The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Trump extorted a foreign leader for political gain, it’s impeachment time

President Trump greets guests after reviewing troops during a state arrival ceremony for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Friday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Until now, I have been willing to accede to the judgment of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to go slow on impeachment proceedings that are unpopular with voters and could imperil the Democratic majority. But if the new scandal involving President Trump and Ukraine is as bad as it seems — and that is, of course, a very big if at this early stage — the House will have no choice but to impeach, consequences be damned.

Already, since the release of the Mueller report and the waning of the impeachment threat (despite damning evidence of obstruction of justice), Trump has become more brazen in flouting the law. In August, he expressed interest in holding the Group of Seven summit at his own Doral resort in Florida — a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause — and he allegedly told aides that he would pardon them if they broke the law to build his border wall. Charles Fried, solicitor general in the Reagan administration, observes that promising a pardon to induce illegality “is the essence of tyranny and lawlessness.” In September, Trump invoked a bogus claim of executive privilege to limit the congressional testimony of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and he still refuses to comply with lawful requests for his financial records — most recently from the district attorney in Manhattan.

But all this is small change compared with what could be the next big scandal. On Wednesday, The Post reported that an intelligence community whistleblower had lodged a report alleging that Trump had made an improper “promise” to a foreign leader. This complaint was considered so troubling by a Trump-appointed inspector general that he asked that the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, immediately forward the complaint to Congress, but Maguire refused to do so, reportedly on the advice of William Barr’s Justice Department. Then on Thursday night, The Post reported that the complaint centers on Ukraine.

We don’t know yet precisely what this means. But the most likely explanation is that this is a reference to a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Speaking to reporters Sept. 20, President Trump said his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "totally appropriate." (Video: The Washington Post)

It is no secret that Trump and his attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, have been pressuring Ukraine to open a corruption investigation into Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. Their contention is that Biden, as vice president, encouraged the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor because he was probing a company that employed Biden’s son. Numerous journalists have shown that this accusation is bogus. The prosecutor was notoriously lax in pursuing corruption cases. So rather than fomenting corruption, Biden was fighting it. Trump and Giuliani have been acting in a highly improper fashion to induce a foreign government to lie on Trump’s behalf.

How improper? On Sept. 5, The Post’s editorial page reported that Trump had put a hold on $250 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine to force Zelensky to launch a probe of Biden. Several congressional committees are now investigating this explosive accusation for which there is considerable circumstantial evidence.

Kiev’s own readout of the call between Zelensky and Trump says that Trump urged Ukraine to “complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.” Vice President Pence, who recently met with Zelensky, was asked by a reporter whether they discussed Biden and whether he could offer assurances that the hold-up of funds to Ukraine “has absolutely nothing to do with efforts … to dig up dirt on the Biden family.” Pence denied that Biden was discussed but pointedly would not deny that the administration had stopped the funds to spur an investigation.

Oddly enough, just as Congress began looking into these allegations last week, the White House finally released its hold on the $250 million for Ukraine. Interesting timing. Is this perhaps an effort at damage control?

Trump’s defense — that he would not “say anything inappropriate with a foreign leader” knowing that others were listening in — is unconvincing, given how many inappropriate things he says with the whole world listening. Recall that he used a news conference to ask the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton! When asked about the issue on CNN on Thursday night, Giuliani had an epic meltdown, and then, as he has many times before, shifted from denying that the scandalous conduct occurred to denying there was anything wrong with it.

There is much that we do not yet know, and it’s possible that these concerns are overblown. If that’s the case, the administration should have no problem providing the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call to congressional leaders. But so far it refuses to even share the whistleblower’s report. Why stonewall if there is nothing to hide?

Trump has already won an election once with foreign help. If he is now misusing his office to force a foreign leader to help him in 2020, the House would be compelled to impeach, even if the Senate wouldn’t convict, simply to show that Trump is not a king who can violate the law with impunity. But obviously a great deal of evidence must still be collected — despite an administration coverup — before final judgment can be rendered.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: What might finally ensnare Trump

Jennifer Rubin: What we need to know about the whistleblower

Greg Sargent: As the whistleblower story gets worse for Trump, his corruption keeps spreading

Greg Sargent: Mystery of Adam Schiff and whistleblower takes dangerous new turn

Harry Litman: A whistleblower filed a complaint to the intelligence IG. Why is it being withheld from Congress?

The Post’s View: The Trump administration cannot withhold a whistleblower complaint from Congress