HOUSE SPEAKER Nancy Pelosi built a framework for impeaching President Donald Trump on Tuesday afternoon, pointing to the words of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine in building her case for pursuing a formal inquiry into the chief executive’s conduct in office.
Of Franklin, she recounted the tale about the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, when someone asked the statesman, diplomat and inventor what the delegates had crafted and he replied, “A republic … if you can keep it.”
And of Paine, she quoted his famous pamphlet “Common Sense,” which many historians agree lit the fuse for revolution and independence, in which he wrote of the reluctance to force a separation from Britain, but that “The time hath found us.”
It was compelling oratory and an unvarnished assessment of what she and many Americans believe to be the stakes of the process now unfolding in Washington.
In July, Trump spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected earlier this year, to discuss a variety of topics that included the conflict between that country and Russia which began in 2014. Zelensky wanted the United States to provide military assistance to aid in Ukraine’s defense.
“I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump said, according to a summary of the phone call released by the White House on Wednesday. He then asked Zelensky to investigate the activity of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, and to coordinate those efforts with Attorney General Bob Barr and the president’s personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The conversation was the subject of a whistleblower’s complaint, filed by someone in the intelligence community, which was sent to the director of National Intelligence and the inspector general for review. The complaint was then referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded the president’s actions did not warrant a criminal investigation.
However, the charge is a serious one since it essentially alleges the president tied his request to $391 million in foreign aid earmarked for Ukraine. The Washington Post reported this week that Trump, prior to the July phone call, asked acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to delay release of that money and the president has offered conflicting explanations to justify that decision.
Democratic leaders in the House correctly believe the issue demands a full accounting.
There is reason to conclude that the president, in making this request, was looking for foreign help to smear a political rival, as Biden is a leading contender for his party’s nomination for president. Obtaining that help may well constitute a campaign finance law violation.
Had the president linked millions in aid to such an inappropriate request, one intended to provide him a political advantage in next year’s election, many would conclude that to be an abuse of power. Unquestionably, it would represent conduct unbecoming of the office.
Given these revelations, Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry of the president. It’s expected that committee leaders will seek testimony from the whistleblower and a full transcript of the president’s conversation rather than rely on the White House’s summary released on Wednesday.
By framing this process as a matter of necessity and dressing it in the precedent of history, Pelosi hopes to win over Republicans in Congress who remain unwavering Trump supporters and defend his every action. She has been reluctant to take this step, and her willingness to proceed now speaks to the seriousness of the allegations.
That is also reflected by moderate members in swing districts now backing an investigation, including first-term Reps. Elaine Luria in Virginia’s 2nd District and Abigail Spanberger in the 7th, both of whom won election touting their national security backgrounds.
Trump makes it difficult to separate this one incident from the dozens of other actions that defy convention, diminish the office or otherwise appear to run afoul of federal law. But this episode does raise considerable and serious questions about the president. Americans are entitled to answers.