Politics

‘Are you really going to impeach me?’: How the Ukraine bombshell unfolded over 48 hours and laid bare Trump’s fixation with Biden

People work into the night on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 23, during impeachment proceedings against President Trump. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

This article is adapted from “Trump on Trial” by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, which will be published Aug. 25 by Scribner. A revealing and intimate study of political power, it lays out the backstory and aftermath of President Trump’s impeachment, including how his alarm-raising request to a foreign country centered on one person — his political rival Joe Biden.

"Trump on Trial" by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan will be released Aug. 25. (Simon & Schuster)

Just after 8 a.m. on Tuesday, September 24, 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in her Georgetown apartment, getting ready for the day that was going to be like no other in her long career. This was the day she would formally, officially, finally announce that the House was opening the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

The California Democrat had resisted calls for impeachment from the left flank of her party for months. As the speaker, the one making the decision, Pelosi had to keep calibrating the risks. There was a risk to doing something, and a risk to doing nothing. She didn’t want to tolerate presidential misconduct. But she also didn’t want the House, or her party, to be seen as taking away the voters’ power to decide Trump’s fate. An impeachment couldn’t be personal, she kept telling her leadership team, or about policy differences. It had to be careful, fair, and easy for the American people to understand to avoid a severe backlash in an already deeply divided nation. As much as many of Trump’s actions appalled her, she had not seen an ironclad, public-unifying offense among them.

But now she had come to believe that Trump had abused his power on a July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in which he had suggested Ukraine open investigations that would benefit Trump personally — including one into his chief political rival, former vice president Joe Biden.

Breakfast over, Pelosi affixed an American flag pin to her dress. The phone rang. Her assistant said the White House was calling. Hold for the president. At 8:16 a.m., Trump came on the line.

He was phoning from his Trump Tower penthouse in New York. In two hours, he would address the U.N. General Assembly and then meet separately with several world leaders. But foreign policy wasn’t the reason for his call. He told Pelosi he wanted to talk about guns.

He said he had been making tremendous progress on gun safety issues with Democrats. Pelosi had no idea what he was talking about. She knew of no such progress, or any such conversations.

Trump then quickly turned to a whistleblower complaint that had been filed against him based on his conduct on the Zelensky call.

“Mr. President, you have come into my wheelhouse,” Pelosi said, citing her extensive background in intelligence matters — she had served as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — and her role in working on whistleblower legislation over the years.

He came out with it.

“Are you really going to impeach me?” he asked. “The Senate will never convict. You don’t really want to do this.” He said the Zelensky call was “so perfect” and there had been “no pressure at all. … Literally, you would be impressed by my lack of pressure. … Why would I say something bad? … It was 100 percent perfect. I didn’t ask him for anything.”

He was about to release the transcript. She would see. Perfect.

She told him she was going ahead with the impeachment inquiry.

Trump switched gears. He wanted her to know: He was not the one blocking acting director of national intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire from sharing the whistleblower complaint with Congress. Democrats were furious over Maguire’s refusal to turn over the complaint.

“I don’t have anything to do with that,” Trump said.

“Well, then undo it,” she said. “Because you are asking the DNI to break the law. I mean, it’s just outrageous. Mr. President, we have a problem here.”

She repeatedly urged him to give Maguire the go-ahead. “Mr. President, release the complaint,” she said.

“I have to go give a speech,” he said. He hung up at 8:38. They had talked for more than 20 minutes.

Acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies at the Rayburn House Building in Washington on Sept. 26, 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Pelosi was left shaking her head. Either the president of the United States didn’t know right from wrong, she thought, or he didn’t care. Whichever it was, she felt Trump was taking the country down a dangerous path that violated the Constitution’s spirit and letter in establishing the president’s powers.

The phone call over, Pelosi made the crosstown trip to the Capitol. Inside the domed building, in the hallways and offices and elevators, among the aides and reporters and camera crews, there was a definite buzz in the air. It was as if a stuck valve had opened. Pelosi’s vote-counters were telling her that all but five of the 232 sitting Democratic House members now favored an impeachment inquiry.

At noon, Pelosi called the House to order for its regular session. Rep. John Lewis rose to speak. The Georgia Democrat walked slowly to the well of the House, where two lecterns stood, one for each party. He had a sheaf of notes in his right hand. This was not the moment for an off-the-cuff speech.

Lewis, often described as the “conscience of the Congress,” was now 79 years old. He and Pelosi had arrived around the same time in the late 1980s and served nearly 17 terms since. In his long and storied career as a civil rights activist, Lewis had witnessed many historic moments. He had been at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s side during the 1963 March on Washington. He had been a Freedom Rider. He led the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where Alabama state troopers had fractured his skull.

For months, in deference to Pelosi, he had not expressed his view of impeachment. He was voicing it now.

“People approach me everywhere I go,” Lewis said. “They believe, they truly believe, that our country is descending into darkness.” He looked up from his notes as he turned the page. “I share their concerns for the future of our country. It keeps me up at night. We took an oath to protect this nation against all domestic enemies and foreign enemies. Sometimes I am afraid to go to sleep for fear that I will wake up and our democracy will be gone, be gone, and never return.”

His voice rose, more insistent. “There comes a time when you have to be moved by the spirit of history to take action to protect and preserve the integrity of our nation. I believe, I truly believe, the time to begin impeachment proceedings against this president has come.”

President Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, speaks to the media on their arrival at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2019. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Trump’s transcript gamble

At the same time, Trump was making news of his own in New York, via Twitter. Between a luncheon hosted by the U.N. Secretary General and his next series of diplomatic meetings, he tweeted he would “fully declassify” and release an “unredacted transcript” of his July 25 phone conversation with Zelensky.

The timing was pure Trump. So was the decision to go public. Trump had overruled his communications staff and several Cabinet officers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had been arguing for days that releasing details of a call between world leaders would set a perilous precedent. He also was warned that releasing a transcript would fuel the calls for impeachment.

In the end, he had listened to White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Attorney General William P. Barr, who said disclosure would slow or bring an end to the nonstop drip of negative stories about what had been said during the call. The transcript would be news for a week or two, Cipollone said, but then the media would move on.

A big gamble. But maybe, a big payoff. It would disarm the Democrats, keep them off balance. It might even derail the move toward impeachment. Trump decided to go ahead. He focused his Twitter cannon on Biden and his son, Hunter, who had held a highly paid seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

“You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call,” said his tweet, sent at 2:12 p.m. “No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell answers questions about possible impeachment proceedings by the House of Representatives during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 24, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Betrayed his oath

Pelosi called a meeting of the Democratic caucus for 4 p.m. in the HC5 conference room in the basement of the Capitol. The windowless room was unusually packed. Aides had set up extra chairs to accommodate everyone.

Pelosi strode in and confirmed what everyone expected: she wanted an impeachment inquiry. She laid out the argument. Trump had asked Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens and the debunked theory that Ukraine had systematically meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to hurt Trump and help Hillary Clinton. It was a betrayal of U.S. national security and the integrity of U.S. elections. A betrayal of the Constitution. The public could easily understand it.

“We have to strike while the iron is hot,” she told them. “This is a national security issue and we cannot let him think that this is a casual thing, so that’s where I’m at.”

She previewed the Democratic message: The president admits to this. He doesn’t even see anything wrong with asking a foreign government for help in damaging a political rival. He has betrayed his oath of office. She said she wanted the impeachment hearings done expeditiously. She warned that impeachment needed to be solemn. There would be no cheering, no applause. She asked Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a United Methodist pastor and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to lead a prayer calling for a somber approach to the process ahead.

Pelosi was pleased with the tone of the meeting. But she had been in Congress far too long to let words, no matter how strong or eloquent, substitute for action. She wanted to nail things down. She sent Lewis on a special arm-twisting mission. Lewis approached Rep. Rashida Tlaib with a request. No smiling, no show of exuberance, he told the Michigan Democrat. No repeating her famous vow to “impeach the m-----f-----.”

Tlaib listened and complied. Later, she joked to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, “How do I say ‘Impeach the m-----f-----’ in sign language?” But showing that there were limits even to the persuasive powers of Lewis, Tlaib’s reelection campaign started selling $29 “Impeach the MF” T-shirts.

“It made Nancy go nuts,” said one of Pelosi’s close allies, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk frankly. Tlaib appeared at a rally with the T-shirts and said of Trump: “He is a dangerous person to our country, and it’s about time that my colleagues realize it.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin speaks to journalists just off the House floor as the impeachment debate continues on Dec. 18, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Democratic divisions

After Pelosi left the caucus meeting to make her public announcement, a rift quickly emerged. Reps. Eliot L. Engel and Jerrold Nadler, both New Yorkers who had been pressing Pelosi for months to start an impeachment inquiry, spoke about broadening the investigation beyond Ukraine. As committee chairmen, they had the power to make it happen, if Pelosi didn’t rein them in.

The more Engel and Nadler spoke, the more uncomfortable Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and other moderate Democrats became. Unlike Engel and Nadler, they faced tough reelection races in their districts that voted for Trump in 2016. They would need to defend their decision. They wanted a surgical strike. Impeach Trump over Ukraine. It was clean. It was understandable. It was, to their mind, outrageous. Trump had abused his office and the Constitution. Why make it harder than it had to be?

Slotkin listened and listened. Finally, she erupted. She stood to address her colleagues and the leadership. Stay focused on Ukraine, she urged. Get your act together. How can you announce an impeachment inquiry without knowing what that inquiry would look like? What’s the plan? What’s the strategy?

At the CIA and the Pentagon, Slotkin’s training grounds for much of her career as an analyst, planning was ingrained in the culture. In politics, it was often necessary to improvise as you go. But on this? Bad idea. This was too important to make up as you go along. They needed, as best they could, to map it out. How they were going to build their case, step by step.

“If you are asking us to stay on message, give us a g--damn message to stay on!” she demanded.

She looked at her colleagues. Dozens could lose their seats because of impeachment, she among them. The whole country is watching. The whole world is watching, Slotkin thought.

The moderates had another goal: They wanted to limit Nadler’s role. Impeachment was, generally, the turf of his Judiciary Committee. But Nadler’s uncertain handling of a recent hearing where former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had been the main witness had been a wake-up call. The moderates were hoping for a focused, efficient impeachment process. Their choice to lead the probe was still the calmer, unflappable Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, a former federal prosecutor and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Schiff left the caucus meeting and walked into a boisterous group of about 25 reporters shouting questions: Who will be the first witness? Will you subpoena the president? Why are you handling this and not the Judiciary committee? Schiff offered a few vague answers. This was not the moment for specifics. He and his aides made their way through the crowd, taking more than a minute to cross the short distance to the elevator.

Finally, safely inside, Schiff leaned against the back wall as the doors slid shut. He let out a long breath: “Ooooff. I’m going to have to get used to that.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives to deliver a speech on a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 24, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

‘The times have found us’

At 5 p.m., Pelosi stood in the Capitol, an array of six American flags behind her, and faced a bank of TV cameras.

“The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today, I am announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.”

Reflecting the historic nature of the moment, she reprised a line she had used many times before. “Getting back to our founders, in the darkest days of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote ‘The times have found us.’ The times found them to fight for and establish our democracy. The times have found us today.”

She had come a long way from early March, when she told The Washington Post in an interview that she was opposed to impeaching Trump because “he’s just not worth it.” The risk of doing nothing, she had decided, was now greater than the risk of doing something. She was ready for the coming fight.

Congressional Republicans responded with a collective shrug. Their counter message: Impeachment was a politically motivated “sham” that would only motivate GOP voters. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California repeated the Republican mantra, born in the early days of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the election, saying Democrats “have been trying to reverse the results of the 2016 election since President Trump took office. For them, this is all about politics. Not about facts.”

In the Republican-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was reading from the same page: “Speaker Pelosi’s much-publicized efforts to restrain her far-left conference have finally crumbled. House Democrats cannot help themselves. Instead of working together across party lines on legislation to help American families and strengthen our nation, they will descend even deeper into their obsession with re-litigating 2016.”

Trump took to Twitter with a series of messages that went out just as Pelosi was finishing her speech.

“So bad for our Country!”

“They never even saw the transcript of the call. A total Witch Hunt!”

“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”

He was planning to make sure everyone could read the transcript soon. Then they would see. Perfect.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff eschews questions from journalists on the impeachment inquiry as he walks into the House weekly Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill on Sept. 25, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

‘Wait till you get to page two’

The next day, after Trump released a rough transcript of the July call with Zelensky, Schiff and his team gathered at the House Intelligence Committee’s office for a group reading.

“Holy s---,” Schiff said.

He had assumed, when he heard Trump was making the transcript public, that the call wasn’t as bad as they had been led to believe. Or there was something exculpatory. Or maybe the White House would release a sanitized account.

“Wait till you get to page two,” one staffer said.

They had worried that the transcript would be filled with Trump-speak, the odd syntax and self-interrupted thoughts that sometimes made it hard to know precisely what the president was saying. But they thought the transcript was damning, crystal clear.

“Oh my God, wait till you get to page three,” said another aide.

They had expected they would need a court ruling to get the transcript, that Trump would fight them every step of the way. But now here it was, voluntarily released. They took turns reading passages out loud. It was worse than they had thought. “Do us a favor. …. CrowdStrike … Biden….”

They tried to understand Trump’s strategy and thinking. Maybe he and his advisers honestly believed there was nothing wrong on the call. Maybe it was just the way he operated, transactional, everything was a deal. Maybe if he just kept describing it as a perfect call it would become a perfect call, at least in the eyes of his followers.

But for Schiff and everyone else in the room, the transcript read like a road map to impeachment.

Small stools used by photographers are left in an abandoned hallway near the Senate floor in the evening hours of the fourth day of the impeachment trial of Trump at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 24. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
About this story

Editing by Donna Cassata. Photo editing by Bronwen Latimer. Copy editing by Vanessa H. Larson. Design by Tara McCarty. Book editing by Steve Luxenberg.

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