House Democrats are coalescing around a strategy to narrow the focus of their impeachment inquiry to President Donald Trump’s interactions with the president of Ukraine, an issue that has unified the party in outrage and motivated some Democrats to seek expedited action.
The strategy, described by Democratic lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks, would center on streamlining the consideration of articles of impeachment to focus exclusively on Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden — a push they say included an implicit threat to withhold military aid to the Eastern European country.
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Democrats had been focusing their impeachment inquiry effort on allegations of self-dealing and obstruction of justice. Under the proposed plan, House committees would continue to pursue probes of those issues.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered the suggestion during a leadership meeting on Wednesday morning, according to two people who attended the meeting, adding that national security should be a key focus.
“This has clarity and understanding in the eyes of the American people,” Pelosi told her leadership team, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting. “If we do articles, then we can include other things.”
Although there is no explicit deadline to act and no decisions have been made, some Democrats said they were hopeful articles of impeachment could be considered by the end of the year or even sooner.
“I think focusing on this Ukrainian scandal singularly is important,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) “I think we have to act quickly. But not with haste.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said the caucus has unified around the latest set of allegations because they are “fundamentally different.”
“Obviously, we are more able to speak with one voice on that subject than on some of the others,” Kildee said of the House’s slew of ongoing investigations. “It’s not like the others go away, but I think this is clearly going to be the issue that’s going to drive the bus.”
Democratic leaders are continuing to discuss how to factor in the numerous other Trump-focused investigations that the House has launched, or set them aside in favor of more forcefully condemning Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer also privately discussed the possibility of focusing exclusively on Trump’s interactions with Zelensky. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed this strategy.
The intensifying impeachment fervor exploded Wednesday after the White House released a summary of Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president that showed he explicitly sought a “favor”: an investigation of Biden. By Wednesday afternoon, a majority of the House — 217 Democrats plus independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — was on record in support of formal impeachment proceedings.
The memo confirmed Democrats’ strongest suspicions — that Trump pushed top Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rival while hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid was being held up. Trump also offered Zelensky Justice Department help in that investigation and emphasized his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was acting as his emissary on the matter.
“The release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the president engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our national security,” Pelosi said in a statement. “The president has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad.”
There remains no firm timeline for the process of whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House. But top Democrats are already sounding off about Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, dubbing Wednesday’s revelation a smoking gun.
“What those notes reflect is a classic Mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said, accusing Trump of threatening to withhold military aid to Ukraine for political purposes. “This is how a Mafia boss talks.”
“I am not concerned whether it is a quid pro quo or not,” Schiff added. “Ukraine understood what this president wanted. He made it abundantly clear. He made it redundantly clear. He had his emissaries making it clear. And Ukraine knew what it needed to do if it wanted to get military assistance: and that is, help the president of the United States violate his oath of office.”
Democratic leaders emerged from closed-door meetings declaring that their impeachment inquiry was urgent. But multiple lawmakers, including Hoyer, confirmed that there was still no specific timeline, and that the House would not cut short its scheduled two-week recess.
“The reality is, we want to move expeditiously, but there’s no timeline. There’s no, ‘We gotta do something by X date,’” Hoyer told POLITICO. “We want to do it right. We want to do it expeditiously and right.”
Trump’s call with Zelensky is just one piece of a whistleblower’s complaint that the Trump administration has been withholding from Congress — a move that prompted Pelosi and dozens of House Democrats to call for formal impeachment proceedings on Tuesday.
“The release of the memo is devastating for the president’s defenders,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a longtime impeachment advocate who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
What the White House provided was not a verbatim transcript of Trump’s call, though Democrats — and, in private, some Republicans — saw it as damaging enough.
“This should shock the conscience of every American — and we still don’t have the full story,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. “The administration continues to illegally withhold the full whistleblower complaint.”
But the Trump administration finally relented on Wednesday, turning over the complaint to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
“I found the allegations deeply disturbing. I also found them very credible,” Schiff told reporters after reading the whistleblower complaint, which remains classified. “It is an urgent matter. And there was simply no basis to keep this from the committee. The idea that DOJ would have intervened to prevent it from getting to Congress throws the leadership of that department further into ill repute.”
In a statement, the Justice Department revealed that the intelligence community’s inspector general cited a potential campaign finance violation related to the whistleblower complaint about the call. But the Justice Department ultimately concluded that no criminal activity occurred, according to Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman.
Nadler said Attorney General William Barr — based on his role in evaluating the Trump transcript — must recuse himself from any oversight of the matter.
Some of Trump’s GOP allies were already jumping to his defense, with Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, saying: “There was no quid pro quo and nothing to justify the clamor House Democrats caused” when they launched a formal impeachment inquiry. Collins’ comments echoed a set of talking points the White House sent to congressional Republicans earlier in the day.
Even without the complete substance of Trump’s call, more than 200 members of the Democratic Caucus — nearly enough to form a majority of the House — had embraced impeachment proceedings as of late Tuesday, citing Trump’s refusal to provide the whistleblower complaint related to the phone call.
Later Wednesday, the House took its first formal legislative action related to the Ukraine controversy when it voted on a non-binding resolution to disapprove the Trump administration’s initial refusal to turn over the whistleblower complaint to the congressional intelligence committees. Republicans supported the resolution since they wanted the complaint turned over.
Democrats largely view that vote as a placeholder for its impeachment push ahead of a planned two-week House recess that starts Friday. The Senate passed a related measure on Tuesday demanding the whistleblower complaint be provided to Congress.
The House Intelligence Committee is also gearing up for a hearing Thursday with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to demand details about the whistleblower complaint and his decision to allow the White House and the Justice Department to block it from Congress.
Schiff’s meeting with the whistleblower could happen as soon as Thursday, after Maguire testifies before the panel. Andrew Bakaj, the whistleblower’s attorney, has requested guidance from the DNI’s general counsel regarding what his client can tell the committee.
Democrats held a full caucus meeting Wednesday morning as their leaders continued to hash out an impeachment strategy. Rank-and-file lawmakers were vexed at the lack of details about how to carry out Pelosi’s call to action.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a longtime impeachment supporter who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, said her panel would not be doing anything differently when it comes to its investigations, which center on potential financial crimes.
Pelosi’s initial reluctance to provide a timetable for the completion of its inquiry led some lawmakers to question whether the new phase would be any different than the already ongoing investigation being led by the House Judiciary Committee and supported by other congressional panels.
The White House’s role in blocking the complaint — which was characterized as “urgent” by an intelligence community watchdog — from reaching Congress motivated even Democrats in swing districts to come off the sidelines in favor of impeachment proceedings, citing urgent national security concerns.
Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle, John Bresnahan and Zachary Warmbrodt contributed to this report