The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the Ukraine allegations broke the Democratic dam on impeachment

The Fix’s Amber Phillips explains how the whistleblower complaint against President Trump changed the political calculus on impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports an impeachment inquiry after months of resisting it. The whistleblower complaint involving President Trump and Ukraine appears to be the precipitating factor for several Democratic impeachment skeptics in the House — but why?

This spring, a nearly two-year investigation found that Trump welcomed Russia’s help in the 2016 election and may have obstructed justice after he got into office. This summer, Trump used racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen. Pelosi and other powerful House Democrats opposed impeachment through all of that. Until now.

It’s possible that Pelosi’s decision was forced by the facts. What Trump is accused of this time — using his influence to pressure a foreign power to dig up dirt on his political opponent — is beyond the pale, his critics have said. Trump says he did nothing improper, but Senate Republicans have struggled to defend it.

Perhaps House Democratic leaders believed that they had no choice but to formally support the impeachment process that is in effect already going on in the Judiciary Committee. The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade and Mike DeBonis have also reported that Pelosi is discussing backing a separate committee entirely focused on impeachment.

It’s also possible Pelosi finally found something she can sell to a public skeptical of impeachment.

The accusations Trump’s facing are multilayered, but they are simpler to grasp than what former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found.

There was no definitive “yes, Trump broke the law by doing x, y and z” in the 448 pages of the Mueller report. Rather, it painted a detailed picture of a president who may have obstructed justice in the legal sense and whose campaign welcomed Russia’s help but didn’t reach the legal definition of collusion with a foreign power. There was a lot of nuance in the Mueller report that didn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

By contrast, the Ukraine allegations can be summed in up in a sentence. That’s what seven House Democrats who are military veterans did in an op-ed published in The Post on Tuesday, when they endorsed impeachment hearings: “The president of the United States may have used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it.”

Aaron Blake on Post Reports: “Obviously, this is a very significant moment, maybe more symbolically than practically.”

That’s still pretty complicated — especially as we’re still figuring out all the details and don’t know what’s in the original whistleblower complaint. But the general gist is Trump = corruption. If Pelosi needed an action of Trump’s to zero in on, this might be it.

Another reason the Ukraine allegations may have broken the dam on impeachment is because congressional investigators believed they were out of options to hold Trump accountable. He and his administration have stonewalled, ignored and mocked congressional subpoenas. Would going to court to get this information risk making Congress look even weaker?

Some Democratic lawmakers are so desperate for answers they have started considering waking the long-dormant power of inherent contempt, or fining uncooperative officials or even putting them in jail. Impeachment, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Sunday, “may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that conduct represents.”

Finally, Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders will be meeting their base where the base has been for some time now. A majority of House Democrats has supported an impeachment inquiry (the first step to writing up articles of impeachment) since August. Around that time, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced his committee was indeed in a formal impeachment inquiry.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump on Sept. 24 after a history of quelling impeachment calls. (Video: The Washington Post)

Since then, the number of House Democrats who support that has ticked up by the week, sometimes by the day, and now, with these Ukraine allegations, by the hour. Twenty House Democrats on the fence have come out in support of an impeachment inquiry into Trump in the past 24 hours. Now, two-thirds of House Democrats support an inquiry. Some of them came out in support based on specific actions Trump took; others did it seemingly randomly, pointing to a Mueller report that was months old at the time. But since April, support for impeachment among House Democratic lawmakers and the Democratic base has grown in spite of Pelosi’s efforts to tamp down on it.

Maybe impeachment was a wave that Pelosi just couldn’t hold off any longer.

JM Rieger contributed to this report.