WASHINGTON — In throwing cold water on the idea of impeachment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi in some ways was simply offering a cleareyed assessment of the state of politics today in the nation’s hyperpolarized capital: There are not enough votes to convict and remove President Trump from office.
And yet in declaring that impeachment therefore is “just not worth it,” Ms. Pelosi may also be setting a far-reaching new standard with implications long after Mr. Trump leaves office. By her reasoning, accusations of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations and other offenses — even if proved — do not rise to a level requiring action by the House of Representatives.
All of which raise fundamental questions: If Mr. Trump has done what he is accused of doing, and that would not qualify as high crimes and misdemeanors, then what would? If Congress opts against impeachment regardless of what the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, reports, would that set the bar so high that impeachment will no longer be a viable option? Will future presidents have license to cross all sorts of lines because of the precedent? In other words, if not Mr. Trump, then who?
“We don’t necessarily take all that off the table as impeachable offenses, but people will argue, ‘But what about Trump?’” said Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor and an impeachment scholar at the University of North Carolina. “If Trump can get away with it, why not President X or Y? He’s raised the bar.”
In her comments to The Washington Post published this week, Ms. Pelosi did not entirely close the door, but she said that she was “not for impeachment” because it was so divisive and declared that the House should not head down that road unless there was “something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”
Many critics, especially on the left, argue that the first two of those standards have already been met or likely will be, but the third clearly has not, at least not yet. While Democrats could impeach Mr. Trump by themselves on a majority vote in the House, they would need at least 20 Republican senators to reach the two-thirds supermajority needed in the Senate to convict and remove him from office. Not even a single Republican senator has signaled openness to that at the moment.
Ms. Pelosi’s calculation reflects the lessons of history. No president has been removed or forced from office on a partisan basis. The only two presidents ever impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, were each put on trial by opposition Republicans only to be acquitted in the Senate. President Richard M. Nixon, on the other hand, resigned amid impeachment proceedings only after it became clear his fellow Republicans were abandoning him.
In effect, though, Ms. Pelosi’s articulated standard then leaves impeachment in the hands of the president’s own party. So long as Mr. Trump retains strong support among Republican voters, the White House feels confident that Republican senators will stick with him, which is why the president routinely emphasizes polls showing his standing with his conservative base. In the latest Gallup survey, 90 percent of Republicans approved of Mr. Trump’s performance.
Ms. Pelosi’s conclusion, which repeated in harder terms views that she has expressed previously, roiled many in her own party, where many liberals are eager to impeach the president. Tom Steyer, the California billionaire donor who has been leading a pro-impeachment advocacy campaign, quickly issued a statement on Monday rejecting the speaker’s assessment.
“I disagree with her,” Representative Juan C. Vargas, Democrat of California, said on Tuesday. “The Constitution is clear: If there’s an impeachable offense, we should impeach the president or impeach whoever. And that’s what we should do: Follow the Constitution and not politics.”
Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, who has vehemently declared that “we’re going to impeach” Mr. Trump, said that she would continue to press for investigations that could lead to that. “Speaker Pelosi has always encouraged me to represent my district, has never told me to stop, has never told me to do anything differently, ever,” she said.
Some in the party leadership, however, bristled at the pressure to impeach from newly elected liberals like Ms. Tlaib, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “We’ve got 62 new members,” snapped Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader. “Not three.”
But even some impeachment advocates acknowledged the practical reality behind Ms. Pelosi’s position. “We won’t actually remove this president until Sean Hannity calls for us to remove this president. Or until Laura Ingraham,” said Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, who has already introduced articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump. “Until we drive home our message, change public opinion and develop more facts.”
At the White House, the speaker’s comments offered an opportunity to claim vindication while driving a wedge among the opposition. “I’m glad that she sees what the rest of us see and that there’s no reason, no cause for impeachment,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday on Fox News.
“It’s time for other Democrats in Nancy Pelosi’s party to get on board,” she added, and to “start doing what they were elected to do — do their jobs and quit trying to focus so much on making excuses for the historic loss that they suffered in 2016.”
The reluctance of Democratic leaders to pursue impeachment owes to the scars left by the clash between Mr. Clinton and Congress in 1998-99, when Republicans suffered at the ballot box from what appeared to be a partisan drive to push out the president. Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, who served on the House Judiciary Committee at the time and is now the panel’s chairman, has said that some accusations against Mr. Trump appear impeachable, and yet he would not seek to move to impeach the president without signs of Republican support.
Joshua Matz, an author of “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment” and the publisher of Take Care, a blog that follows legal issues raised by Mr. Trump’s presidency, said opting not to impeach in the face of evident high crimes and misdemeanors “could create disturbing precedent for future presidents.” But another failed effort 20 years after the Clinton case could be even worse.
“Impeaching him under circumstances where the proceeding is all but doomed to failure could create a far more disastrous precedent than not impeaching him in the first place,” Mr. Matz said. “An acquittal in the Senate would be far more precedential and significant than a nonimpeachment decision in the House.”
But this raises a debate that has yet to be resolved among scholars: Does the Constitution give the House such discretion when there are provable impeachable offenses, or does it require it to take action?
Unlike Mr. Matz, Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who once worked in President Barack Obama’s White House, argued that the Constitution offers lawmakers little choice.
“If we have a clear impeachable offense that is not a borderline one but a clear one, the impeachment process is mandatory because the House of Representatives is an agent of ‘we the people,’ the first three words of the Constitution,” said Mr. Sunstein, whose latest book, “On Freedom,” was published last month.
Speaking generally without commenting directly on Mr. Trump, he added: “It may be, as a realistic matter, the Senate is going to stick with a president to whom it has a political allegiance. But the House isn’t supposed to think about that.”