House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that despite reports President Donald Trump may have attempted to have Ukraine interfere in the 2020 presidential election, she still does not support impeachment proceedings. Instead, she suggested that laws ought to be passed to make clear when and how a sitting president could be indicted once Trump is no longer in office.
Many Democrats, including presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro, called for Congress to begin the impeachment process after a whistleblower complaint alleging Trump engaged in an improper conversation with a foreign leader was made public last week. But the speaker’s statements show that it will take more than allegations of election meddling to join those in her party pushing for impeachment, and make clear her focus is on protecting — and expanding — Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives, which depends on protecting seats the party won in districts Trump carried in 2016.
Pelosi made the comments during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered Friday, arguing Congress should push to amend the Justice Department’s guidance that says a sitting president cannot be indicted by passing a law that makes the procedure for indictment explicit. “A president should be indicted, if he’s committed a wrongdoing — any president,” Pelosi said.
Such a law has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, and it would not be in Trump’s self-interest to sign such a measure into law. Seeming to acknowledge these facts, Pelosi said such a law would work to govern the behavior of “future presidents” rather than being aimed at reining in Trump.
While she declined to endorse impeachment proceedings, the speaker did put her support behind current investigations being carried out by various House committees, saying Congress has a duty to abide by “the facts and the law.”
She acknowledged, however, that these investigations have been stymied by the executive branch’s lack of cooperation and by the White House’s declarations of executive privilege, arguing that both are simply more evidence that new laws are needed, given “the Founders could never suspect that a president would be so abusive of the Constitution of the United States, that the separation of powers would be irrelevant to him and that he would continue, any president would continue, to withhold facts from the Congress, which are part of the constitutional right of inquiry.”
New questions about impeachment are being raised following reports that began emerging this week in the New York Times and Washington Post that an intelligence official had registered a complaint about Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian officials.
The details of the complaint remain cloudy, but it reportedly outlines a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, in which Trump is said to have asked the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden who is currently a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, no less than eight times.
This would suggest an attempt by Trump to use his presidential influence to leverage foreign involvement in a reelection campaign — the very behavior that he has spent much of his time in office saying he did not engage in during his 2016 campaign.
In a news conference Friday, Trump insisted he’d done nothing untoward: “I’ve had conversations with many leaders. They’re always appropriate,” he said, calling the allegations a “political hack job” and “another media disaster.”
And Saturday, he continued to attack the allegations of wrongdoing, tweeting a complaint that journalists and Democrats are colluding against him:
….story about me and a perfectly fine and routine conversation I had with the new President of the Ukraine. Nothing was said that was in any way wrong, but Biden’s demand, on the other hand, was a complete and total disaster. The Fake News knows this but doesn’t want to report!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2019
Now that the Democrats and the Fake News Media have gone “bust” on every other of their Witch Hunt schemes, they are trying to start one just as ridiculous as the others, call it the Ukraine Witch Hunt, while at the same time trying to protect Sleepy Joe Biden. Will fail again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2019
The call is already under investigation by House Democrats, who are trying to understand whether the Trump administration did indeed solicit reelection help from the Ukrainian government.
In the NPR interview, Pelosi said that this case already reveals at least one violation of the law, because Joseph Maguire, the director of national intelligence, declined to relay the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress, as is required by law.
Despite this, it remains to be seen whether Maguire or Trump himself will face any consequences. Republicans have begun to echo the president’s claim that the allegations are a partisan attack, and Pelosi’s comments clearly signal she is not yet ready to expand Democrats’ current strategies.
A whistleblower claims Trump tried to get Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 election
Reports about the whistleblower complaint have been unfolding for the last few days. The complaint was filed in August, and includes details of a July phone call in which Trump is alleged to have attempted to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to work with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Hunter Biden’s business ties in that country.
The call took place on July 25, the day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about Russian interference the 2016 presidential election.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained, the behavior alleged within the call — asking a foreign power to dig up dirt on a potential opponent for the 2020 election — treads back into the territory of alleged election interference from which Trump has been trying to wrest himself since 2016:
Ukraine-related corruption has played an outsized role in Trump scandals already — a major part of the Mueller probe was Paul Manafort’s prosecution for financial and lobbying crimes related to his work for a former Ukrainian regime. And back during summer of 2016, when Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair, he was plagued by reports that the Ukrainian government was looking into his payments. (Manafort was convicted and is serving a seven-and-a-half year prison sentence.)
But the phone call is just one component of the behavior outlined in the whistleblower complaint, according to reports. Details have remained murky, in part because of attempts by members of the administration to keep the report from Congress, as Prokop writes:
On August 12, a whistleblower who is part of the US intelligence community filed a complaint with Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. Atkinson deemed the complaint credible and a matter of “urgent concern,” and wanted the congressional intelligence committees informed.
But his superiors at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have stepped in and refused to give any details of the complaint to Congress — even though a law seems to require them to do this.
Atkinson ended up telling the House Intelligence committee of the complaint’s existence himself in a September 9 letter — but he didn’t give any details on what it was about. But in a subsequent letter, he said the complaint “relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”
House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff is the one who eventually went public with this information, saying he feared a coverup.
Trump has argued there is nothing to cover up, and has defended himself from all accusations of misconduct, albeit, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar has reported, in contradictory ways. Friday, for instance Trump told reporters couldn’t remember his conversations with Ukrainian officials, and said he hadn’t read the complaint before claiming “everyone’s read it; they laughed at it.”
Democrats are divided on the issue of impeachment
In the face of these explosive allegations, many Democrats have begun calling for impeachment proceedings. One of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, called Congress “complicit” in presidential corruption.
After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 20, 2019
Former HUD official and presidential candidate Julián Castro said Trump “needs to be impeached,” and called on House Democrats to “do something.”
Neither politician is in a position to do anything at the moment; however. Impeachment has to begin in the House: Warren is a senator, and Castro currently holds no office at all. However, there are representatives who, like the candidates, would like to see impeachment begin — in fact, more than half of all House Democrats now support for some form of impeachment inquiry, including full impeachment proceedings.
In the face of these strong demands from members of her party, Pelosi’s insistence on avoiding impeachment points to a desire to retain the Democratic majority in the House. Moderate Democrats and those representing swing districts have warned the speaker that moving forward on impeachment would alienate their voters.
American voters, including Democratic voters, are themselves divided on the subject of impeachment. According to recent polling by Politico and Morning Consult, 37 percent of voters support impeachment, while half outright oppose it. Predictably, the support comes nearly entirely from Democratic voters: about 70 percent of Democratic respondents said they support impeachment proceedings, while just 6 percent of Republican voters said the same.
All of this comes as the House Judiciary Committee has begun ramping up an impeachment investigation into Trump on the basis of Muller’s work investigating allegations of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The probe has been going on for months, but earlier this week, the committee outlined its plans for continuing with the investigation. The plans mirror the 1974 investigation into Richard Nixon that led to his ouster, and will now likely also include an inquiry into the president’s discussions with Ukraine.
In a closed-door meeting earlier this week, Pelosi reportedly made it clear that she does not support House impeachment proceedings, telling Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) that an impeachment would not pass a vote on the floor of the House. With this interview, she has made her opposition a matter of public record.