A raging controversy over whether President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine’s new president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden has persuaded Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do what she resisted for months, launch an impeachment inquiry of the president.
The move increases the likelihood that Trump will become the third U.S. president to be impeached. But even if the Democratic House acts, it’s unlikely the Republican Senate would vote to oust Trump from office.
At the heart of the furor is both Trump’s July 25 conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky, the transcript of which the president has now promised to release, and a whistleblower’s still secret report that news accounts said expressed “urgent concern” about the president’s contacts with a foreign leader, including an unspecified troubling “promise.”
The stunning move came just days after leading news organizations reported — and Trump essentially confirmed — that he pushed in the call to revive the probe of the former vice president.
The summary White House transcript showed Trump mentioned the Bidens three times to Zelensky though The Wall Street Journal said he mentioned them eight times in the conversation, which came days after he directed aides to withhold nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine.
Some Democrats said the intersection of these events indicated Trump may have suggested Ukraine might not get the aid unless it investigated the Bidens. Trump has flatly denied any quid pro quo or that he pressured Zelensky.
But he acknowledged raising their names in the context of a discussion about possible corruption in the former Soviet republic, asking Monday, “Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
Under the Constitution’s Article II, Trump has said he has “the right to do whatever I want as president.” But federal law says no one may “solicit, accept or receive” from foreign nationals “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value.” Negative information about a potential rival could easily be defined as a “thing of value.”
Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at a time his father, then vice president, made major U.S. decisions on policy there.
Trump and his personal attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have sought for months to reopen the investigation in order to damage Biden.
The call to Zelensky came a day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress ended his two-year inquiry by neither charging Trump with a crime nor exonerating him.
Trump’s releasing the phone call transcript won’t satisfy congressional Democrats. Pelosi stressed Congress is entitled to the whistleblower’s report by the laws governing intelligence agencies, which she helped write. And both party’s Senate leaders backed a resolution demanding to see it.
This case epitomizes the administration’s repeated refusal to provide Congress the kind of information that was routine in prior administrations.
Frustrated Democrats hope that formal impeachment probe will make that easier. But Trump, backed by his new attorney general, William Barr, has contended that almost all administration decision-making is protected by “executive privilege” under which aides don’t have to disclose discussions with the president.
The president also said there is nothing wrong with soliciting dirt about potential opponents from foreign governments. If someone comes up with information, “I think I’d take it,” he said in a June interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “They all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
His stance echoes former President Richard Nixon’s more than 40 years ago when he told interviewer David Frost that, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
But Nixon’s own case showed the limits to presidential actions. Only his resignation saved him from impeachment and conviction on several counts stemming from his efforts to cover up the Watergate break-in, including obstruction of justice and withholding information from Congress.
Still, it took more than a year of Senate and House hearings for the American public to turn against Nixon. With the 2020 election just 13 months away, the Democrats simply don’t have that much time.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.