadorships, first Kyrgyzstan, then Armenia. Barack Obama, in his final year, had chosen her for the embassy in Kyiv, a hot spot of a different sort, its independence threatened by Russia’s designs on its territory.
She had been calling out the stench of bad governance and corruption in Ukraine since her arrival in August of 2016. After Donald Trump’s election a few months later, she had kept up her campaign. She had ruffled feathers at the very top of Ukraine’s government and in the country’s darker corners, but that was a risk she had to take. Otherwise, nothing would change, she felt.
In her speech at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center on March 5, Yovanovitch upped the ante once more.
She called for the removal of Ukraine’s special corruption prosecutor, who had been caught on tape allegedly coaching a suspect on how to avoid prosecution. She said he couldn’t be trusted.
Yuri Lutsenko, the country’s chief prosecutor, was monitoring the speech. He didn’t like what Yovanovitch was saying. He didn’t like what she was doing. He wanted her out. Hours later, he sent an irritated WhatsApp text message to Lev Parnas, a close associate and cigar-smoking buddy of Rudy Giuliani, one of President Trump’s personal lawyers and closest confidants.
The ambassador’s openly calling for the firing of one of my associates, Lutsenko wrote. This would not do.
Lutsenko wrote his text in Russian, a language the two of them shared. But Parnas understood that the message was meant as much for Giuliani’s ears as his own. To reach Giuliani, who spoke only English, Lutsenko needed a translator and intermediary. He needed Parnas, a Ukrainian-American who had introduced the two of them.
For months, Giuliani had been pursuing Trump’s goals in Ukraine. Along with Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman, Giuliani wanted prosecutors to investigate an unsupported narrative: that Ukrainian government officials had undertaken an organized effort to collude with the Democrats on Hillary Clinton’s behalf in the 2016 U.S. election. In this stew of a story they were serving up, Ukrainians were hiding the evidence, a computer server stashed somewhere in the country, and Trump was the victim of foreign efforts to interfere in the American election, not a beneficiary.
None other than Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was a promoter of this narrative. As long ago as February 2017, while speaking to reporters in Budapest,
Putin had pushed the idea that Hillary Clinton and her campaign had benefited from the support of “Ukrainian authorities.” It was a classic Putin sleight-of-hand. Not our fault, Putin said. Blame Ukraine.
Since then, the narrative had been making its way around the Internet, fueled by conspiracy theorists in the echo chambers populated by some of President Trump’s most fervent supporters. Giuliani liked the narrative for another reason: He needed ammunition to counter the impending report on Russian interference from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team, which had tied Washington in knots for nearly two years. Giuliani did not believe that Trump had colluded with Russia. He and Trump had been railing against the Mueller probe for months. It was a joke, a “witch hunt,” “illegal,” “rigged,” “a disgrace.”
Giuliani and his team had picked up a new scent. They had heard something enticing about former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s chief political rivals. Biden’s son Hunter had secured a high-paid seat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, while his father was serving as Obama’s second-in-command. A probe of the Bidens would be a win. It could damage the candidate seen in the Trump camp as the biggest threat in the 2020 race. The Trump campaign had seen how devastating the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server had been in 2016.
Giuliani’s emerging role as a back channel on Ukraine reflected Trump’s deep distrust of the “deep state,” his derisive label for the people who form the backbone of the U.S. government. They are the military, diplomatic, intelligence, security, financial and public health professionals who provide expertise, analysis and advice to the occupant of the White House. The president sets policy, and this standing corps of experts helps execute it.
Trump had turned that world on its head. He viewed the deep state as an enemy to be neutralized. These men and women weren’t his allies. They were weapons aimed at him, especially those career diplomats who had also worked in the Obama administration. Trump and his allies in conservative media called them “unelected bureaucrats,” a term they meant as a slur. Viewed through that lens, Marie Yovanovitch wasn’t a decorated diplomat who had represented her nation with dignity and bipartisan professionalism. She was a deep stater, she wasn’t on their team, and she was standing in Giuliani’s way. She had to go.
On Ash Wednesday, as Nancy Pelosi was explaining to Heim why she was opposed to impeaching Trump, the texting between Lutsenko and Parnas escalated, with Lutsenko complaining again about Yovanovitch:
“Now the Ambassador points to bad selection of judges.”
Nancy Pelosi had heard the whispers in Capitol corridors—that she wasn’t up to the job, that maybe it was time to turn the speaker’s gavel over to someone younger. There was a moment when she might have listened. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016, Pelosi had thought she might retire. The Affordable Care Act would be safe, the country would be in hands she trusted. But that changed when Trump won. Now, at the age of 78, a time when others were slowing down, she had no interest in taking a break. She wasn’t going anywhere. Not with Donald Trump in the White House.
Power was something she understood, something she relished. She prided herself on knowing her caucus, knowing their motivations. What made them say yes to something, and what kept them from saying no. She chalked it up to longevity. If you lead for long enough, if you learn how to persuade enough people to follow you on the hard issues, you know how to speed them up or slow them down.
She had been resisting calls to impeach Trump since taking over as speaker in January 2019. Emboldened by winning back the House in the midterms, those on the party’s newly energized left wing wanted, in the now famous words of freshman representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, to
“impeach the motherfucker.” Pelosi knew how unhelpful that phrase would be in her party’s appeal to the political center, which had carried the Democrats to their triumphant midterm success.
Her feelings about Trump could not be summed up in a few choice words. He infuriated her so much that she was
grinding her teeth at night, prompting her dentist to make her a bite guard for sleeping. But in her calculation, she had not seen anything that merited impeachment. Pelosi feared that appearing obsessed with impeachment instead of “kitchen table” economic issues might undermine the wave of centrist freshmen who had just won in districts that had gone for Trump in 2016. She feared it could cost the party its House majority in 2020.
Since Trump’s election, a small group of the House chamber’s most fiery progressives had submitted legislation five times, trying to start impeachment proceedings. It was a noisy minority view that presented a headache for Pelosi. Republicans were already saying impeachment talk amounted to a coup attempt by Democrats unable to accept the valid 2016 election result.
Trump’s misdeeds, as cited by Democrats, made for a long and troubling list. But each time, Pelosi held the line. In her mind, none rose to the high standard of an impeachable offense, at least none that would resonate with the American public, let alone with a clear majority of the House, and certainly none that would sway a GOP-controlled Senate run by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Firing then–FBI director James Comey? Indefensible, she had said, but
“until you have the facts that you can present . . . so the American people are moving with you at the same time, I don’t think that our democracy is well served.”
Claiming after white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that there had been an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”? Proof, she had said, that the president
“doesn’t know right from wrong, true from false, American patriotism from white nationalism.” But by itself, not grounds for impeachment.
Siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence officials’ determination that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election?
“An embarrassment and a grave threat to our democracy,” she had said. His proposed ban on immigrants from Muslim countries?
“Not only unconstitutional but immoral.” Shutting down the government over funding for his border wall?
“Petulance and obstinance.” The $130,000 in hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels and, before that, the “Access Hollywood” tape, where he was heard boasting he could grab women “by the pussy” because he was “a star”?
A sorry litany, but as far as Pelosi could see, not an iron-clad, public-unifying impeachable offense among them.
Her caucus was unified on one score: Trump’s behavior appalled nearly all of them. But by Pelosi’s count, only a tiny fraction thought impeachment was the way to go. Her centrists counseled caution, moderates pleading for moderation. Pelosi understood. She was a famously impatient person who, even in four-inch heels, took the stairs rather than lose a minute waiting for the slow Capitol elevator. But on this, she saw patience as the only option. The Mueller investigation would be over soon. Maybe that would be a game changer. But for now, impeachment was a road that led nowhere, or at least nowhere good. The Senate belonged to the Republicans, and the Republicans belonged to Trump.
Pelosi knew that any Republicans who voted for impeachment would have to explain rejecting Trump and the narrative about his presidency so successfully pushed by Fox News and other media on the right: The soaring stock market. The massive tax cuts. The revolutionary rollback of regulations. Filling the federal judiciary with enough conservative judges, including two Supreme Court justices, to shift the courts to the right for generations, and maybe someday reverse Roe v. Wade
and make abortion a crime. The wall to keep out all those dangerous immigrants. Trump’s refreshingly blunt language that didn’t talk down to ordinary Americans.
A lot of Republicans might be uncomfortable with some of Trump’s policies, his crudeness, his government-by-tweet, his war on the media. But to his base, Trump was a bracing antidote to decades of elitist Democrats and wishy-washy establishment Republicans. Trump was saving America. Trump knew this calculation and had taken advantage of it on the campaign trail. “If you really like Donald Trump, that’s great, but if you don’t, you have to vote for me anyway. You know why? Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges,” Trump had said at a 2016 rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“Have no choice, sorry, sorry, sorry. You have no choice.”
Pelosi was horrified by his policies, his cavalier disregard for facts, his apparent glee at sowing discord, his willingness to traffic in racism and misogyny while firing up his base. But as speaker, Pelosi knew that arguing policy differences in an impeachment vote was like trying to solve a math problem by quoting philosophers. She might be able to marshal her House majority, but flipping 20 Republican senators to reach the necessary 67 votes to remove him from office? Nearly impossible. It meant building a case as compelling and as damning as the one that forced Richard Nixon to resign his presidency in 1974, just two years after winning a second term by a landslide. Without a clear and powerful case—something the average American would easily grasp, something that would stir bipartisan outrage—initiating an impeachment inquiry could be perilous for the nation.
Would a failed impeachment effort damage the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches? Would impeachment become so common that it would lose the gravity the framers of the Constitution intended? Was a bipartisan impeachment with “impartial jurors” in the Senate even possible, especially in the ferocious modern media landscape where facts and reality depended on which channel you watched? Could removing Trump from office rip open enough wounds to stoke violence?
If the House were to impeach Trump, but then the Senate acquitted him, was that as good as handing him a talking point that he could repeat at every campaign rally? Would it invigorate him rather than stain him? After all, Trump was famous for counterpunching—hitting back ten times harder than he had been hit. Pelosi was all too aware that Trump was in his first term, unlike Nixon and Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House in 1998 but acquitted in the Senate. Voters would have their say on Trump in November 2020. Was that a better remedy for his transgressions than impeachment?
As the speaker, as the one making the decision, Pelosi had to keep calibrating the risks. There was a risk to doing something, and a risk to doing nothing. She didn’t want to tolerate presidential misconduct. But she also didn’t want the House, or her party, to be seen as taking away the voters’ power to decide Trump’s fate. An impeachment couldn’t be personal, or about policy differences. It had to be careful, fair and easy to understand to avoid a severe backlash in an already deeply divided nation.
So in her office on this Ash Wednesday, she fixed Heim with a look of granite-hard conviction as she jabbed her finger: “He’s. Just. Not. Worth. It.”
She had no idea that at the very moment she was speaking, the seeds of impeachment were being sown overseas, in a country most Americans had never visited, by a man once celebrated as “America’s Mayor,” on behalf of a president bent on imposing his mercurial will on everyone in his path.