Pelosi Impeachment Gambit Brings Peril for Trump—and Democrats

(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump will consume the nation’s attention, grind the work of government to a halt and ultimately determine whether the president heads into re-election damaged or emboldened.

Pelosi on Tuesday threw the weight of her office behind an impeachment she’s been reluctant to embrace -- until allegations surfaced last week that Trump improperly pressured the government of Ukraine. That has set her on course for a constitutional clash with Trump, who quickly assailed the proceedings as “Witch Hunt garbage” and vowed a vigorous defense.

The political acrimony intensified on Wednesday after the White House released a rough transcript of one of Trump’s conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which showed that Trump suggested an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Pelosi said before the transcript was released that there didn’t need to be an explicit “quid pro quo” for Trump’s pressure on a foreign power regarding a political rival to be an impeachable offense.

Adding to Wednesday’s tension, Trump will meet with Zelenskiy in person on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly before holding a news conference.

According to the New York Times, the administration is also preparing for the possible release of a redacted version of the whistle-blower complaint by an intelligence official that touched off the uproar over the phone call.

Pelosi framed her support for an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday as a fundamental responsibility of the legislative branch: “The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution, especially when the president says Article II says I can do whatever I want.”

Trump’s private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News Wednesday morning that the president didn’t mention military aid or any “quid pro quo” during his call with Zelenskiy. Giuliani said he hadn’t seen a transcript of the call but “let’s say it was read to me.”

Pelosi Impeachment Gambit Brings Peril for Trump—and Democrats

The blitz of activity also allows the president to proclaim his innocence before scheduled congressional testimony Thursday by acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who has up to now refused to turn over the whistle-blower’s complaint.

The House plans to vote Wednesday on a resolution pressuring the intelligence community to release details of the complaint.

‘Betrayal of his Oath of Office’

Trump’s attempt to seize back the narrative comes amid a steady drumbeat of reports that have fed Democratic suspicions the White House improperly sought foreign assistance in undermining Biden, Trump’s leading Democratic rival for the 2020 election.

On Monday, it was revealed that Trump decided to review around $400 million in Ukrainian aid in the days before his call with Zelenskiy. Trump conceded that he had asked the Ukrainian leader to investigate Biden, but said his decision to freeze aid was merely an attempt to pressure European leaders to contribute more to the country’s defense.

Trump often speaks in a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness style that can leave his comments open to a range of interpretations. In the case of the Ukraine call, that may provide fodder for both sides in the debate over impeachment to claim that the president either crossed a line or was simply misinterpreted.

“He is asking a foreign government to help him in his campaign, that is a betrayal of his oath of office,” Pelosi said Tuesday as she announced her plans to formalize the impeachment inquiry.

Pelosi’s move to put her imprimatur on the impeachment inquiry signals a new determination on behalf of House Democrats who so far have been frustrated in their investigative efforts. It also makes an eventual impeachment vote in the lower chamber more likely.

Party leaders are hopeful the announcement could assist in legal battles to compel document disclosures and testimony from the administration that could at least provide political ammunition heading into an election year. At most, they could expose serious misdeeds that could galvanize support to remove Trump from office.

But the decision also carries significant political risk for Democrats. Pelosi long resisted calls from the left wing of her caucus to pursue impeachment, pointing out a lack of public support for such an undertaking and the risk that it could backfire, strengthening Trump and motivating his base heading into an election year. And the chances of actually removing him from office with Republicans controlling the Senate remain minimal.

‘Weaponized Politics’

Those risks only increase for Democrats if the congressional investigation into Ukraine -- like the years-long inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia -- finds bad judgment and behavior by the president, but no proof of explicitly illegal behavior. White House officials were eager to draw comparisons to Democratic posturing surrounding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report as it became clear Democrats planned to pursue a formal impeachment inquiry on Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Democrats continued to “stomp their feet” and “do nothing but weaponize politics.”

“The misguided Democrat impeachment strategy is meant to appease their rabid, extreme, leftist base, but will only serve to embolden and energize President Trump’s supporters and create a landslide victory for the President,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

Pelosi Impeachment Gambit Brings Peril for Trump—and Democrats

Trump himself said Democrats “have been doing this stuff for three and a half years” and the impeachment inquiry was “just a continuation of the witch hunt.”

Serious doubts also remain that Pelosi’s posturing will change the legal state of play. Several lawmakers pointed out that Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler has already described his panel’s inquiry as an impeachment investigation.

Several House officials mentioned that Pelosi had signed off on previous Judiciary Committee legal action informing the courts the House was, essentially, in the midst of an impeachment investigation already. Those declarations were in part aimed at elevating the legal standing of the committee’s efforts to enforce subpoenas and other demands for information and witness testimony the Trump administration has refused to provide.

Earlier this month, Nadler’s committee even adopted special impeachment-related hearing rules for witness testimony.

Internal Democratic tensions almost flared publicly earlier in the day with word from some House leadership officials that creation of a special select committee was being considered to carry the impeachment ball, rather than the Judiciary Committee. But that was met with stiff opposition from some members who sit on that committee and others. The idea was declared dead by late afternoon.

Watershed Moment

Still, the buildup to Pelosi’s announcement on Tuesday had the sense of a watershed moment for Democrats, with a string of lawmakers from politically vulnerable districts for the first time backing the notion of impeachment. Biden himself endorsed an impeachment effort if the White House continued to stonewall congressional investigations, telling reporters in Delaware that Trump abused his power and violated his oath of office.

Biden’s decision to abandon his previously cautious approach to impeachment comes as Republicans have sought to highlight his role in the Ukraine controversy to damage his candidacy.

Trump has alleged – and asked Ukraine to investigate – that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general in 2016 in order to stop an investigation of Burisma Holdings. His son Hunter Biden served on the board.

Biden did demand the ouster of Ukraine’s top prosecutor for corruption, but did so after an interagency policy group in the Obama administration decided that the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was engaging in blatantly corrupt behavior. Former administration officials said Biden did not exert particular pressure on that policy process, and Shokin’s top deputy, Vitaliy Kasko, told Bloomberg News that the investigation into Burisma had been dormant for more than a year before Biden raised his corruption concerns.

On Tuesday, Trump lawyer Giuliani -- whose efforts to encourage Ukraine to target the Bidens are already under congressional inquiry -- tweeted without substantiation that he had video evidence of “criminality in Ukraine.”

“They should look at their own backyard and they are going to find criminality that is going to shock the world,” Giuliani told reporters later in the day. “The person damaged most by this is going to be Joe Biden, because he has been caught in a very major scandal.”

The former vice president dismissed concerns that the controversy could hurt him politically.

“I can take the political attacks. They’ll come and they’ll go and, in time, they’ll soon be forgotten. But if we allow a president to get away with shredding the United States Constitution, that will last forever,” Biden said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.