The question of whether the Democrats in the U.S. Congress should move to impeach President Donald Trump has always been tricky.
On the one hand, a President who constantly lies to the American people, who self-deals from the confines of the Oval Office, and who tried to obstruct an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election deserves some kind of sanction.
But, we and others have argued that the sanction should come from the American people, in the form of an election defeat in 2020. Impeachment, which is a political process, is not the ideal way to remove someone from elected office.
As well, given that the Republicans control the Senate, where an impeachment trial of the President would be held, and that a two-thirds majority vote is required for a conviction, it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Trump would be found guilty. The most likely outcome is that he would spin an inevitable acquittal into a claim of absolute exoneration, likely strengthening his chances of re-election.
Calculating the risks and benefits of impeachment also means taking into account that Mr. Trump, as unstable as he often appears, would be at his best/worst in the all-consuming political circus that impeachment would become.
Those are all valid arguments for forgoing impeachment. The Democratic House Leader, Nancy Pelosi, has long thought so. But that was before Mr. Trump did one more incredibly stupid thing, and changed the political calculus.
On Tuesday, Ms. Pelosi announced the House would launch a formal impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He left her little choice but to do so.
Perhaps emboldened by everything he has been able to get away with so far, the President turned what should have been a routine courtesy call with the newly elected president of Ukraine into a blatant attempt to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.
The July 25 call, like all non-classified calls, was listened in on by White House staffers, and was recorded.
Based on a partial transcript released by the White House, and on an anonymous U.S. intelligence official’s whistle-blowing complaint made public on Wednesday, it appears Mr. Trump pressured the Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate his domestic political rival, Joe Biden.
Mr. Biden, the former vice-president to Barack Obama, is the front-runner to become the Democratic Party presidential nominee.
The President urged Mr. Zelensky to pursue his unfounded allegation that Mr. Biden, as vice-president, tried to stop a corruption probe into a Ukraine company whose board included Mr. Biden’s son.
At the time of the phone call, Mr. Trump had unilaterally, and apparently even to the surprise of his own officials, frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Without mentioning the aid, Mr. Trump told Mr. Zelensky the United States "has been very, very good for Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal, necessarily, because things are happening that are not good. But the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
He then again asked Mr. Zelensky to pursue the Biden investigation, this time as a "favour.”
White House officials were so shocked and worried by the content of the call that they tried to “lock down" all records of it, according to the whistle-blower’s complaint. The attempted cover-up didn’t work, it appears, because too many people were aware of the conversation.
None of these details were public on Tuesday when Ms. Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry. They only make it more necessary that she see it through.
It’s clear that Mr. Trump is indifferent, to the point of contempt, to his responsibility to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The Mueller Report concluded as much, even if it didn’t recommend charges be laid against the President.
But the phone-call transcript and the whistle-blower’s complaint can’t be ignored for the sake of political calculus. There is now credible evidence, most of it public, that Mr. Trump should be investigated for “treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Should Congress go as far as an impeachment trial? That’s a question for some distant future. But starting now, the House can use the impeachment inquiry process to investigate and restrain Mr. Trump. It may be the only way to rein in a President who believes he is above the law, and that his office exists solely to serve his personal interests.