WASHINGTON — While support for impeachment has grown steadily in the House — 136 of 235 House Democrats currently back an impeachment inquiry — the movement has also largely stalled since August, with just two Democrats backing an inquiry since lawmakers came back to the Hill in September.
Now, with new allegations that President Donald Trump used taxpayer funds to pressure Ukraine to supply dirt on one of his political opponents, this week could be the watershed moment for impeachment — or it could be the height of Democratic leadership’s ongoing timidity.
The House returns Tuesday night with massive questions to answer about Trump’s recorded conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump appeared to say he discussed Ukrainian business deals that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was involved in.
“We don’t want our people like the vice president and his son creating to [sic] the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters Sunday, adding that he had discussed “all of the corruption taking place” with Zelensky in a July phone call.
But a whistleblower with knowledge of the phone call alleges that Trump tried — eight times — to pressure Zelensky’s administration into working with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on an investigation into the Bidens. Conspicuously, the Trump administration held up $250 million of security aid around this same time, which they only released to the country earlier this month.
Congress wants to investigate the whistleblower’s complaint, which the intelligence Inspector General Michael Atkinson describes as “serious” and “urgent.” But Atkinson’s boss — acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire — has refused to transmit the complaint to the relevant congressional panels.
The chairman of one of those panels, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) of the House Intelligence Committee, has requested that Maguire appear before his committee on Thursday and turn over the complaint. Maguire, however, has said he won’t show up because “he is not available on such short notice.”
Schiff has warned that his committee would subpoena Maguire, if necessary, but Democrats will have to decide whether Maguire’s refusal to cooperate Thursday will be a breaking point ― or just another moment when they back down.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been a consistent opponent of impeachment, advocating for a slow approach of court cases and methodical committee investigations that have thus far gone nowhere.
With such a glaring and systematic example of corruption though — the whistleblower seems to be alleging that Trump made military aid contingent on whether a foreign country would dig up political dirt on what could be the president’s election opponent — Pelosi has to decide whether her approach changes.
The speaker wrote a letter to her House colleagues on Sunday, saying that if the administration does not share the complaint, it would be “entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”
Perhaps the two most important words in that statement are the last: “of investigation.”
Pelosi is already signaling that Democrats will meet this moment with more of the same — investigation, not impeachment — but her caucus may be moving ahead of her.
Schiff, who has so far not supported impeachment, told CNN that he may change his mind if the administration doesn’t cooperate.
“That may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that that conduct represents,” Schiff told CNN.
I’m sick of the parsing, dithering & political overcalculating. We are verging on tragic fecklessness. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)
Other Democrats who have already come out for impeachment are also putting the pressure on Democratic leaders. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted that the “bigger national scandal” at this point was the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach. And Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), whose district borders Pelosi’s, tweeted on Friday that, if this wasn’t impeachable behavior, he didn’t know what is.
“I’m sick of the parsing, dithering & political overcalculating. We are verging on tragic fecklessness,” Huffman said.
Impeachment supporters will be making as much noise as they can this week. Activists plan to hold a rally outside the Rayburn House office building Monday afternoon, joined by two of the earliest impeachment advocates: Reps. Al Green (D-Texas) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
And while no new lawmakers have come out for impeachment since these allegations surfaced, if the whistleblower’s complaint is as obvious and damning as many on Capitol Hill believe, it’ll be difficult for any lawmaker to not support impeachment.
That is, it should be difficult.
Republicans have stood by Trump time after time, scandal after scandal, and on Sunday, they were already making clear they would do so again.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said reports that Trump tried to pressure a foreign government to investigate Biden were “based on hearsay.”
“I just frankly can’t imagine why people have lost their minds so much over these daily reports of one thing or another,” he said.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) tried to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, saying “there might be a reasonable explanation for this.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who is sometimes more critical of the president, argued that if Trump “asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme.”
“Critical for the facts to come out,” he added in a clause that could be read as being supportive of the release of more information — but also could give him wiggle room to stick with Trump.
The facts will be critical. While these new allegations are stunning, Pelosi almost certainly won’t act until Congress has actually seen the complaint, potentially even seen a transcript of the phone call with Zelensky. Again, that will take time, and there’s no guarantee the administration will turn it over.
If it doesn’t, Pelosi and Democratic leaders will have the same choice they’ve had all along: Do they move forward with impeachment, or do they continue to insist on more facts that the administration won’t supply.
If the complaint turns into another grinding court case, it could take a substantial amount of time until the matter is settled, and by then, we may be so far into the 2020 election that Democrats decide they should just let the election play out.
Pelosi has the power to lead Democratic opinion on impeachment. And her obstinance to the process could actually be an asset. Voters may see that this was a reluctant conclusion, not a hasty political process.
But she has to decide whether she’ll lead on the question, how much she’s willing to tolerate in the name of protecting the 31 Democrats from districts that voted for Trump in 2016, and how she wants to be remembered.
Correction: This piece originally listed Rashida Tlaib as a congresswoman from Minnesota, rather than Michigan.