Bashing Democrats but not defending Trump: Moments that mattered as impeachment heats up

Susan Page, USA TODAY

Sometimes truisms are true: It's not just the crime; it's the cover-up.

whistleblower's complaint released Thursday morning accused President Donald Trump not only of pressuring a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political rival but also of trying to hide the account of their conversation. The House Intelligence Committee's public hearing that followed, featuring testimony from the nation's top intelligence official, provided a map for a debate that is all but guaranteed to transfix Washington for months.

The road being cut could well lead to the impeachment of a president for just the third time in U.S. history, and at a time Americans are considering whether to reelect or eject Trump from the White House in next year's election.

Consider the contrast with the last investigation that cast a cloud over Trump's tenure: Special counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election stretched for years, was conducted in secrecy, prompted clashing interpretations of what he found and left congressional Democrats divided about what to do in response.

This time, a week and a day after The Washington Post disclosed the existence of the whistleblower's complaint, the White House released a summary of the president's phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That prompted the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to feel free to release the complaint, which was filed by someone in the intelligence community who hasn't been publicly identified.

Whistleblower complaint: Read the full declassified text

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on September 26, 2019, in Washington, DC.

And with that, even reluctant Democrats united behind an impeachment inquiry of the president. A majority of the 435-member House of Representatives – including nearly all of the Democrats and one independent – endorsed the idea. Their ranks include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who launched a formal impeachment inquiry Tuesday.

She said the developments Thursday underscored the validity of that decision. "Every day, the sadness grows because the disregard for our Constitution that the president has become more clear," Pelosi said in the Capitol as the intelligence hearing was underway in a House office building across the street. "This is a cover-up. This is a cover-up."

Visual timeline: A diagram of events in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump

Graphics: Analyzing the Trump-Ukraine "transcript" in 3 charts

Trump tweeted his disdain for the proceedings. "A whistleblower with second hand information? Another Fake News Story! See what was said on the very nice, no pressure, call. Another Witch Hunt!" 

The White House issued a statement that vowed "to push back on the hysteria and false narratives being peddled by Democrats and many in the mainstream media."

Among the takeaways from the day:

The central fact isn't in dispute

The White House hasn't denied the allegation at the crux of the furor, that Trump encouraged the new Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son for alleged corruption. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden, who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump next year. 

Trump argued there was nothing improper about the conversation. Critics said that a president who solicited help from a foreign government against a political rival would violate campaign finance laws and the Constitution. 

'I thought it was dead': Trump says he thought he had escaped impeachment after Mueller report

“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump told a closed meeting of U.S. diplomats at the United Nations Thursday morning, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

He reportedly called the news media "scum" and "crooked."

Still to be explored is the whistleblower's allegation that White House lawyers tried to "lock down" records of the controversial phone call by moving them to a computer system designed to protect the most highly classified national security information. So are the roles of Attorney General William Barr and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. 

Trump's Ukraine call: How are records kept for presidential calls with world leaders?

Republicans attacked but didn't defend

At the House Intelligence Committee hearing, Republicans focused not on defending the president's actions but on attacking the motives of congressional Democrats, the whistleblower and the media. "I want to congratulate the Democrats on their latest information warfare effort against the president," the ranking GOP member, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said sarcastically in his opening statement. 

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio,  called Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president "disappointing" and said, "That conversation is not OK," then chastised the committee's Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff of California. 

For Democrats: Not whether but how big

The debate among Democrats is no longer whether to impeach the president. It's whether to draw up Articles of Impeachment that are narrowly focused on the Ukraine incident or to chart a broader course.

Should allegations of obstruction of justice in the Russia probe be included? 

We may not have to wait long before finding out. Democrats could hold an impeachment vote by the end of the year.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeach Trump? Big moments at Ukraine whistleblower hearing