An anonymous whistleblower’s complaint about President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy teed up two questions for lawmakers in September: What exactly did Trump do, and how bad was it?
It has taken weeks, but now the House may be able to focus its attention, and the public’s, on just those two issues.
House Democrats had leaped on the whistleblower’s complaint as soon as the administration (belatedly) turned it over, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instructing a number of committees to begin an impeachment inquiry. Three of those panels — the committees on intelligence, foreign relations and government oversight — started summoning witnesses and requesting documents.
But from the start, the process was fraught with fights over how it was being conducted. The administration flatly refused to cooperate, saying the process was illegitimate because the full House hadn’t voted to authorize it. Never mind that there’s no such requirement in the Constitution, or that the investigations that led to the impeachment efforts against Presidents Nixon and Clinton started before the House voted to authorize a formal inquiry. Trump and his allies have devoted countless tweets and on-camera comments to Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff and the bias he has allegedly shown against Trump.
After witnesses started complying with subpoenas compelling them to give depositions, Trump and GOP lawmakers shifted tacks, complaining that the testimony was being taken in private and that Trump wasn’t able to send his lawyers or confront his accusers. Although that misconstrued the process — the House impeachment process isn’t a trial, it’s more like an indictment — Republicans were correct that the leaks coming out of the private sessions seemed one-sided and damaging to the president.
There was so much noise about the process, the public hasn’t been able to sink its teeth into the substance. That should change now, thanks to the resolution the House adopted Thursday on a largely party-line vote. The measure gives the GOP much of what it wanted, putting the House on record authorizing the inquiry, opening more of it to public view, giving Republicans the same subpoena powers the minority party had in previous impeachment inquiries, and giving the president the right to participate when the House Judiciary Committee considers potential articles of impeachment.
Granted, Republicans will continue to complain about the process. But the move to public hearings will allow lawmakers and voters to see how much evidence Democrats such as Schiff have amassed on how the Trump administration pressured Zelenskiy to conduct two investigations aimed at helping Trump’s reelection prospects, including one into a Ukrainian energy company that employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Judging just by the leaked opening statements from witnesses and comments by lawmakers who’ve attended the depositions, Democrats have assembled a persuasive case that people supposedly speaking for the president, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, insisted that Zelenskiy publicly commit to those investigations before Zelenskiy would be granted a coveted White House visit and, possibly, nearly $400 million in badly needed military aid. But that’s a filtered view of the proceedings thus far; the open hearings will give a fuller picture.
Once the facts are established, then lawmakers have to decide what they mean. If Trump abused the power of his office to pressure a foreign government to conduct investigations aimed at helping Trump win reelection, how bad is that? Trump has said repeatedly that his actions were “perfect.” His acting chief of staff tried to shrug off the idea of a quid pro quo, saying presidents do this sort of thing all the time (before walking back his comments later in the day). Top congressional Republicans have insisted that Trump was simply trying to root out corruption, and that’s completely appropriate.
The many Democrats who’ve been eager to impeach Trump, meanwhile, have to consider this issue from a different angle. After they lay out the case against Trump’s handling of Ukraine, will voters say, “Is that all you’ve got?”