Eugene Robinson: Pelosi should move to impeach ASAP
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, just as Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is set to speak publicly for the first time about a secret whistleblower complaint involving President Donald Trump. Pelosi committed Tuesday to launching a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Washington • The impeachment of Donald Trump need not be a long, drawn-out affair. Speaker Nancy Pelosi could bring articles of impeachment to the floor of the House within weeks — or she could leave the president twisting slowly in the wind. Her call.
That Trump committed at least one impeachable offense is not in question. He unilaterally withheld $391 million in military aid that Congress had authorized for Ukraine, which is menaced by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. During a July 25 phone call, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his eagerness to acquire U.S. anti-tank missiles for his military. Having pointed out that the United States already does “a lot for Ukraine,” Trump responded to Zelensky’s request for more missiles not with a yes or a no, but with a condition: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
The “favor” included working with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr to conduct an investigation of Joe Biden — shown by polls to be Trump’s most formidable opponent in the coming election — and his son Hunter.
All of this is clearly laid out in the memorandum of the Trump-Zelensky conversation that the Trump administration released Wednesday. Despite repeatedly claiming it was a "perfect" phone call, Trump has handed the House all it needs for a single article of impeachment charging him with abuse of power. Republicans will argue that it's just fine for the president to conduct foreign policy in the manner of a two-bit mafia boss. Lots of luck with that.
Since the evidence is public and undisputed, impeachment on that one charge could be wrapped up within weeks. There's one problem, though. At least one other offense almost surely has to be investigated: the apparent cover-up of the attempted Ukraine shakedown.
According to the whistleblower's complaint that brought the Trump-Zelensky phone call to light — a complaint judged "urgent" and "credible" by the inspector general for the intelligence community — White House officials tried to "lock down" records of the conversation and confined the full transcript to an electronic system reserved for only the most highly classified information, such as covert operations. That is not how phone calls between the president and world leaders are usually handled, and it suggests two things: that Trump's aides knew what the president was doing was wrong, and that they tried to cover it up.
It is hard to imagine how Pelosi could take impeachment to the floor without looking into the apparent cover-up — at least to ascertain if Trump himself might have been involved. If evidence points to aides acting on their own, they can be dealt with later. Pelosi could still have the House vote to impeach Trump — and I do believe he would be impeached — by, say, Thanksgiving.
It's possible that this is the best way to proceed. Trump's misconduct in the Ukraine-Biden matter is easy to understand, and the facts are not in dispute. Pelosi may calculate that keeping it simple is the best way to build public support for impeachment — and perhaps even bring a few Republicans on board.
She will also have to take history into account, however. In the impeachment inquiry against Richard Nixon — cut short by his resignation — Congress dealt with a criminal president by throwing the kitchen sink at him. An attempt was made to look at the whole range of Nixon's conduct and, in the process, paint a broad and detailed portrait of a lawless administration.
Indeed, there is already a trove of evidence that Trump committed other impeachable crimes. The investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller established, to the satisfaction of more than 1,000 former prosecutors, that Trump could be charged with obstructing justice in the Russia probe. The president is also illegally withholding documents and witnesses from congressional committees seeking to fulfill their constitutional responsibility of oversight.
But the kitchen-sink approach would stretch impeachment well into 2020, which, I believe I mentioned, is an election year. And as a practical matter, trying to get one's arms around the totality of Trump's impeachable conduct is a Sisyphean task. By the time you've ticked one item off the list, he's added two more.
On Thursday, at a breakfast with U.S. diplomats, he described any source who gave information to the whistleblower as "close to a spy" and thuggishly added, "The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now."
The assembled diplomats were reportedly shocked. The nation has suffered this small, foolish, dangerous man long enough. Pelosi should damn the torpedoes and move full speed ahead.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org