WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acknowledged Sunday that he accused a leading political rival of corruption during a phone call with Ukraine’s president, as pressure intensified on reluctant Democrats to move quickly toward impeachment over allegations that Trump engaged in a brazen effort to enlist foreign help to aid his own reelection.
In public and in private, many Democrats suggested that evidence in recent days indicating that Trump pressed the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his administration’s stonewalling of attempts by Congress to learn more, were changing their calculations about whether to seek his removal from office.
The influential chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who has resisted such calls, said the House may now have “crossed the Rubicon” in light of the new disclosures, and the administration’s withholding of a related whistleblower complaint. A group of moderate freshman lawmakers who had been opposed to an impeachment inquiry said they were considering changing course, while other Democrats who had reluctantly supported one amplified their calls. Progressives, meanwhile, sharpened their criticisms of the party’s leadership for failing to act.
The fast-moving developments prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to level a warning of her own to the White House: Turn over the secret whistleblower complaint by Thursday, or face a serious escalation from Congress.
In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi never mentioned the word “impeachment,” but her message appeared to hint at the possibility.
“If the administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in the letter.
The allegations center on whether Trump pressured a vulnerable ally to take action to damage Biden at a critical moment, potentially using United States military aid as leverage. Ukraine has been fighting a war with Russia, and the Trump administration had temporarily been withholding a $250 million package of military funding. There have been no indications to this point, however, that Trump mentioned the aid money on the call.
Trump showed no sign of contrition Sunday, telling aides that Democrats were overplaying their hand on a matter voters would discount. Publicly, he worked to focus attention not on his own actions, but on those of Biden.
Speaking to reporters, the president defended his July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine as entirely appropriate, and stopped short of directly confirming news reports about what was discussed. But he acknowledged that he had discussed Biden during the call and accused the former vice president of corruption tied to his son Hunter’s business activities in the former Soviet republic.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters before leaving for a trip to Texas and Ohio.
It is still far from clear that the latest scandal surrounding Trump’s conduct will lead Pelosi or other top Democrats to bless following through with full impeachment proceedings and a vote. The House Judiciary Committee is already investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump over other matters, but Pelosi has consistently questioned the strength of the case.
Proponents of impeachment have repeatedly pointed to damaging revelations — including several instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump detailed by the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference with the 2016 election — that they believe warrant seeking Trump’s removal. But they have run into resistance or indifference from their colleagues and the general public. And given near-unanimous Republican opposition, any impeachment proceeding would likely be a wholly partisan exercise that would all but certainly result in an acquittal by the Senate.
On Sunday, the pattern appeared to be holding, with the vast majority of Republican lawmakers mum about the latest allegations against Trump. The exception was a couple of prominent lawmakers who suggested that the White House should release the contents of his call with Zelenskiy.
“I’m hoping the president can share, in an appropriate way, information to deal with the drama around the phone call,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I think it would be good for the country if we could deal with it.”
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, was more critical, deeming it “critical for the facts to come out” and stating, “If the president 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.”
At the same time, interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers this weekend made clear that they believed the latest allegations had the potential to be singularly incriminating, with prospects to advance the impeachment drive just as it appeared to be losing steam. Not only do they suggest that Trump was using the power of his office to extract political gains from a foreign power, they argued, but his administration is actively trying once again to prevent Congress from finding out what happened.
“I don’t want to do any more to contribute to the divisiveness in the country, but my biggest responsibility as an elected official is to protect our national security and Constitution,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, adding that it is “becoming more and more difficult” for Democrats to avoid an all-out impeachment inquiry.
Several first-term lawmakers who had opposed impeachment conferred privately over the weekend to discuss announcing support for an inquiry, potentially jointly, after a hearing scheduled for Thursday with the acting national intelligence director, according to Democratic officials familiar with the conversations. A handful of them declined to speak on the record over the weekend, with some still reluctant to go public and others looking for cues from Pelosi and their freshman colleagues.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey freshman who has supported an inquiry, said the fresh revelations made it clear that Congress must move more decisively.
“There are lines being crossed right now that I fear will be erased if the House does not take strong action to assert them, to defend them,” he said. “If all we do is leave it up to the American people to get rid of him, we have not upheld the rule of law, we have not set a precedent that this behavior is utterly out of bounds.”
The Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, said Sunday morning that the accumulating evidence of wrongdoing, and of a presidential cover-up unfolding in real time, left the House with few other options. Schiff spoke with Pelosi before making his remarks to coordinate their statements, two people familiar with their conversation said, a sign that the speaker may be more comfortable moving toward a direct discussion of impeachment.
“I have been very reluctant to go down the path of impeachment,” Schiff said on CNN. “But if the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit, providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that that conduct represents.”
Schiff first brought the existence of the whistleblower complaint to light a little more than a week ago, and has been the party’s lead negotiator with the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to turn it over to Congress.
Progressives in Congress have watched the stonewalling with seething frustration, and in recent days, they have begun to openly second-guess Pelosi’s go-slow approach.
“At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior — it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who commands considerable influence among progressives, wrote on Twitter late Saturday night.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and the co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said that she was now ready to vote outright to impeach Trump, rather than simply continuing the investigation, and that she planned to make her case in public.
“There is no congressional authority anymore that we are being allowed to exercise, except the one that we have not exercised yet,” Jayapal said.
But the more crucial issue is whether Democrats from the districts Trump won or nearly lost can stomach a push to expel him.
Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada said once a transcript is made public of Trump pressuring Zelenskiy, she doubted that Democrats from competitive seats could continue to resist impeachment.
“Once that comes out,” said Titus, an impeachment proponent, “I don’t see how they can fight it any longer.”
Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster, said it was imperative that Democrats build a case of the president’s wrongdoing, in part by obtaining unambiguous evidence.
“Every foreign-based scandal so far has completely rolled off the backs of the voters,” Pollock said. “For this to really seep into the mindset of the public, the salacious factor needs to increase significantly, because right now, there’s still no evidence that the public is paying any attention to these things.”
Strikingly, though, even some traditionally cautious veteran Democrats said the party might have no choice but to move toward impeachment. They believe that Senate Republicans, who are clinging to their majority of 53 seats, would pay a political price for protecting Trump if they voted to exonerate him in the face of damning evidence of malfeasance and a House vote to impeach.
“They’ve got to take a second look” at impeachment, Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and national party chairman, who is an ally of Pelosi, said of fellow Democrats. He predicted that the latest revelations would “push some of our folks over.”
James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, said he had opposed impeachment, but now thinks the House should move “quick and clean” after obtaining a transcript of Trump’s phone call. “Let the Senate Republicans stew,” he said.