/Democrats look to narrow impeachment focus to Trump-Ukraine scandal

Democrats look to narrow impeachment focus to Trump-Ukraine scandal

Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo


Lawmakers were outraged after seeing a White House readout of Trump’s call, in which he urged the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden.

House Democrats are coalescing around a strategy to narrow the focus of their impeachment inquiry to President Donald Trump’s interactions with the president of Ukraine, an issue that has unified the party in outrage and motivated some Democrats to seek expedited action.

The strategy, described by Democratic lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks, would center on streamlining the consideration of articles of impeachment to focus exclusively on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden — a push they say included an implicit threat to withhold military aid to the eastern European country.

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Democrats had been focusing their impeachment inquiry effort on emoluments and obstruction of justice. The committees would continue to pursue probes of those issues.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered the suggestion during a leadership meeting on Wednesday morning, according to two people in the meeting, adding that national security should be a key focus.

“This has clarity and understanding in the eyes of the American people,” Pelosi told her leadership team, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting. “If we do articles, then we can include other things.”

Though there is no explicit timeframe to act and no decisions have been made, some Democrats said they were hopeful articles could be considered by the end of the year or even sooner.

“I think focusing on this Ukrainian scandal singularly is important,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) “I think we have to act quickly. But not with haste.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said the caucus has unified around the latest set of allegations because they are “fundamentally different.”

“Obviously, we are more able to speak with one voice on that subject than on some of the others,” Kildee said of the House’s slew of ongoing investigations. “It’s not like the others go away, but I think this is clearly going to be the issue that’s going to drive the bus.”

Democratic leaders are continuing to discuss how to factor in the numerous other Trump-focused investigations that the House has launched or set them aside in favor of condemning Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky.

In a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer discussed the possibility of focusing exclusively on Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, including what Democrats say is an implicit threat to withhold military aid to the eastern European country. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed this strategy.

The intensifying impeachment fervor exploded Wednesday after the White House released a summary of Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president that showed he explicitly sought a “favor” — an investigation of Biden.

The memo confirmed Democrats’ strongest suspicions — that Trump pushed top Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rival while hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid was being held up. Trump also offered Zelensky Justice Department help in that investigation and emphasized his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was acting as his emissary on the matter.

“The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the president engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The president has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad.”

Pelosi huddled with other Democratic leaders early Wednesday afternoon to plot the next step in the House’s impeachment inquiry. There remains no firm timeline for the process of whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House. But top Democrats are already sounding off about Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, dubbing Wednesday’s revelation a “smoking gun.”

“What those notes reflect is a classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, accusing Trump of implicitly threatening to withhold military aid to Ukraine. “This is how a mafia boss talks.”

“I am not concerned whether it is a quid pro quo or not,” Schiff added. “Ukraine understood what this president wanted. He made it abundantly clear. He made it redundantly clear. He had his emissaries making it clear. And Ukraine knew what it needed to do if it wanted to get military assistance: and that is, help the president of the United States violate his oath of office.”

Democratic leaders emerged from the closed-door meeting declaring that their impeachment inquiry was urgent. But multiple lawmakers, including Hoyer, confirmed that there was still no specific timeline, and that the House would not cut short its scheduled two-week recess.

“The reality is, we want to move expeditiously, but there’s no timeline. There’s no, ‘We gotta do something by X date,’” Hoyer told POLITICO. “We want to do it right. We want to do it expeditiously and right.”

Trump’s call with Zelensky is just one piece of a whistleblower’s complaint that the Trump administration has been withholding from Congress — a move that prompted Pelosi and dozens of House Democrats to call for formal impeachment proceedings on Tuesday.

“The release of the memo is devastating for the president’s defenders,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a longtime impeachment advocate who sits on the Judiciary Committee.

“This should shock the conscience of every American — and we still don’t have the full story,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. “The administration continues to illegally withhold the full whistleblower complaint.”

What the White House provided was not a verbatim transcript of Trump’s call, though Democrats — and, in private, some Republicans — saw it as damaging enough.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, quipped: “Read the ‘transcript.’ And remember that it is what the White House voluntarily provided.”

In a statement, the Justice Department revealed that the intelligence community’s inspector general cited a potential campaign finance violation related to the whistleblower complaint about the call. But the Justice Department ultimately concluded that no criminal activity occurred, according to Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman.

Nadler said Attorney General William Barr — based on his role in evaluating the Trump transcript — must recuse himself from any oversight of the matter.

Some of Trump’s GOP allies were already jumping to his defense, with Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, saying: “There was no quid pro quo and nothing to justify the clamor House Democrats caused” when they launched a formal impeachment inquiry. Collins’ comments echoed a set of talking points the White House sent to Hill Republicans earlier in the day.

Even without the complete substance of Trump’s call, more than 200 members of the Democratic caucus — nearly enough to form a majority of the House — had embraced impeachment proceedings as of late Tuesday, citing Trump’s refusal to provide the whistleblower complaint related to the phone call.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said that some lawmakers have discussed the possibility of returning to Washington next week for hearings, despite the scheduled recess, although Democratic leaders have no plans to cancel the upcoming two-week recess.

“An ideal timeline is as soon as possible,” added Bass who sits on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees. Both those panels are among the six that Pelosi has assigned to spearhead the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Later Wednesday, the House will take its first formal legislative action related to the Ukraine controversy when it votes on a non-binding resolution to disapprove of the Trump administration’s refusal to turn over the whistleblower complaint to the congressional intelligence committees. Democrats largely see that vote as a placeholder for its impeachment push ahead of a planned two-week House recess that starts Friday.

The Senate passed a related measure on Tuesday demanding the whistleblower complaint be provided to Congress. The Trump administration is expected to turn over the complaint to the House Intelligence Committee later Wednesday, according to California Rep. Devin Nunes, the panel’s top Republican.

The Intelligence Committee is also gearing up for a hearing Thursday with Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to demand details about the whistleblower complaint and his decision to allow the White House and the Justice Department to block it from Congress.

Schiff’s meeting with the whistleblower could happen as soon as Thursday, after Maguire testifies before the panel. Andrew Bakaj, the whistleblower’s attorney, has requested guidance from the DNI’s general counsel regarding what his client can tell the committee.

Trump, who is scheduled to meet with Zelensky at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York later Wednesday, was quick to trash Democrats for escalating their impeachment drive.

Democrats held a full caucus meeting Wednesday morning as their leaders continued to hash out an impeachment strategy. Rank-and-file lawmakers were vexed at the lack of details about how to carry out Pelosi’s call to action.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a longtime impeachment supporter who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said her panel would not be doing anything differently when it comes to its investigations, which center on potential financial crimes.

According to several lawmakers and aides, Pelosi did not provide a timetable for the completion of its inquiry, leading some to question whether Democrats’ new phase would be any different than the already-ongoing investigation being led by the House Judiciary Committee and supported by other congressional panels.

Democrats view the emergence of the whistleblower as the motivation needed to accelerate efforts to impeach Trump. The White House’s role in blocking the complaint — which was characterized as “urgent” by an intelligence community watchdog — from reaching Congress motivated even Democrats in swing districts to come off the sidelines in favor of impeachment proceedings, citing urgent national security concerns.

News reports citing current and former intelligence officials have suggested the whistleblower provided details about a July 25 call between Trump and Zalensky in which Trump pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden — a direct solicitation for foreign interference in the 2020 election, Democrats say. The White House also held up a package of military aid to Ukraine days before the call.

Trump has called the conversation a “perfect call,” but his comments sidestep reports that the whistleblower described a much larger set of troubling facts that suggested inappropriate pressure on a foreign leader.

Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle, John Bresnahan and Zachary Warmbrodt contributed to this report

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