Congress

Democrats focusing impeachment inquiry on Trump pressuring Ukraine

With pivot from obstruction and corruption, Intelligence Committee steps into impeachment case spotlight

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., conducts a news conference in the Capitol regarding the transcript of a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President  Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Tom William/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats are focusing their impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, shifting the investigatory spotlight from the Judiciary Committee to the Intelligence Committee and providing a singular focus on which they can make the case for impeachment to the public.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Tuesday announcement that she has directed the six House committees investigating Trump to proceed under the “umbrella” of an “official impeachment inquiry” led to some confusion about what had changed, given that the Judiciary Committee had been conducting an impeachment investigation for months.

[Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry, but leaves some questions]

Procedurally nothing has changed. The Judiciary panel still has jurisdiction over articles of impeachment and the other five investigating committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services and Ways and Means — will continue to assist in gathering evidence on various instances in which Democrats claim Trump has abused the power of the presidency.

But for Democrats’ waffling messaging on impeachment, everything has changed.

Findings of obstruction of justice outlined in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, Trump’s alleged violation of the emoluments clause in driving government spending at his personal business properties and his role in hush money payments made during the 2016 election to quiet allegations of extramarital affairs have all been pushed to the back burner.

Front and center now is the allegation — corroborated by Trump’s own statements and a readout of a phone call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr  Zelenskiy released Wednesday — that Trump asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival.

“In its most naked form — and this is what our inquiry is going to look into — the president has now admitted [and] the notes of this call … indicate the president of the United States shaking down a foreign leader, essentially undermining the national security of this country for a personal political gain and one that violates his oath of office,” Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff said. “It is very powerful evidence of that kind of potential impeachable offense, but we want to get the full facts before the American people.”

‘All our resources’

Another California Democrat, Rep. Ted Lieu, also cited that evidence of a “shakedown” as the immediate focus of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

“We have to focus all our resources right now on this,” said Lieu, a member of the Judiciary Committee and House leadership.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday “there’s going to be a great focus in the short term” on the Ukraine conversation. The Maryland Democrat questioned whether the memo the White House released on Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy was a full transcript, but noted, “Even that which is in this document is pretty damning.”

With that focus, the Intelligence Committee will effectively take the baton from House Judiciary as the panel tasked with building the case for impeachment.

“We’re going to need to investigate whether in fact there were other conversations, and if so, what happened in those conversations, because this could have been a repeated and consistent effort to extort the Ukraine,” Intelligence member Jim Himes told CQ Roll Call.

“We’re going to need to talk to the people who were in the room when the president had those conversations, subpoena any records around them, and then we’re going to have to show the American people what happened,” the Connecticut Democrat added. “That’s the center of the action, obviously. Who knows what else will come up.”

Despite the immediate attention on the Ukraine matter, several Democrats, including Schiff, Lieu and Himes, said it’s not yet clear what will ultimately be drafted into articles of impeachment. A resolution to charge the president with high crimes and misdemeanors may still include multiple instances of Trump abusing his power, they said.

“I think what we know about the Ukraine conversations are impeachable on a standalone basis, but we would be irresponsible not to consider the obstruction of justice charges outlined in Volume II of the Mueller report,” Himes said. “And my guess, given the behavior of this president ... there will be other significant abuses of power to look at.”

‘Happening in real time’

Democrats’ claims that Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, a possible 2020 opponent, is an abuse of his power and potentially a crime is not fundamentally different from what they said about obstruction of justice and corruption allegations the Judiciary Committee had been investigating. But they feel the Ukraine situation is easier to frame to the American people in terms of why the president needs to be impeached.  

“This particular incident takes us to a different level because it’s happening in real time,” said Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Judiciary member who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Americans can see exactly what is happening in real time.”

Pelosi made that case during a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting Tuesday in announcing the official impeachment inquiry. The California Democrat commended the evidence-collecting work the investigating committees had done to date but said that even if none of that had occurred, the revelations about the president’s conversation with Zelenskiy would have been enough to show “grievous and serious” violations of the Constitution. 

“It is understandable to the public.  It has clarity in terms of what he did,” Pelosi said, according to a senior Democratic aide who was in the room.

“Right now, we have to strike while the iron is hot,” the speaker added. “This is a national security issue — a national security issue, and we cannot let [Trump] think that this is a casual thing.”

Todd Ruger contributed to this report.

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