House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump after reports that he may have pressured the Ukranian president to launch an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in the country.
While an investigation of Trump’s actions is certainly warranted — and already taking place in both the Senate and House — tying that review to impeachment proceedings prematurely taints the process as political theater.
It sounds trite, but investigations of Trump and his actions must be lead by facts, not politics. Investigators must go where the facts lead them, whether that it is toward impeachment or not.
Of course, it is difficult to separate any investigation of an elected official — particularly a president — from the politics and political environment surrounding that review. But, political leaders must endeavor to lead an unbiased investigation before making any decisions about what to do with what they learn.
That’s why Pelosi’s launching of impeachment proceedings, even before having a transcript of the phone call in question and a clearer picture of what happened between Trump and his associates and Ukranian officials, is worrying. It would have been far better to allow the relevant House and Senate Committees to complete their own reviews before talking about impeachment.
Pelosi has long resisted an impeachment investigation, but apparently changed her mind abruptly after the reports that Trump may have tried to use Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden. The latest revelations, including a whistleblower complaint that Trump made “promises” to a foreign leader, are troubling to be sure. But, much more clarifying information is needed before lawmakers decide how to proceed.
Here’s what we know about the latest allegations. A whistleblower complaint in August alleges that Trump urged Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate whether Biden misused his power as vice president by pressuring the government into firing a prosecutor in 2014 while his son Hunter was on the board of a Ukranian gas company. The company’s owner was being investigated by an anti-corruption probe. Ukranain investigators have since said that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump ordered aid withheld from Ukraine before a call with Zelensky in July. Trump has offered varying explanations for withholding the aid, which was released earlier this month.
A “transcript” of the July 25 call was released by the White House on Wednesday. It comes with a caveat: the White House documents was compiled from notes taken during the conversation, it is not a verbatim account of what was said. “The text in this document records to the notes and recollections” of those in the Situation Room, a note at the bottom of the document warns. “A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation.”
In the document provided by the White House, Trump does ask Zelensky to “look into” Joe Biden’s role in the anti-corruption prosecution. He encourages Zelensky to talk with Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, which is an odd inclusion of a personal attorney in government affairs.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said to Zelensky, according to the transcript. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
Zelensky agreed to do so.
Although Trump and Zelensky talked generally about international assistance for Ukraine, Trump does not mention withholding U.S. aid to the country. He does repeatedly emphasize how good the U.S. has been to Ukraine. Immediately after this part of the conversation, Trump asks Zelensky “to do us a favor” by investigating CrowdStrike, a U.S.-based internet security company that initially analyzed the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s servers in 2016 and pointed to two hacker groups believed to be linked to Russia, according to The Washington Post.
The transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call, which has yet to be independently verified as complete and accurate, is only one piece of a complicated puzzle. The unidentified whistleblower, whose complaint reportedly referenced multiple events, has expressed a desire to testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. That must happen.
Trump certainly has undertaken a series of ethically questionable business and political dealings. But, lawmakers must ensure that they have a fuller set of facts in hand before deciding that his actions rise to the level of an impeachable offense. And starting an impeachment inquiry without more clarity on this Ukraine situation — which House and Senate committee investigations can attempt to provide without being under an “ umbrella of impeachment inquiry” — runs the risk of rushing and overly politicizing a needed search for the truth.
The politically motivated impeachment attempt against Gov. Paul LePage in 2016 is a cautionary tale. LePage emerged stronger after the failed impeachment vote and, more importantly, Maine government became more dysfunctional and polarized.
That’s why prematurely launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump in this case is worrisome.