WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump on Tuesday, yielding to mounting pressure from fellow Democrats and plunging a deeply divided nation into an election year clash between Congress and the commander in chief.
The probe focuses partly on whether Trump abused his presidential powers and sought help from a foreign government to undermine Democratic foe Joe Biden and help his own reelection. Pelosi said such actions would mark a “betrayal of his oath of office” and declared: “No one is above the law.”
The impeachment inquiry, after months of investigations by House Democrats of the Trump administration, sets up the party’s most direct and consequential confrontation with the president, injects deep uncertainty into the 2020 election campaign and tests anew the nation’s constitutional system of checks and balances.
Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats to take this step, confident that the specter of impeachment led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.
Meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, he previewed his defense in an all-caps tweet: “PRESIDENTIAL HARRASSMENT!”
The decision sets up an election season clash between Trump and Congress that seems certain to exacerbate the nation’s fierce partisan divides and inject deep uncertainty into the 2020 presidential contest. The probe is expected to focus in part on reports that Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to help investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Pelosi was huddling with her caucus Tuesday afternoon and planned to announce the impeachment probe in a statement after the meeting. Her plans were confirmed by a person familiar with her thinking, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Trump, who was meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, called the impending inquiry a “witch hunt” and predicted it would be a “positive for me.”
The specter of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, but the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers. Democratic House committees launched new inquiries into Trump’s businesses and a variety of administration scandals, but all seemed likely to drag on for months.
But momentum shifted in recent days following a whistleblower complaint about a series of events involving Trump, including a summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump is said to have pressed Zelenskiy to help investigate corruption involving Biden and his son. In the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, and Democrats want to know if that was an attempt to exert leverage over the Eastern European nations to go after the former vice president and his son.
Trump on Tuesday said he had authorized the release of a transcript of the call and predicted it would show no evidence of wrongdoing.
“You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call,” Trump said. The transcript was expected to be released on Wednesday.
The president has all but dared Democrats to open impeachment proceedings, repeatedly stonewalling requests for documents and witness interviews in a variety of ongoing investigations. His advisers say they are confident that the specter of impeachment led by the opposition party will bolster Trump’s political support. Pelosi has shared that concern and has spent months trying to hold off liberals in her caucus pushing for impeachment.
The atmosphere on Capitol Hill started shifting following the whistleblower complaint, with several moderate lawmakers from political swing districts announcing their support for an impeachment probe.
“We should all want to get to the bottom of these allegations and know without a shadow of a doubt that our president is either innocent or he’s not,” said Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA agent and a freshman lawmaker from a hotly contested district.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said Tuesday that the whistleblower wants to speak with the panel and could testify as soon as this week.
Trump has suggested he brought up Biden and his son Hunter in the phone call as part of discussions over corruption in Ukraine — despite no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either man. He also confirmed on Tuesday that he ordered advisers to freeze the military aid to Ukraine in the days before the phone call, prompting Democrats to charge that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on Biden.
In remarks ahead of her caucus meeting, Pelosi notably said a quid pro quo wasn’t necessary to establish an impeachable offense.
“We don’t ask foreign governments to help us in our election,” Pelosi said.
Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
Biden said Congress must use its full constitutional authority to investigate Trump’s actions and if the president doesn’t cooperate he’ll leave lawmakers “with no choice but to initiate impeachment.” If that happens, Biden said, it will be a tragedy of Trump’s own making.
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