Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday afternoon that she’d be asking the House of Representatives to open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over his phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The call in question may have triggered a whistleblower report by someone within the intelligence community accusing Trump of using military aid to Ukraine as leverage to get President Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
In the days following the scandal, more detailed news emerged that Trump had allegedly withheld $250 million in military aid to Ukraine ahead of his call with Zelensky. On July 25, Trump reportedly asked “a favor” of the Ukrainian president: to look into any dealings Hunter Biden might have had while on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
On this episode of Today, Explained, Vox senior politics correspondent Andrew Prokop says that while Democrats had been asking for a transcript of the call and a copy of the whistleblower’s report, they had received neither at the time of Pelosi’s speech:
One is the transcript of the conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president. But the other is the whistleblower complaint that was filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community that started this whole scandal.
Prokop goes on to discuss that the acting director of national intelligence and the inspector general for the intelligence community “are scheduled to testify in closed session on Thursday. And the acting director will testify for at least part of it in open session as well.”
Hear more of Prokop’s breakdown of Pelosi’s speech, what might happen in the coming days, and what this all means for the Trump administration on this episode of Today, Explained. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of his conversation with host Sean Rameswaram.
Nancy Pelosi just made a huge announcement. How did this happen so fast? You were on the show just yesterday telling me that Pelosi thought impeachment was a dead-end political loser.
That is what she has thought all year. But Nancy Pelosi is also a leader of her caucus who can take her members’ temperature and know where the party is going. And what developed extremely quickly over the past 24 hours is a consensus among Democrats that really this latest scandal about Trump and Ukraine was just a bridge too far, that something had to be done, and that the only real remedy they had was a more serious impeachment effort. What really tipped the scales in the end was finally movement among a bunch of moderate Democrats.
In particular, on Monday night, seven freshmen Democrats with military backgrounds or intelligence backgrounds, many of whom had been notable impeachment skeptics all year wrote an op-ed saying that if these allegations are true about Trump pressuring the Ukrainian president to open an investigation about Biden perhaps by withholding aid to the government of Ukraine, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense.
Things just continued to escalate over the course of the day. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who is a venerable elder statesman of the party, gave a fiery speech on the House floor saying that now was the time for impeachment.
Plugged-in political reporters were using phrases like the “tipping point” and the “dam breaking.” There was just a feeling of a sudden consensus within a party that before this point had been very divided.
We’ve also had news in the past 24 hours about what President Trump may or may not have said to Ukrainian President Zelensky. What have we learned?
Well, the new information that has come out is basically more details about the timeline and the specifics of Trump’s effort to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that was designed for the government of Ukraine. Congress had approved this money and in mid-July, a few days before Trump talked to Zelensky, Trump instructed Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff, to have the funds blocked while he decides whether they should go forward. So that decision was made shortly before Trump talked to Zelensky and reportedly pressured him around eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal, to open an investigation into Biden and his family’s business activities in Ukraine.
So how is President Trump responded to all of these developments?
He has naturally continued to insist that he did nothing wrong. He has seemed to admit that he did mention Biden and what he calls the problem of corruption on the phone with the Ukrainian president. But he said that he had other reasons for trying to withhold the military aid. Trump has had general objections to foreign aid and he’s been trying to frame his decision to slow-walk the Ukraine aid as something that was normal for his foreign policy.
But the other reports that we’ve been seeing coming out have essentially had the gist that this was not normal. This was something unusual and members of Congress were concerned about it. So Trump this afternoon decided to call for the transcript unredacted of his conversation with the Ukrainian president to be released apparently thinking that this would get him off the hook to show that it was all appropriate.
Is that transcript going to be corroborated by the whistleblower potentially? How we know that it’s genuine?
So there are basically two things that Democrats have been asking for. One is the transcript of the conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president. But the other is the whistleblower complaint that was filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community that started this whole scandal. That complaint is still mysterious and according to multiple reports, it is broader than just one single phone conversation.
So Trump seems to think that releasing this transcript, even though it will apparently reveal that he did pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden, according to senior administration officials, Trump did not directly mention holding up the military aid in this phone conversation. However, it is just important to realize that’s not the full story necessarily, and what’s really important is to get this whistleblower complaint that the Trump administration is currently withholding from Congress. [A redacted version of the report was released to Congress members late Wednesday, after this episode.]
And they’re still withholding that?
Yes. But the acting director of national intelligence and the inspector general for the intelligence community who have been handling this, are scheduled to testify in closed session on Thursday. And the acting director will testify for at least part of it in open session as well which is the current plan.
There have also been discussions about the whistleblower him or herself coming to Congress to testify and brief in closed session not in public. The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee as well that could happen as soon as this week. The whistleblower has an attorney who has been interacting with members of Congress to talk about how this could be done.
Okay. So there is just a head-spinning number of developments here, from the whistleblower potentially testifying to the transcript coming out to the director of national intelligence testifying before Senate. But the big one here undoubtedly is the fact that Nancy Pelosi wants to open up impeachment hearings. What’s that going to look like?
Well, there are really no hard and fast rules for how an impeachment inquiry is done in the house. It’s essentially up to the House majority to run it as they see fit. At the end of the day the House will have to come to a decision about whether or not to take a vote on impeachment. And if a majority of members of the House vote in favor of any articles of impeachment then that means that Trump is impeached.
What happens next is that there is a trial of Trump before the Senate and the Senate is controlled by Republicans. And it also takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to remove any president from office. So Trump is in a much more favorable position politically to defend himself in the Senate. So the bar to removing him from office is still quite high. And unless there are further major major developments Democrats are not likely to clear it. But the party has decided that it’s worth pushing forward with this anyway at this point.
It was just a week ago that Rep. Nadler was having trouble rallying real support and consensus for his quasi impeachment. Judiciary probe about the Mueller revelations and the Mueller investigation. What makes this so different?
A lot of Democrats have been saying all year that it’s obvious that Trump has been abusing his power and many blatant ways and deserves to be impeached. But there was no real consensus within the party on the particular thing that they would focus on. And I think there was some hope among Democrats that the Mueller report would provide that. But what ended up happening there was that Mueller outlined a pattern of potential obstruction of justice by President Trump.
But he declined to say either way whether Trump violated the law. And it felt like old news. And so now what has come is new news. And there are several aspects to the Ukraine scandal that do make it different. It’s about current and ongoing allegedly corrupt behavior by President Trump, trying to abuse his powers of office to interfere in the next presidential election not a previous one.
And also the president has basically admitted to doing much of this. He’s he said that he brought up Biden in conversation with the president of Ukraine urging an investigation so you know looking at all this. It just seems obvious to Democrats that they can’t tolerate this, that something has to be done.
And I think more broadly there’s been a sense that Trump got away with it from the Mueller investigation and there has been some anxiety within the party that in taking the threat of impeachment mostly off the table this year they have essentially given him carte blanche to do whatever he wants without fear of consequences. So in part I do think this is an effort to finally try and make Trump feel some consequences for how he’s behaved in office.
If impeached, President Trump joins a very, very small club. Remind me how many presidents have been impeached before him?
The first was Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Johnson was impeached but he ended up being acquitted in the Senate by a single vote and remained in office. After that it was over 100 years before impeachment was a serious possibility again. And that came about for President Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal and Nixon did not end up being impeached. But there was an impeachment inquiry ongoing in the House.
There were investigations in the executive branch and the Senate that unearthed a set of very damaging facts for him and the writing was on the wall eventually. Nixon was going to be impeached and he was going to be removed from office so he resigned to avert that outcome.
So Nixon was not impeached but he was going to be then there was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. In 1998, Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice related to trying to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But once again, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate and got to serve out his term. So there has never been a president who was impeached and convicted in the Senate and removed from office in that process.
Is there a chance that this all sort of blows back on Pelosi and the Democrats? I mean Trump has proven time and again that nothing sticks to him. He is presidential Teflon at least to his base and a majority of Republicans. I mean just after this news was breaking, he tweeted something like “THANK YOU” with a photo of one of his rallies with you know approval rating 53 percent superimposed on top of that. Could this just make him stronger?
Well this has been one reason that Democratic leaders like Pelosi have been so hesitant about impeachment and it’s been hotly disputed among political pundits everywhere about whether impeachment would be good for Trump or bad for Trump. There are arguments on both sides. Impeachment supporters tend to argue that high-profile media events focusing on the alleged crimes of President Trump will obviously not be good for his re-election effort.
But the arguments against impeachment being good for Democrats tend to be more about worries that they will be able to make an effective. Public case or in Pelosi’s specific case the House math is unfavorable for Democrats in that they have a bunch of members in their majority that are from districts that voted for Trump in 2016.
So for Pelosi to remain speaker, she needs to get a lot of these Trump districts Democrats reelected, and she has believed all year that pushing for the impeachment of Donald Trump is not the best way to do that. But you know the facts have changed. The pressure has built, and she has apparently decided that you know you got to do it.