WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, offering her most expansive view of the impeachment probe to date, said she decided to advance the inquiry into President Donald Trump after his phone call with Ukraine’s leader provided her with the “clarity” that prior allegations against Trump lacked.
Pelosi said the partial transcript of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stood in sharp contrast to the less clear-cut allegations in Robert Mueller’s special counsel report. That phone call — where Trump is heard urging Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden — was a “bombshell” that peeled away her initial reluctance to take the politically divisive step.
“What happened in that phone call undermined the separation of powers, coequal branches of government, checks and balances on each other,” the California Democrat said in an interview Friday with Bloomberg reporters and editors.
She also acknowledged the risks to her party and to her House majority — saying any case made to impeach the President “has to be ironclad.” At the same time, she acknowledged Democrats have a limited amount of time to make it, suggesting the investigation and a decision on drafting articles of impeachment won’t drag on long.
“The public has only so much space for drama,” she said. “When does the law of diminishing returns set in? When is the value added not worth the time?”
In the interview, Pelosi portrayed herself as a reluctant warrior, saying that no one comes to Congress to impeach a president. At the same time, she also made clear her distaste for Trump, saying, “I find him totally ineffective.”
“So what does he believe?” she asked. “He believes in himself, whatever that is.”
She also left little doubt that she understands the gravity of the path she’s embarked on — even saying she was prepared to endure gyrations in the U.S. stock market in the pursuit of what she sees as Congress’s constitutional duty to uphold fundamental principles of U.S. government.
“I said to the members, we cannot be undermining the markets here, but you can’t be the United States of the markets. It’s not that. It’s the United States of America,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi insisted that no timetable has been set for the investigation and that a House vote to impeach the President isn’t a foregone conclusion. But Thursday’s vote to proceed with public hearings puts Trump a big step closer to becoming only the third U.S. president to be impeached.
Public hearings will begin later this month, Pelosi said. A crucial hurdle for Democrats will be convincing the public, through testimony and documents, that Trump sought to use the withholding of U.S. aid to pressure Ukraine into opening an investigation to serve the President’s political interests. That will inform Pelosi’s strategy for the timing and scope of the probe.
The clarity that the Ukraine phone call provided for Pelosi contrasts with the reaction following the release of Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s actions regarding the probe.
“There was plenty of obstruction of justice in the Mueller report and things like that,” Pelosi said. But she said it was not so clear-cut that it triggered a swell of public support for action by Congress. Trump repeatedly asserted that he was vindicated by Mueller.
The details in the rough White House account of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy gave a much clearer picture, she said.
“And of course, it changed everything in the public mind,” she said. The day she announced the House would be launching an impeachment inquiry — Sept. 24 — she said polls showed much of the public was against impeachment.
“This morning’s poll has it 49 to 47 impeach — and remove,” she said, referring to an ABC/Washington Post survey released Friday.
Several polls in the past month have shown a swing toward public support for an inquiry, if not actual impeachment. But it is mostly driven by Democrats and independents. The overwhelming majority of Republicans continue to back Trump. Still, the ABC/Post poll showed broader backing for impeaching Trump than there was for impeaching then-President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Pelosi said the call and the corroborating testimony of witnesses in closed-door hearings by the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees prompted her to call for Thursday’s House vote to formally adopt guidelines for how the investigation will proceed.
Republicans called the vote an acknowledgment of the arguments that the closed-door inquiry that’s taken place over the last month were improper and illegitimate. Trump and his GOP allies have contended that an impeachment process needed to be voted on by the full House.
“Why was there a vote yesterday? Because the rules were not as clear,” Pelosi said. “We wanted clarity.”
The House resolution sets out the guidelines for how public hearings would occur, how witnesses will be questioned, and other steps for the Intelligence Committee in eventually transmitting findings to the Judiciary Committee for potential impeachment action.
Closed-door witness interviews will continue in the initial investigative phase, Pelosi said, similar to the way Mueller conducted his investigation and the process that former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr used prior to Clinton’s impeachment.
“That’s the way you do the investigation,” Pelosi said.
One thing less clear is how long the investigation will continue. Pelosi gave no timetable and said that will depend on what the Intelligence Committee uncovers. Then the Democratic-led House will decide “when to go to the next stage.”
She dismissed a question about whether an impeachment process could drag on deep into 2020 as both parties are in the middle of election campaigns and presidential nominating conventions.
“No, no, no,” Pelosi said.
Republicans hold the majority in the Senate and right now there’s no hint that a two-thirds majority would vote to convict Trump and remove him from office. Pelosi said she’s not concerned about what the Senate does with impeachment articles if the House acts, only that the House carries out its constitutional responsibilities.
“We have to, I think, seize the moment that makes the case to go forth,” she said.