President Donald Trump was convinced releasing his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – which involved a request centering on Vice President Joe Biden – and the subsequent whistleblower complaint that set off a firestorm on Capitol Hill would erase any ammunition for House Democrats seeking to impeach him. Instead, it had the opposite effect.
A day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced they would open a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump, a memorandum of the July 25 call was released by the White House early in the day. The conversation released confirmed the allegations in multiple media outlets that Trump had asked Zelensky to investigate Biden, his son Hunter, Hunter’s business dealings and whether Biden used his influence to benefit his son.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump told Zelensky. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
Although Trump reportedly moved to halt U.S. aid to Ukraine just days before the call, there was no mention of aid in the memorandum of the conversation. But for Democrats from all corners of the caucus who had come out in support of impeachment, this was just confirmation they made the right call.
“It reaffirmed the nature of the conversation, which is that the sitting President of the United States used the full weight of his office to reach out to the President of another country and ask him for dirt on a political opponent,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate freshman who flipped a district last fall and endorsed impeachment earlier this week. “So it reinforced it for me.”
The White House’s errors were not just limited to mis-interpreting how the conversation would be read. In one grimace-inducing instance, the White House sent some Democrats their talking points on impeachment, which the Democrats immediately leaked to the press. The White House, realizing its mistake, attempted unsuccessfully to recall them via email.
Later in the afternoon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees the classified whistleblower complaint that allegedly related to the phone call, but Congress has yet to be provided with the full inspector general report. The House also unanimously voted to publicly release the whistleblower complaint.
Democrats given access to the information called the complaint “credible” and “deeply disturbing,” and lamented that they were not given access to the full inspector general report. Those who reviewed the material would not say whether the complaint involved information beyond the July 25 phone call.
“It doesn’t change anything about the urgency and the credibility of the issue, and we will press the DNI tomorrow to produce the full report,” said California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, after emerging from the secure location.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is expected to testify both in an open House Intelligence Committee hearing and closed Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that he threatened to resign if the White House requested he withhold information from Congress without legally asserting executive privilege, although Maguire denied it to the Post.
In a press conference on Wednesday alongside Zelensky, the Ukrainian president denied that Trump had pressured him to investigate Biden. “So no pressure,” Trump said.
These developments were the latest to rock Capitol Hill as Democrats find themselves in the unprecedented position of possibly impeaching a sitting President during his re-election cycle.
The saga has been ongoing since the beginning of the month, when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff announced he had received a complaint from the intelligence community’s inspector general that was possibly related to areas of his committee’s investigation, but that Maguire had not complied with federal statutes mandating he give Schiff the complaint.
Reports that the complaint involved a request from Trump to Zelensky centering on Biden sparked a flurry of impeachment calls within the Democratic caucus, culminating in Pelosi’s announcement Tuesday that they were conducting a formal inquiry.
In the hours after Pelosi’s announcement that there would be a formal impeachment inquiry but that relevant committees would continue to work on their investigations, it became clear that impeachment would dominate the discourse in Washington for the immediate future. But even if the majority of Democrats were satisfied with their decision to move ahead with impeachment, the path forward seemed unclear to many.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, another freshman who flipped a Republican district and endorsed an impeachment inquiry, told TIME Wednesday morning she had not been given clarity on what comes next. “My expectation from a Congress that is doing its constitutional duty to make sure we’re protecting the Constitution is that we will have a thoughtful process where we work to ensure that we have held up every bit of evidence necessary to either prove or disprove these allegations,” she said.
But the logistics on how or when that would happen have not been entirely laid out. Several lawmakers said that the six committees with the chief investigative power – Intelligence, Oversight, Ways and Means, Judiciary, Financial Services and Foreign Affairs – would continue their probes and funnel any recommendations for impeachment through the judiciary committee.
But while Democrats have said they would like to work “expeditiously,” and some have predicted action will be taken before the end of the year, they were not provided with a definitive timeline for completion.
And while it’s clear impeachment is now the popular stance to take —with more than 200 Democrats saying they support some action toward impeachment — there are still some dissenters within the caucus. And even if it occurs in the House of Representatives, it would still be a tall order for the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans.
“I think it’s going to be a little difficult to talk about a failed impeachment. And it will be a failed impeachment,” said New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who opposes an impeachment inquiry. “I believe that my opinion is a minority opinion, and I believe that I have to do what I think is right.”
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