President Donald Trump had gotten off scot-free. ”A great day for me,” he declared on July 24. Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony about Trump’s alleged obstruction of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had failed to convince House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ― let alone congressional Republicans ― to impeach him.
With not one member of his circle in prison for attempting to collude with a foreign power, and with the prospect of impeachment rapidly fading thanks to Pelosi’s hand-wringing and stonewalling, Trump did what any rational leader would do: He apparently did it again.
The day after Mueller’s testimony, Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pressured Zelensky to help him win the 2020 election by investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday. In the weeks that followed, Trump refused to grant Zelensky a meeting at the White House and halted $250 million of congressionally authorized military aid to the country, raising the possibility that the president was, as The Washington Post put it in an unsigned editorial, “not just soliciting Ukraine’s help with his presidential campaign” but using U.S. military aid to “extort it.”
“That allegation, if true, would unambiguously constitute an impeachable offense,” national security expert Benjamin Wittes wrote Friday. “That would be a very big deal indeed.”
If the reports are correct, “there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country,” Joe Biden said in a statement released late Friday. “This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes. It means that he used the power and resources of the United States to pressure a sovereign nation… to subvert the rule of law in the express hope of extracting a political favor.”
For months, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been pushing the unfounded theory that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, pressured Ukraine to fire the country’s former special prosecutor because Biden was mad the prosecutor was investigating a gas company with ties to his son Hunter. Giuliani’s theory is based on a web of misinformation. There’s no evidence that Joe Biden knew anything about an investigation into Hunter Biden. And the U.S. government, along with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, wanted Ukraine to fire the prosecutor. That didn’t have anything to do with Hunter Biden. Instead, the U.S. and its allies wanted the prosecutor gone because he wasn’t doing enough to investigate corruption in Ukraine.
Those facts didn’t stop Trump from pushing for a probe: During a July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump urged his Ukrainian counterpart about eight times to help Giuliani investigate the Bidens, according to the Journal. The details of that phone call — first reported Friday by The Wall Street Journal, then confirmed by The Washington Post and The New York Times — are the subject of a still-secret whistleblower complaint the president and his allies are fighting hard to keep out of the hands of lawmakers.
Trump made his pitch on July 25, just after Mueller’s underwhelming testimony on Capitol Hill. Mueller’s 22-month investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the election in Trump’s favor was over. Despite compiling hundreds of pages detailing the campaign’s outreach to Russian officials — and Trump’s subsequent efforts to cover it up — Mueller did not recommend criminal charges against the president and instead deferred to Congress. But congressional leadership balked at conducting oversight and indefinitely stalled launching an impeachment proceeding.
So with Mueller out to pasture, Congressional oversight comatose and public outrage without any actionable outlet, Trump apparently felt emboldened to ask another foreign leader — one who happened to be waiting for the Trump administration to release $250 million in military assistance — for help discrediting another political rival.
On Aug. 12, a whistleblower filed a secret complaint with Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson reporting that Trump made a “promise” to a foreign leader over the phone, according to The Washington Post. The inspector general determined that the complaint was credible and urgent and sent the complaint to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.
At the end of August, while the existence of the whistleblower complaint was still unknown to the public, Politico reported that the president asked his national security team to “review” the security assistance to Ukraine, which Congress had already authorized.
Meanwhile, Maguire had refused to pass the whistleblower complaint along to congressional intelligence overseers, arguing that he was not legally required to because the complaint involved the conduct of someone outside of the intelligence community. Atkinson, the inspector general, decided to tell the heads of the House Intelligence Committee about the complaint himself on Sept. 9. That day, three House committees launched an investigation into efforts by Trump and Giuliani “to pressure the government of Ukraine to assist the President’s reelection campaign.” The committees specifically requested a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky.
Since then, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been locked in a standoff with Maguire and DNI general counsel Jason Klitenic over access to the complaint. White House counsel Pat Cipollone has helped identify “legal obstacles” to disclosing information that could hurt Trump, The Washington Post reported.
The events raised “serious concerns that the whistleblower complaint is being withheld to protect the President or other Administration officials,” Schiff said in a statement last week.
Schiff has suggested he is ready to go to court to get access to the whistleblower complaint — but House Democratic leadership has barely nodded at the president’s alleged use of his office to extort a foreign country for his own electoral gain.
In a statement tweeted Friday night, Pelosi never mentioned Trump’s alleged extortion attempt. Instead, she simply said, “The stonewalling must end.”
Pelosi’s tweet aside, the House under her leadership has disappointed impeachment advocates. The House Judiciary Committee has technically opened what it calls an “impeachment investigation” into Trump’s alleged misdeeds, including obstruction of justice and improperly stonewalling congressional investigations. But the muddled support from Democratic leadership for the investigation has left questions about whether it has the full constitutional powers that an impeachment inquiry authorized by the full House would wield.
The new allegations against Trump would be impeachable for at least three reasons, Wittes argued Friday: “First, because it would involve the extortion of a foreign leader for personal and political gain; second, because it would involve the solicitation of a foreign government’s involvement in a U.S. election; and third, because it would involve the solicitation of a foreign government’s investigation of a political opponent in a fashion that grossly violates the civil liberties of a U.S. person, namely Biden’s son.”
But since the new allegations emerged, just one member of Congress ― Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) ― has joined the 136 out of 435 representatives who already support an impeachment inquiry. The debacle has left pro-impeachment Democratic lawmakers exasperated.
“If this isn’t impeachable abuse of power, what is?” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) tweeted. “I’m sick of the parsing, dithering & political overcalculating. We are verging on tragic fecklessness.”