How the Nancy Pelosi used Sun Tzu to win the first battle of the impeachment war

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House members announce two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump

This week the House of Representatives formally delivered two articles of impeachment against Pres. Donald Trump to the Senate. After more than a month of waiting, the country and the world will now consider the impeachment trial of an American president for only the third time in history. During that wait House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy was almost uniformly condemned as a mistake. Republicans saw it as indecision, the result of a “rushed and biased impeachment process.” It was a strategy based on pressuring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into negotiations of the Senate process for impeachment. Sen. McConnell himself seemed to waylay this strategy by explicitly stating he was coordinating directly with the White House on the Senate’s approach to the trial. And while most Republicans continued to question process, the President questioned the legal foundations of impeachment itself. Between the support of his base and the loyalty of Senate Republicans everyone on the Right saw Pelosi’s strategy as laughable.

(Photos: Nancy Pelosi by Gage Skidmore, AOC by NRKBeta, Rashida Tlaib by U.S. Congress, Ayanna Pressley by ElizabethForMA, Ilhan Omar by Lorie Shaull)

More importantly, there was as much concern in her strategy amongst Democrats as there was ridicule from Republicans. Her early efforts to rein in progressives who had come to the House through victory in the 2018 midterm elections (I still say it was a Blue Tsunami) were widely publicized. For the early part of 2019 she spent more effort resisting calls from Democrats for formal impeachment than she did strategizing against the Republicans. Throughout the majority of the year several Democrats were concerned that she was not pushing hard enough for impeachment in the wake of the Mueller Report. And even after she initiated impeachment proceedings in the House following the Ukrainian whistleblower, they continued to be wary of her overall impeachment strategy. Ironically, some began to echo her original concerns regarding impeachment as a distraction to the 2020 election saying she had either waited too long or was not moving fast enough. Others were concerned that between the Executive stonewalling of the case through the withholding of witnesses and evidence, and the lack of substantive change in public opinions on impeachment, her strategy was backfiring.

But as impeachment proceedings are set to begin on Monday few have considered just how successful the strategy has actually been. Everyone understood its foundation as an attempt to create leverage against Senate Republicans in order to force a ‘fair’ impeachment trial. But the specifics of what that leverage would be and how the Speaker would use it were a mystery to most, even key Democrats. The reasoning most offered revolved around assumptions that she was trying to use time to allow legal frameworks, oaths of office, or simple morality to push moderate Senate Republicans towards ‘doing the right thing’. Even those that believed the strategy was working argued only from a point of process, citing the inability of Republicans to maintain their narrative of impeachment being a “rigged trial”.

But what most observers on both sides of the aisle failed to consider were the potential substantive advantages Pelosi’s impeachment strategy could produce. If you judge it solely by how well the House and Senate processes have worked then disappointment is understandable. But if you judge her strategy by the additional evidence, witnesses, and continued behavior of the president, we must conclude that the strategy was more successful than even she could have hoped for. The problem for her supporters, her detractors, and even the Speaker herself, was that she was relying on something that she knew existed without knowing what it looked like. She clearly believed that Mitch McConnell was trying, “to deprive senators and the American people of crucial documents and testimony.” But everyone was focused on the witnesses and evidence that had already been discussed during the House investigation. What no one could clearly predict were the new witnesses and evidence that has come to light over the last month.

From investigations of Rudy Giuliani to deepening questions over former Trump associates like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, evidence related to existing understandings of unethical and potentially illegal activities by the Trump administration has mounted. But it was the arrival of Lev Parnas and his incredibly damning evidence against the President that has truly altered the impeachment landscape. In just the last few weeks a letter written by Rudy Giuliani has surfaced directly linking Trump to the pressuring of the Ukrainian government, along with evidence that Giuliani associates were conducting illegal surveillance of an American ambassador. With House managers already promising additional evidence and revelations, the evolution of the impeachment case over the last month has vindicated Pelosi’s opening strategy.

(left to right) V.P. Mike Pence, Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, Pres. Donald Trump, and Rudy Guiliani

The House Speaker clearly understands Sun Tzu and so she knew all she had to do was wait. She didn’t know for sure that former Ambassador John Bolton would commit to testifying during the Senate trial, but she suspected someone would. She didn’t know Parnas would produce the most direct piece of evidence presented so far linking the president to the activity of Giuliani and others in Ukraine, but she knew something like it was out there. And I’m not sure if she could have guessed that the President would attempt to ‘wag the dog’ by assassinating an Iranian general on Iraqi soil, but she certainly knew he was capable of it.

Pelosi understands Trump better than he perhaps understands himself. She knew that given time he would do something on his own to make the situation worse. She knew that associates of an impetuous and egotistical individual are often themselves impetuous and egotistical. Her entire strategy was based upon the simple truth that time was all that was needed to ensure that Trump’s associates, and Trump himself, would deliver the leverage she needed going into the Senate trial. And considering the increasing call amongst some Senate Republicans for a full trial including witnesses, it may yet be proven that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just completed one of the most successful political strategies in US history.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

News. Analysis. Integrity.

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