In the past several days, news emerged that a whistleblower from the federal government observed disconcerting behavior from the President, who reported this news to the Director of National Intelligence, who considered the complaint to be urgent and serious. The Director of National Intelligence, by law, was supposed to hand over this information to Congress, but was blocked from doing so by the White House. As such, the full content of the complaint is currently unknown to Congress and to the American people, but what has become known is deeply troubling to lawmakers, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who yesterday publicly announced that Congress would be holding impeachment inquiries and investigations.
Less than a day after reports of the existence and circumstances of the complaint emerged, sources spoke to the Washington Post to reveal some, but crucially not all, of the details. According to several news outlets, in July President Trump had a phone call with the newly-elected president of Ukraine during which he asked the Ukrainian government to investigate unfounded claims concerning political corruption of the son of Joe Biden, whom Trump considers his main political opponent. While doing so, Trump had also taken the highly unusual step of withholding aid funds from Ukraine, suggesting the possibility of a quid-pro-quo of restoration of funds in exchange for “dirt” on Joe Biden. Yesterday, Trump admitted to reporters while standing next to Air Force One that he had spoken with the President of Ukraine and discussed Joe Biden and corruption concerns, but downplayed the seriousness of his conduct, describing the call as “largely congratulatory” and “perfect.”
Despite the President’s comments, however, many Democratic lawmakers, particularly those who have backgrounds in national security and the military, considered these allegations to be an unprecedented breach of a President’s constitutional responsibility, as asking a foreign power for help in winning a domestic re-election campaign threatens to undermine the system of democratic governance around which American political life is built. If left unchecked, this conduct could set a precedent that enables presidents to engage in unconstitutional conduct with impunity, fatally threatening the security of the country. As such, Nancy Pelosi yesterday publicly announced the beginning of formal impeachment proceedings in Congress, a risky political move considering the fact that the Senate is controlled by Republicans who are unlikely to convict the President and remove him from office, which could be seen as an embarrassing defeat for the Democrats and vindication for the Republican party. Following the announcement, several dozen Democratic congresspeople proclaimed their support for impeachment, bringing the number of House Democrats favoring impeachment past 200, close to the 218 representatives necessary for an impeachment vote to pass in the House.
According to reports from various news outlets, yesterday Trump called Pelosi in advance of her announcement, asking whether they could work out a deal concerning the whistleblower complaint, to which Pelosi replied he could authorize the release of the complaint to Congress as is required by law. Reportedly, Trump was surprised by Pelosi’s announcement, and took to Twitter to complain about it, even as he attends a U.N. summit. In response to the growing calls for his impeachment, Trump announced he would release the transcript of his call with the Ukranian President, claiming that it would exonerate him, and did so today. Democrats, who insist upon receiving the entire complaint and not just the transcript of the call, were expecting this transcript to be unremarkable, edited heavily or perhaps even falsified to create the impression that there was no wrongdoing. However, the transcript clearly shows Trump asking for an investigation into Joe Biden, as he said “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, … whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” While it is not the full complaint that Democrats are demanding, the transcript is surprisingly damning for the President, suggesting he perhaps does not recognize the extent and nature of the crime he just presented evidence of himself committing. Though the transcript shows no direct evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement, as Republican lawmakers were quick to point out, such an arrangement is irrelevant to the charge of asking a foreign power for assistance winning an election.
Despite the groundbreaking and unprecedented news, however, little is likely to change in the immediate term. This is because several investigations into the President’s conduct, including his connections with other governments and his finances, are already ongoing in the House, but the word “impeachment” had not been used to describe these investigations until now. And even if the House does vote for impeachment, which is growing ever more likely by the day, the President is only removed from office after a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. However, recent developments expand the scale of the already-quite-serious allegations of misconduct by the President, as this is the first time Trump has been known to proactively seek assistance from a foreign power to improve his re-election odds, whereas previously he had only expressed an openness to the idea.
The times have found us
That being said, this is an undoubtedly tumultuous period in American history, as the political establishment is dealing with issues for which there exist no precedent and for which the outcome is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, the President’s conduct serves as a vital test of our country’s system of checks and balances, a self-correcting mechanism established deep within the core of the philosophy constructing this country’s politics. This system, comprised of three independent and co-equal branches of government, is designed to withstand and undo bouts of corruption and other internal threats to democracy, but only functions by the action of elected officials. In her announcement yesterday, Nancy Pelosi reiterated a phrase used by the country’s founders, proclaiming “the times have found us.” Indeed, the circumstances influencing political corruption have called upon elected officials to act in service of restoring the soul of the country, or witness the gradual undermining of the country’s founding principles and the dissolution of the rule of law and the rights of citizens.