Donald Trump is now the fourth president in U.S. history to face an impeachment inquiry.
Forget about a political divide. The Congress and the chief executive of the United States are now formally at war.
On the one hand we have the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, declaring “no one is above the law.”
On the other, we have President Trump tweeting that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” and “harassment” at the hands of House Democrats.
It’s emotional stuff, to be sure. And it is all playing out as the nation gears up for what is likely to be a presidential election year like no other.
You might think that with all the craziness and divisiveness that has plagued Washington, why now? What was the tipping point?
It came when allegations started to surface that President Trump had been asking foreign leaders for some political “favors.”
Is such action illegal? Or just unethical?
There is no doubt in the mind of Speaker Pelosi.
For the longest time, she had been trying to quiet calls for impeachment within her own party, warning of the likely political consequences if the misdeeds under investigation, in essence, were not substantive enough to garner bipartisan support from the American public.
All that changed when congressional investigators began to hear that a “whistleblower” complaint filed by an intelligence officer with a White House connection was being withheld — some would say “covered up” — by the Trump administration.
Whistleblower complaints are a formal procedure used by the office of the Director of National Intelligence and other government agencies to allow employees to anonymously raise concerns about possible wrongdoings by higher-ups.
This particular complaint dealt largely with a phone call President Trump made in July to the leader of a foreign country, later identified as Ukraine. The indication was Trump was exerting pressure to get information he could use against a political rival.
That was over the line for Nancy Pelosi. On September 24th, she announced the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry, stressing “the president must be held accountable.”
If the various factions in Washington agree on anything it is this: this is not a step Speaker Pelosi took lightly.
Impeachment proceedings in the United States — as established in our Constitution for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” — are exceedingly rare. First, the House must act as a grand jury, gathering evidence and drawing up articles of impeachment, which basically serve as an indictment. Then the Senate is obligated to take up the case and hold a trial with the Chief Justice of the United States presiding. If two-thirds of all senators vote to convict, the president is removed from office.
Two presidents — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — have been impeached in the House and then acquitted in the Senate. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate scandal when a congressional inquiry was well underway but before a formal impeachment vote could be taken.
No one is sure how the Trump impeachment will end up. After all, his Republican party holds the majority in the Senate.
What we do know is that events are happening fast — faster perhaps than anyone, even the president or the speaker, initially imagined.
One day after Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the impeachment process, the White House released its notes on the July 25th phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump talks in general terms about all the things the United States has done for Ukraine before asking Zelensky for “a favor.”
It was a two-part “ask.”
He asked Ukrainian authorities to look into a cybersecurity firm that did work for the Democratic party during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Then Trump asked Zelensky to launch a corruption investigation into former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, both directly and through Rudy Giuliani, one of his personal lawyers.
A bit of background is needed here.
Biden just happens to be the front runner for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, though he has been slipping in polls as of late.
Near the end of his tenure as Barack Obama’s Vice-president, Joe Biden pushed the Ukrainian government to fire prosecutor Viktor Shokin, after the the U.S. and its European allies determined Shokin was not doing enough to fight corruption. At the time, Hunter Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump and his allies have insinuated that Joe Biden tried to block an investigation into the company that could damage his son. No evidence has ever emerged to back up those claims and neither the former V.P. nor Hunter Biden has been accused of any wrongdoing.
But that didn’t stop Donald Trump from seeking any dirt he could get.
And while he did not mention any specific action he might take if Ukraine agreed to his request, the timing is suspicious.
The call came after the Trump White House froze more than $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. That aid — authorized by Congress and supported by the Defense Department —was later released.
Even more questions were raised when the White House memo about the Trump-Zelensky conversation was followed a day later by the release of the text of the whistleblower complaint.
The author of the complaint states: “In the course of my duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US. elections.”
The complaint also mentions that senior aides to the president tried to restrict access to records related to the call by taking the unusual step of moving them to a system used for storing highly classified information.
Former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst — a veteran of the George W. Bush administration — tried to put the call in historical context during an interview with NPR. “This is highly abnormal,” he said. He also said Shokin was a “corrupt prosecutor” who everyone wanted out, including the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
President Trump, for his part, has said the impeachment process will be a “plus” for his re-election campaign, accusing the Democrats of waging needless political warfare instead of working on the big problems facing this country.
But Americans are getting skeptical. To be sure, the president’s core political supporters remain staunchly by his side. But nationwide surveys are beginning to show a shift among the general public – with two major polls showing the share who support impeaching Trump surging from 37 percent to 47 percent in just one week.
Many are speaking out on all sides. But I was most taken by the thoughts of a Republican former Senator who left Congress after breaking with President Trump.
In an essay that appeared in the Washington Post, Jeff Flake said he empathizes with the agonizing decisions his former Republican colleagues may be asked to make as the impeachment process plays out. In his words:
“For those who want to put American first, it is critically important at this moment in the life of our country that we all, here and now, do just that.”
And then there was this:
“Trust me when I say you can go elsewhere for a job. But you can not go elsewhere for a soul.”