In Ukraine, Democrats see their last best chance to impeach Trump

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Rashida Tlaib had just gotten to Washington when she made clear how she planned to spend her time as a member of Congress. “We’re gonna impeach the motherf***er,” the 42-year-old Michigander said upon assuming office, in an exhortation that was cheered by many of Trump’s opponents. The president himself denounced it as a sign of Democratic incivility.

In the months that followed Tlaib’s call to war, Democrats launched a number of investigations into the Trump administration: his alleged welcoming of Russian interference in the 2016 election; his alleged obstruction of the investigation into that interference; his taxes; his granting of security clearances to White House officials; his payments to women with whom he was reported to have had extramarital affairs; his handling of the census, his handling of the crisis at the border with Mexico — and more.

It has taken the better part of a year, but the Democrats have finally opened the formal impeachment proceedings that many progressive have long demanded. That inquiry, however, is not rooted in the contentious and time-consuming investigations that have occupied Democrats since the inception of the 116th Congress. Instead, the push to remove Trump from office stems from the very recent revelations about a phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.

President Trump with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25, 2019. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

In that phone call, Trump asked for Zelensky’s help in launching an investigation that could help Trump politically. Asking a foreign country to contribute something of value to a political campaign is illegal, and critics have charged that scrounging for political dirt on an opponent is exactly that.

It later came out in press reports, and then in a whistleblower’s complaint, that Trump had ordered $400 million in aid to Ukraine held up, reportedly to pressure Ukraine to follow through with the Biden investigation. Though the White House denies a quid pro quo, diplomats’ texts released Thursday night by the House Intelligence Committee appear to weaken the administration’s argument.

Staffers in the House speaker’s office say that by no means have the other investigations been curtailed. They have merely been subsumed into the impeachment inquiry, those aides say. They explain that because of the national security implications of Trump seeming to trade protection of a critical Eastern European ally for political favors, the Ukraine probe simply must take precedence.

So while the other investigations may have not fallen by the wayside, Democrats have moved with such speed on the Ukrainian front that even relatively recent history has been forgotten in a rush to figure out the significance of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Trump himself has only stoked the fires of outrage with his tweets and statement to the press. He has also called for China to investigate the Bidens, leading some to question if he is aware of constitutional constraints on his power.

“This is way over the line and we have to stop it,” explained an aide to a moderate Democrat who had not been in the pro-impeachment crowd until very recently. “Ukraine calls into question the fairness of the 2020 election,” the aide added, “and raises constitutional issues that cannot wait til after another election.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, rallies for the impeachment of President Trump, Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In announcing the impeachment inquiry in late September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump had engaged in a “betrayal of our national security” by asking Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Hunter Biden once had business dealings in the Ukraine, and Joe Biden is a leading candidate for president.

Pelosi did not offer many details of what that formal impeachment inquiry would look like, but she did endorse what appeared to be a team effort.

“I am directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry," she said.

The importance of that probe was underscored at Pelosi’s weekly press conference on Wednesday morning, At her side stood Adam Schiff, who heads the House Intelligence Committee, which has been tasked with the Ukraine investigation.

In his remarks, Schiff made sure to note the work of his fellow committee chairman, plainly aware that he is competing with them for both influence and attention. Right around the time that he was making his remarks, the House Oversight Committee issued draft subpoenas to the White House asking for documents related to the Ukraine matter.

Last Friday, the Foreign Affairs Committee issued a subpoena to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who took part in the call with Zelensky.

Staffers for the House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, insist that he remains central to impeachment proceedings, and that reports of a Nadler-Pelosi falling out are greatly overblown. Articles of impeachment were issued by the House Judiciary Committee in the cases of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

A staffer for Nadler cautioned against concluding that the articles of impeachment would focus solely on Ukraine. He said that “obstructive acts” could very well feature in the Democrats’ case against Trump. The House Judiciary committee has spent the better part of a year building the case that Trump obstructed justice in attempting to interfere with the investigation into Russian sabotage of the 2016 presidential election.

Aides to Pelosi similarly said that reports of a feud between Nadler and Pelosi were overblown. They said that, despite Schiff’s leadership of the Ukraine inquiry, Nadler is still in charge of the broader impeachment inquiry. A staffer in Pelosi’s leadership office pointed to a little-noticed letter Nadler wrote to the chairs of the five other House committees investigating the president. In the letter, Nadler asked the five chairs to send “information, including documents and testimony, depositions, and/or interview transcripts, that you believe may be relevant to the Judiciary Committee’s ongoing impeachment investigation relating to President Trump.”

Although that directive was sent in late August, before the Ukraine scandal broke, the implication appears to be that the request stands. Schiff was one of the letter’s recipients. A staffer for the House Judiciary Committee explained that it was only natural for an intelligence committee to handle a matter involving a foreign country, as in the case of Ukraine, and that Schiff was still expected to comply with Nadler’s information-sharing directive from August.

Even committees that are not among the six charged by Pelosi to investigate the Ukrainian matter have joined the fray. The House Appropriations Committee, for example, which is tasked with budgetary matters, is demanding to know how and why the Office of Management and Budget withheld $400 million in aid to Ukraine. Those funds were allotted by Congress; Trump’s detractors charge that he withheld the money in an effort to pressure Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., at a news conference in Washington, Oct. 2, 2019. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democratic aides on Capitol Hill say that they were at first confused by Pelosi’s call that six committees would be in charge of the Ukraine investigation, but were later relieved to learn that Schiff would be in charge. He is widely respected among Democrats for his meticulous approach, and the House Intelligence Committee staff garners high marks on Capitol Hill.

The House Intelligence Committee is also seen as less political than some of its counterparts. Although the House Judiciary Committee would usually handle impeachment proceedings, its membership includes the likes of Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, among many other vociferous Trump detractors. And with 11 more members than House Intelligence, the Judiciary Committee can be more difficult to corral.

The occasionally unruly nature of House Judiciary proceedings was on full display late last month, when former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowkski engaged in a five-hour performance of defiance, declining to answer even the most basic questions about his work in helping the White House to contain the Russia investigation. Democrats were only able to contain Lewandowski’s bluster in the sixth hour of the hearing, when he was questioned by Barry Berke, a respected lawyer who had been hired by the committee. But by then the narrative had been set, frustrating Democratic leaders who thought Nadler should have been better prepared for Lewandowski, whose penchant for confrontation is well known.

The Democratic conference appears to be operating under the understanding that this could be the last best chance to remove Trump from office before the 2020 election. Publication of the Mueller report failed to yield any new indictments. Nor was Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill the damning turn some had hoped for. Trump’s taxes remain hidden from public view. And while the lawsuits over emoluments — that is, gifts Trump implicitly accepts when foreign governments or corporations stay in one of his hotels — continue and could break in Democrats’ favor, it is not clear if they will ever form solid ground for impeachment.

Of course, any one of the investigations Democrats launched earlier this year could still yield something explosive, especially if a key witness decides to testify or court ruling threatens the executive privilege that Trump has frequently used to fend off Democratic investigation. Barring any such developments, however, Democrats will have to rely on the Ukraine investigation.

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