WASHINGTON — The eruption of a full-blown impeachment inquiry this week has sparked a debate among Democrats about whether to bring a wide variety of charges against President Trump or to instead keep any impeachment proceedings narrowly focused on his dealings with Ukraine.
That dilemma presents a complex political challenge for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has stressed for some time that any impeachment process should be understandable to the general public, and that the case against Trump needs to be “ironclad.”
Pelosi huddled with fellow party leaders Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, where she encouraged them to focus on the Ukraine matter but also said investigations in all six relevant House committees would move forward on a number of other issues regarding the president, including his tax returns and alleged attempts by the administration to obstruct the investigation into Russian electoral interference during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Pelosi is said to back a narrow investigation that focuses only on Ukraine, according to the Washington Post, but two Democratic sources with knowledge of the meeting said the House speaker’s main contention had more to do with keeping the focus of Democratic messaging around impeachment on Ukraine. Investigations by multiple committees into other matters would still go forward, Pelosi said, according to the sources.
A Pelosi aide added that it was too early to speculate on how narrow or wide the scope of articles of impeachment might be. “No final decisions have been made,” the aide told Yahoo News.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — the second most powerful Democrat in the House — said that Trump’s request to have Ukrainian authorities investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden would be a “great focus in the short term.”
Hoyer called Trump’s recent phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “seminal event.” During that phone call, Trump appears to ask Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. His father, Joe Biden, is a frontrunner in the Democratic primary that will decide who will face Trump in the 2020 election.
There was ample chatter among Democrats that the Ukraine scandal has opened the door to a broader impeachment process that will pull in a host of other accusations.
“More than half the caucus thought there was more than enough there before this became public,” a House leadership staffer told Yahoo News.
“We have the obstruction of justice detailed in [the] Mueller report,” the staffer continued. “We have information on emoluments violations, but are still collecting evidence. This Ukraine whistleblower stuff will undoubtedly add to what is being considered,” the staffer said, adding to this list potential campaign finance violations associated with Trump’s paying of hush money to former mistresses.
The co-founder of the bipartisan Ukraine Caucus in the House, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, has been following the matter of U.S. aid to Ukraine for some time.
“Right now my concern is the fact that Congress voted for national security assistance to Ukraine. It was delayed and now we see the president was asking a political favor. This is a violation of the Constitution,” Kaptur told Yahoo News.
But she added that she also would like to see a second article of impeachment added beyond the Ukraine matter to include the issue of Trump’s using his government power to enrich himself.
“I do believe that the emoluments clause of the Constitution has been repeatedly violated, and I would hope there would be a second title to whatever would be the official articles of impeachment,” Kaptur said.
She pointed out that Zelensky himself mentioned in the transcript of the phone call with Trump the fact that he had stayed at a Trump-owned property in Manhattan. There has been voluminous documentation of foreign leaders staying at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., during their trips to lobby the administration for assistance of one kind or another in addition to repeated instances of U.S. military personnel staying at Trump properties abroad.
But the notion of bringing a series of charges on multiple issues against Trump runs counter to the bottom line that Pelosi has had all along regarding impeachment, which is that it must have popular support from a majority of the country.
“Public sentiment is everything. With it you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing,” Pelosi said Tuesday at the Atlantic Ideas Festival, quoting President Abraham Lincoln.
Of the Ukraine scandal, Pelosi said, “we have many other candidates for impeachable offenses … but this one is the most understandable by the public.”
There are other reasons to avoid a wide scope as well.
“It would be a very bad idea for the House to take the approach of throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what, if anything, sticks,” wrote three prominent legal scholars at the LawFare website. “That approach could potentially trigger political blowback, giving the president’s allies more material with which to portray congressional Democrats as just a bunch of crazed and partisan attack dogs.”
“And it could also risk doing real institutional damage,” wrote lawyers Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes. “When Congress passes an article of impeachment, it makes a statement about the nature of offenses that justify removal from office. It is important to be careful when making such statements so as not to create ill-considered precedents that will justify future mischief.”
“The House must rigorously focus on the worst provable offenses undertaken as president in part because there are so many possible charges to begin with,” the lawyers argued.
Nonetheless, these attorneys still said there are five areas that could generate articles of impeachment against Trump: “obstruction of justice and abuse of law enforcement institutions and personnel … attempts to leverage the power of the presidency to cause investigation and prosecution of political opponents … the abuse of the president’s foreign policy authorities and misuse of congressionally appropriated money to induce a foreign head of state to violate the civil liberties of U.S. persons and interfere in a presidential election … the president’s efforts to obstruct or impede congressional investigations … [and] Trump’s lying to the American public.”
On Wednesday, Washington lurched from one seismic shock to another. In the morning, Capitol Hill was still absorbing the ramifications of Pelosi’s monumental decision Tuesday to throw her full support behind impeachment.
By midmorning, the White House released a partial transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. It showed Trump asking Zelensky for “a favor” just after the Ukrainian leader brought up the issue of military aid from the U.S. to his country, which was invaded by Russia in 2014 and continues to fend off Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions. Four hundred million dollars in aid to Ukraine had been frozen by the White House.
Trump went on to detail how he hoped Zelensky would restart an investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors into business dealings by Hunter Biden. That probe could hurt Joe Biden’s chances of earning the Democratic nomination for president. And though the elder Biden had been largely reserved in responding to developments in the Ukrainian matter, on Wednesday afternoon his campaign released a statement that branded Trump’s interest in Hunter Biden a “malicious conspiracy theory.”
Democrats professed surprise at the contents of the transcript, which is only a partial record of the conversation between the two heads of state. That conversation reportedly lasted a full half hour, making the transcript released by the White House on Tuesday partial at best.
“It was far more damning than anything I and others had imagined,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is leading the investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., told Yahoo News that he was “stunned” by the White House’s decision to release the partial transcript. “I can’t understand the logic of releasing something like that,” said Boyle, who sits on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, one of six panels charged by Pelosi to investigate Trump.
“The transcript was far worse than I was expecting,” Boyle added.
Defense was the order of the day for Republicans, as it likely will be for the days and weeks to come. On Thursday, they will be faced with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifying before Congress. Maguire will presumably discuss the whistleblower complaint lodged by an intelligence official after the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky.
Republicans claimed that Pelosi had gotten ahead of herself on Tuesday by announcing support for impeachment before seeing any of the evidence: namely the transcript of the call and the whistleblower complaint.
“She cannot name one high crime and misdemeanor and yet she still wants to move forward with impeachment. It’s disgraceful,” said House Minority Whip Steve Scalise at a morning press conference with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and three other GOP leaders.
But as the day went on, it grew more and more obvious that the pressing question for Democrats is not whether there are clear charges they can press against the president. Rather, it is whether they can limit and focus them in a way that is most advantageous to making their case to the country.
The transcript was released a few minutes after the Republican press conference had begun. McCarthy and others pilloried Pelosi repeatedly, and as McCarthy began to build to a close, he mentioned the transcript.
“When this transcript comes out—” McCarthy said.
“It’s out,” a reporter told him.
“Is it out?” McCarthy asked from a lectern on a small stage in a Capitol building studio.
“It’s out. We’ve all read it,” another reporter said.
McCarthy had spent the previous 20 minutes joining his four fellow Republicans on the stage in a growing chorus of denunciations against Pelosi for launching an official impeachment inquiry. He chose to ignore the transcript’s release and capped off his litany of complaints.
“I think at the end of the day, the speaker owes an apology to this nation, and I think it’s even a question of whether she stays in her job,” McCarthy thundered.
“Would you like to take a couple of minutes to read it and then—” a reporter tried to ask.
“We are done here!” McCarthy said, slapping the lectern, and stormed out.
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