WASHINGTON — Democrats moved assertively Monday to increase political pressure on the White House and congressional Republicans to furnish documentation about explosive allegations that President Donald Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainian president to help produce damaging information on a leading political rival.
In the House, where the revelations about a conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, were fueling new calls for impeachment, the chairmen of three committees investigating the matter threatened to issue subpoenas in the coming days if the administration did not hand over a transcript of the call and a related whistleblower complaint.
Trump acknowledged Sunday that he had leveled allegations of corruption against former Vice President Joe Biden with Zelenskiy, but on Monday, he denied that he had pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate and used a package of hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid as leverage. Trump has defended the conversation as entirely appropriate.
Still, Democrats are demanding to see evidence. On Monday, they said a failure by the administration to disclose a complaint about Trump’s interactions with Zelenskiy would be considered obstruction, an indication that they could consider it as grounds for impeachment.
“If press reports are accurate, such corrupt use of presidential power for the president’s personal political interest — and not for the national interest — is a betrayal of the president’s oath of office and cannot go unchecked,” the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees wrote Monday in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
They added, “By withholding these documents and refusing to engage with the committees, the Trump administration is obstructing Congress’ oversight duty under the Constitution to protect our nation’s democratic process.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, meanwhile, warned that Republicans would be complicit in Trump’s actions if they failed to join in those requests and issue a subpoena from their chamber for a secretive whistleblower complaint that is said to be related, at least in part, to the call between the two leaders.
“This is a whistleblower complaint that has been labeled ‘urgent’ and ‘credible’ not by Democrats, but by a senior-level Trump appointee,” Schumer wrote. “It is the Senate’s duty to take this national security matter seriously and to take action now.”
It appeared increasingly likely that the brewing conflict would come to a head Thursday, when the House Intelligence Committee was already scheduled to question the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who has withheld the whistleblower complaint. The panel has demanded Maguire bring with him a copy of it. Now, lawmakers also want a decision by Pompeo by that day on whether he will furnish a transcript of the presidential conversation, as well as other materials they have requested.
A growing number of House Democrats said Monday that their willingness to support impeachment would most likely hinge on whether those demands were met.
After months of debate over impeachment, the latest allegations against Trump appeared to be shifting the political ground for Democrats, persuading some lawmakers to drop their reluctance to pursue formal charges against the president.
“This is a game-changer,” said Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., who won a Republican seat last fall, adding that if Democrats can obtain a transcript or testimony that confirms Trump’s own account of his conversation with Zelenskiy, “then I don’t see any choice but to impeach.”
“It has moved things up, and this has also made it that it’s an imminent national security danger, and it demonstrates very clearly in and of itself enough to move straight to impeachment,” Hill said. “I don’t think we need to wait for anything else. This alone should be impeachable.”
Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, another freshman Democrat, laid down a similar line. “If the reports are corroborated,” he said Monday in a statement, “we must pursue articles of impeachment and report them to the full House of Representatives for immediate consideration.”
Other more moderate freshmen who have been reluctant to embrace the idea of impeachment spent the day furiously placing calls to calibrate the right response. Several of them said privately that they were on the brink of supporting an impeachment process, but that they wanted to first see what transpired Thursday.
Republicans, for their part, have been mostly unmoved by the new allegations, with Trump’s closest allies actively maintaining his innocence.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, accused Democrats of trying to exploit a serious issue for political gain and said he had confidence that the Senate’s intelligence panel, working quietly on a bipartisan basis, would handle it appropriately.
“It is regrettable that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Schiff and Sen. Schumer have chosen to politicize this issue, circumventing the established procedures and protocols that exist so the committees can pursue sensitive matters in the appropriate, deliberate, bipartisan manner,” he said.
Though he did not discuss possible reasons for it being withheld, McConnell also made clear that he had opposed the White House’s initial decision not to release the aid money for Ukraine and worked to get it reinstated.
Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it would be “good for the country” if the president could share more information about his interactions with Ukraine. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, was harsher.
“If the president asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme,” he said.
Despite Schumer’s demands, most attention Monday remained on the House, where Democrats hold the majority and the power to impeach Trump, and are already pursuing an investigation to determine whether they should do so over his attempts to obstruct the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. A crucial element of any potential case against the president, lawmakers have said, would be his stonewalling of congressional attempts to investigate him and his administration.
In the short term, even the House has relatively few options if the administration maintains its refusal to share information with Congress.
The hearing by the House Intelligence Committee, which first learned of and publicized the existence of the whistleblower complaint, will provide lawmakers with a chance to press Maguire on why he declined to share it, despite a request to do so from the intelligence agencies’ internal watchdog. But Maguire has been instructed by the Justice Department and the White House not to produce the material.
The House could sue to try to force disclosure under its interpretation of the whistleblower law, but as with other legal challenges to the White House’s stonewalling, the courts could take more than a year to sort the case out, a nonstarter for Democrats who fear there may be an ongoing threat to national security.
Additional pressure from the Republican Senate could conceivably lead the White House to reconsider and share more information on the complaint or the president’s interactions with Ukrainian leaders. And some strategists believe that Democrats must do more to force Republicans to weigh in on the latest allegations against Trump, potentially angering their constituents by appearing to condone a brazen attempt to enlist foreign help to sway the election in his own favor.