This article is an adapted excerpt from “Abuse of Power: Inside the Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s avoidance of impeachment was going to be one of many problems the House speaker would have with “The Squad.” Over the summer, her grip on power began to weaken, as she tried to put down a party rebellion.
Pelosi’s compromise border security funding bill initially had only nominal Democratic opposition. But The Squad, consisting of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, wanted to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, not fund it. The Senate approved a bipartisan bill 84-8. The Squad’s tweetstorms, however, created outrage. The congresswomen went in front of the microphones to declare the bill inhumane because it didn’t gut immigration enforcement.
Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, tweeted that Democrats who voted for the compromise border bill were “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”
Pelosi struggled but kept enough progressives on board to pass the bill. During a caucus meeting shortly thereafter, Pelosi told Democrats to stop attacking each other because “a majority is a fragile thing.” “You got a complaint?” she said. “You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK.”
The Squad Defies Pelosi
After Pelosi’s caucus lecture, The Squad just became more defiant. Omar claimed Pelosi didn’t care about resisting the Trump agenda. Pressley said Pelosi was “demoralizing” to a progressive cause. Ocasio-Cortez went all out by playing the age-old race card tactic against Pelosi.
“When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez said of the speaker. “But the persistent singling out … it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful … the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
In response, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill tweeted that Pelosi’s speech was “not scolding progressives” and wasn’t aimed at a particular member or group. It was instead a “unifying speech.”
Pelosi was actually a little less diplomatic, and her exhaustion was beginning to show. On one occasion, the speaker publicly remarked that a “glass of water” running as a Democrat could win in Ocasio-Cortez’s district. Pelosi added that was true of her San Francisco district as well. But, she stressed, keeping a majority meant holding on to the Democratic candidates that had picked up seats in Trump districts. The speaker also took a dismissive swipe at the key legislative goal of Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal, which would bring an unprecedented expansion of the federal government’s role in the economy for the supposed reason of fighting climate change. Pelosi, an old-school New Deal liberal, referred to the Ocasio-Cortez bill as the “Green Dream, or whatever.”
When she met with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that summer in San Francisco, Pelosi remarked: “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” It was true that The Squad had limited voting power, but their ability to stir up the Democratic base gave them outsized sway within the caucus.
Trump Throws Democrats a Bone
The whole Pelosi-Squad standoff was becoming a delightful spectacle for Republicans and should have been for President Donald Trump. Here again, the president wasn’t exactly playing political chess. On the surface, the wiser thing for him to have done would have been to simply step away and let his enemies pummel one another. The only thing accomplished by his jumping into the ring was to prompt them to unite against him. Then again, maybe that’s what Trump was looking to do — unite the Democratic Party behind The Squad for easy branding — or maybe he was just tweeting and lacked a filter.
At any rate, during the Democratic civil war, Trump imprudently tweeted that the members of The Squad should “go back” to their home countries and fix the problems there before criticizing America. As members of Congress, they were, of course, U.S. citizens, and it became another rallying cry for the left to say Trump was a racist.
Pelosi tweeted to the rescue on July 15, “When @realDonaldTrump tells four American Congresswomen to go back to their countries, he reaffirms his plan to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always been about making America white again.” Pelosi was once again a hero to the progressives.
Democrats Attempt Absurd Impeachment
Rep. Al Green took it a step further by introducing an impeachment resolution calling for Trump’s removal from office for insulting the four House members. Green introduced a single article on July 17, 2019, that described Trump’s tweet about The Squad as racist.
“In all of this,” the article said, “the aforementioned Donald John Trump has, by his statements, brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”
While impeachment over a tweet would seem absurd, an impeachment for insulting members of Congress is not without precedent. Impeachment Article X against President Andrew Johnson in 1868 was that the president “did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach the Congress of the United States.” But that’s among the reasons why the Johnson impeachment was considered disreputable.
Green’s resolution was again tabled in a floor vote. What was surprising is how many Democrats were on board with such a petty pretext. This time, 95 Democrats voted against tabling the impeachment resolution. That’s almost twice as many votes as the December 2017 resolution. Still, a bipartisan 332 members voted to table.
Trump was in Greenville, North Carolina, getting ready for a rally when the vote occurred. He told the crowd about the lopsided margin of the impeachment vote. He also tweeted, “The United States House of Representatives has just overwhelmingly voted to kill the Resolution on Impeachment, 332-95-1. This is perhaps the most ridiculous and time-consuming project I have ever had to work on. Impeachment of your President, who has led the … Greatest Economic BOOM in the history of our Country, the best job numbers, biggest tax reduction, rebuilt military and much more, is now OVER. This should never be allowed to happen to another President of the United States again!”
The Squad Has ‘Unstoppable Momentum’
Impeachment was, of course, not over. Even if Trump’s impeachment articles weren’t going to reference The Squad, the four freshmen would be the cause of the Democrats’ kamikaze dive.
“The power and the influence of The Squad has been in and of itself a pretty spectacular phenomenon, and it’s something that Speaker Pelosi is not accustomed to,” Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, a Republican member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told me. “She’s not used to individuals in her own party standing up against her. She had that in The Squad, and they didn’t back down. They continued to make their voices known, and it seems every time they did so, their popularity increased all the more. I think it pushed the speaker into a corner that she could not ignore. She was not going to succeed in squashing them.”
Pelosi was popular with progressives again, but the caucus didn’t really unite behind her. House Democrats, including Pelosi, were united behind The Squad. With one Trump tweet, the Democrats’ civil war ended. Meanwhile, Pelosi knew that if she wanted to keep her troops together, there was only one direction she could go, even if it meant arm-twisting the moderates — because arm-twisting the progressives was too much work.
Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez posed for a photo together, both smiling big. The 79-year-old speaker was like the grandparent seeking to prove how cool she really was by hanging with the 30-year-old freshman member. On July 26, Pelosi posted the photo on social media. She tweeted, “Today, Congresswoman @RepAOC and I sat down to discuss working together to meet the needs of our districts and our country, fairness in our economy and diversity in our country.”
AOC didn’t share the picture on her social media, however, indicating she knew she was the cool kid and Pelosi got a boost from her, not the other way around. One senior congressional aide close to the impeachment process told me in an interview that, as it was commonly known, “There is a direct parallel with impeachment and the power of The Squad.” Simply put, “Moderates don’t want to take on AOC,” the staffer said.
Had Pelosi continued fighting The Squad, she would have lost. Trump inadvertently threw her a life vest by his lack of Twitter discipline.
“Ever since, the Democrats have been the surrender caucus. The Squad had unstoppable momentum,” the staffer added.