SALT LAKE CITY — For months, the prevailing argument against pursuing impeachment of President Donald Trump has been voters put him in office, so let them decide whether to remove him, because elections are the hallmark of America’s democracy.
But the events that unfolded this week in Washington revealed machinations that can legitimately or illegally take that option away from voters. On one hand, an impeachment by the House and conviction in the Senate would remove the president from office before next year’s election. On the other hand, a president “shaking down” a foreign leader for dirt on a political rival could illegally undermine a leading Democratic challenger.
Those two scenarios played out dramatically when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced an impeachment inquiry Tuesday into allegations Trump pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to help investigate Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.
The drama accelerated Wednesday when the White House released a transcript of the phone conversation between presidents Trump and Zelenskiy, showing the president asking for “a favor” to look into Biden. On Thursday, the House released the whistleblower’s complaint, where the White House is accused of covering up the president’s phone call, igniting a firestorm that will engulf Washington for months to come.
The events have realized the hopes of a small, but vocal, cohort of progressive Democrats who had been looking for a reason to impeach Trump since their party took control of the House in January.
Until this week, Pelosi had resisted the pressure, saying that pursuing impeachment would further divide an already polarized country.
And even as this week’s revelations appeared to bolster a case for impeachment, the San Francisco Democrat characterized the inquiry as a somber and serious development.
“This is no cause for any joy,” Pelosi said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I would say to Democrats and Republicans: We have to put country before party.”
While a Washington Post timeline of events related to Trump’s connection with Ukraine stretches all the way back to 2014, the key event was Trump’s call to Zelenskiy on July 25. According to a memorandum of the call released by the White House, the president asked his recently elected counterpart in Ukraine for help in investigating political rival Joe Biden and his son, who had business dealings in Ukraine.
White House lawyers worried that “they had witnessed the president abuse his office for personal gain,” according to a whistleblower complaint filed Aug. 12 by a CIA employee, who learned of the situation from administration officials. The inspector general for the intelligence community deemed the complaint credible and a matter of “urgent concern.”
The nine-page document also alleges a concerted White House effort to suppress the transcript of the call, according to an account by the Associated Press, and describes a shadow campaign of “foreign policy efforts” by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that unnerved some senior administration officials who felt he was circumventing normal channels.
After the complaint was submitted to the House Intelligence Committee this Thursday, Trump lashed out at the whistleblower and those who spoke to him by saying, “that’s close to a spy,” according to a tape disclosed by the Los Angeles Times.
He followed that up Friday by questioning whether the person who submitted the complaint was actually a whistleblower, suggesting the person isn’t protected under federal law.
The comments drew the ire of House Democrats, who accused the president of “witness intimidation,” according to the Associated Press. Later, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway clarified to reporters that the whistleblower “has protection under the law.”
The day before, however, she shared on Fox News a menacing assessment of those who spoke to the whistleblower: “Anybody who leaks conversations that are classified or are of national security sensitivity ought not to be working in the government — whoever you are — and I hope you’re watching, whoever you are.”
The National Whistleblower Center’s blog says that demonizing whistleblowers comes with the territory of calling out corruption in government and shows why it is necessary for whistleblowers to remain anonymous.
The New York Times has been criticized for revealing identifying details about the whistleblower — such as he worked for the CIA and had expertise on Ukraine. The paper justified the disclosure saying it would help readers judge the credibility of the complaint.
The whistleblower’s attorney, Mark Zaid, said publishing details about the individual places the person in a dangerous situation, personally and professionally.
While those who disclose suspected wrongdoing in government are protected against retaliation by federal law, the center’s blog explained that whistleblowers in the intelligence community operate by different rules because the information they deal with may be classified. Instead of taking their complaints straight to Congress, they report concerns to an inspector general, explained David Colapinto, general counsel of the National Whistleblower Center, to National Public Radio.
That process came to light in Thursday’s hearing before the House Intelligence Committee. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire defended the whistleblower and the inspector general for following the rules, but he was taken to task by Democrats for withholding the complaint from Congress.
He said he was new to the job and sought legal counsel from the White House and Justice Department on whether the information was protected under executive privilege before releasing it.
Executive privilege is the president’s power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process. The Trump administration has invoked executive privilege to turn down requests from Congress for Trump’s tax returns and business records or to take testimony from White House aides, according to the AP.
An alleged coverup
One of the most explosive allegations in the whistleblower’s nine-page complaint was that the White House moved to “lock down” details of Trumps’ phone call, suggesting that “White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”
The complaint said the transcript of the call was moved to a highly classified system designed to guard information dealing with national security. The complaint also alleged the system had been used before to hide phone calls that were politically embarrassing and had nothing to do with protecting national security.
On Friday, the Associated Press quoted a senior White House official confirming that “the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was moved to a highly classified system maintained by the National Security Council at the direction of attorneys.”
House Democrats responded to the details with cries of a cover-up by the White House.
“This is a cover-up. This is a cover-up,” Pelosi said, at a Thursday news conference, according to Politico.
And further details emerged Friday of extraordinary efforts by the administration to keep both the contents of the call and the whistleblower complaint secret.
The whistleblower initially filed a complaint with the CIA, which then alerted the White House and the Justice Department, the AP reported. Officials and lawyers throughout the administration scrambled to manage the potentially explosive situation.
On Aug. 12, the official took the next step, reporting the concerns to the intelligence community’s inspector general, obtaining legal whistleblower protection.
“The details are fueling objections by Democratic lawmakers that the administration stonewalled them for weeks about the phone call and took extraordinary measures to suppress it from becoming public,” the AP reported.
Inquiry vs. impeachment
Despite the mounting evidence against the president, Pelosi has cautioned that an inquiry is an investigation to determine if there is evidence to impeach.
“There are some in our caucus who think, let’s just have an impeachment. No, we have to have an inquiry to further establish the facts,” Pelosi said Thursday, according to Politico. “There is no rush to judgment.”
Calling it an inquiry gives House Democrats more power to subpoena witnesses and documents that the White House had previously refused to give up. But in an editorial Thursday, the Wall Street Journal criticized Pelosi for not having the entire House vote on whether to launch the inquiry, which was done in the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
“There is no constitutional obligation to hold such an authorizing vote. But it’s telling that Mrs. Pelosi doesn’t want to put her Members on record,” the Journal wrote.
There has been a political calculation in Pelosi’s reluctance to use the “i” word to describe the probes that have been ongoing since Mueller’s report was released last spring. More than 30 members of the Democratic majority in the House, like Utah’s Rep. Ben McAdams, represent swing districts that could be lost to Republicans if voters aren’t behind an impeachment inquiry. And what’s to gain if a GOP-controlled Senate won’t vote to convict?
“You sort of move forward investigating until there’s some sort of public support for (impeachment),” Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told the Deseret News in June.
And polls this week show an electorate warming up to more than just an inquiry. The New York Times reported Friday that support for impeachment, while not overwhelming, has shifted. An average of polls from YouGov/Huffington Post, HarrisX/Rasmussen, Marist/NPR and Morning Consult/Politico showed that 46% support impeachment, up from 40%, while 42% were opposed, down from 46%.
“As more information has emerged about whistleblower allegations against President Trump, support for impeachment proceedings has grown to its highest point since the beginning of the summer,” Morning Consult vice president Tyler Sinclair told Politico. “This week’s news cycle had a significant impact on Republicans and independents, giving credibility to Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.”