Forty-five years after Watergate, 20 years after Bill Clinton’s shame, the mechanism of impeachment is again grinding into life in Washington. The attempt by Democrats to oust a defiant President Donald Trump seems likely, given already bitter divides, to pour even more poison into the nation’s political soul than those previous two impeachment dramas.
Unlike the complicated and confusing picture of shady dealings with Russians and potential obstruction painted by special counsel Robert Mueller, the questions pending in the new showdown are clear cut – a factor that adds to the President’s political vulnerability.
Did Trump abuse his power by leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer military aid to pressure a foreign country to damage a political opponent? And did the White House then engage in an effort to cover it up?
“The President of the United States has betrayed his oath of office, betrayed his oath to defend our national security, and betrayed his oath to defend our constitution,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Thursday.
The whistleblower complaint against Trump regarding his July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “roadmap,” Schiff said. The document’s accusations of a cover-up opens up several key Trump allies to interrogation, such as lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr, and it alludes to possible other instances where records were kept secret for political purposes.
Already, 219 House Democrats – more than half of the 435 members – have publicly stated support for impeachment proceedings, according to CNN’s count.
More coverage of the whistleblower complaint
The character of the Republican defense of the President is clear as well. GOP lawmakers and supporters are already seeking to discredit what appears to be strong documentary evidence of pressure by Trump on Zelensky. And the White House frames impeachment as another gross attack by Democrats on Trump, a President who they say viewed as illegitimate ever since his 2016 victory.
“What these guys are doing, Democrats are doing to this country is a disgrace, and it shouldn’t be allowed. There should be a way of stopping it,” Trump said, of the constitutional process of checks and balances, in a fiery statement on the airport tarmac after returning from New York on Thursday.
Washington transformed in a matter of days
On Monday, Washington showed up to work expecting most of the week’s drama to unfold around Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Yet, seemingly in the blink of an eye, life changed profoundly for the President, a Democratic House majority and Senate Republicans who could save the commander in chief.
In the weeks ahead, the story of what went on in Trump’s conversations with his Ukrainian counterpart and whether he broke the law and flouted the most basic constitutional principles will be distorted in a political maelstrom.
But after a week of leaks, standoffs between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, blockbuster revelations and gambles by key power brokers, the facts of the case are beginning to emerge.
Trump stands accused of illicitly using $400 million in military aid, to coerce vulnerable Ukraine, which is fighting for its life against Vladimir Putin’s Russia, into investigating his potential 2020 foe Joe Biden.
The President seemed to think he could clear himself on Wednesday by releasing a rough transcript of a call with Zelensky. But his move made everything worse. Though Republicans insisted there was no quid pro quo, the document did show Trump leaning on Zelensky and asking for a “favor.”
In 2016, Trump was accused of knowingly profiting from a Russian election meddling scheme. If the latest accusations are borne out, he took 2020 election interference into his own hands.
The case darkened considerably with Thursday’s release of a whistleblower report that the White House had sought to suppress in order to contain the worst crisis of his presidency.
The still-unknown person who wrote the report accused the President of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”
If such activity did take place, it would be about as close to a charge of presidential abuse of power – a potentially impeachable offense – as it is possible to get.
In another detail that will have far reaching implications, the whistleblower alleged that the White House tried to cover up the evidence of Trump’s behavior.
The report said that officials were told to take the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky from the computer system in which it was stored to another classified system used for the most sensitive national security information.
The move potentially corrupted a repository supposed to be used only for the nation’s most sensitive secrets with material being protected for a purely political purpose.
“This is a coverup,” said Pelosi, a California Democrat.
A road map
Democrats believe they now have a “roadmap” for the impeachment process announced by Pelosi on Wednesday after months of trying to hold back the liberal tide.
Her long-held reluctance to go this far may have strengthened the Democratic hand, since they can now argue that fresh evidence of lawlessness, not the disputed account of events provided by Mueller, forced their hands.
Pelosi on Thursday gave Schiff’s Intelligence Committee the lead role in the impeachment inquiry.
Schiff’s first move was to release the whistleblower complaint right before a hearing with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who Democrats accused of holding back the complaint from Congress.
The whistleblower complaint, Schiff said, would provide a “roadmap” for the committee’s push to interview witnesses and seek document requests over the matter.
During the hearing, Maguire, a former Navy SEAL commander, said that both the whistleblower and the inspector general of the intelligence community who deemed the complaint “urgent and credible” had at all times followed the law.
The White House, initially stung by the sudden turn of events, is preparing a scorched earth defense.
“We see many Democrats who spent the last two and a half years on baseless accusations and they keep trying to overturn the will of the American people in the last presidential election,” Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday.
Later, it emerged that Trump directly targeted the whistleblower with a veiled hint of violence while addressing US diplomats at the United Nations.
“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said, according to an audio recording released by the Los Angeles Times. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Biden weighs in
Biden responded to the President with his most combative comments of a saga that plays into his central campaign theme that Trump is unfit for office.
But Trump’s claims that Biden and his son Hunter are guilty of corruption in Ukraine and China – for which there is no evidence – also threaten to emerge as a distraction for the former vice president.
At a fundraiser in California, Biden claimed Trump was trying to “hijack an election.”
“He’d like to get foreign help to win elections,” Biden said.
But Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway argued that the President was entirely within his rights to ask a foreign counterpart to investigate corruption – borrowing the White House’ s explanation for the call between Zelensky and the US leader.
“Having one President ask another President to help the enforcement of laws in alleged wrongdoing,” Conaway said, “is actually appropriate.”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this story.