WASHINGTON — In one hectic day in the nation’s capital, Donald Trump’s presidency — which has already survived a special counsel investigation and countless political scandals — shifted back into the danger zone.
Trump began the workday declaring that the increasing calls for impeachment over his alleged pressure on Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival were “nonsense.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ended the day by announcing the start of a formal impeachment inquiry after she strenuously resisted one for months.
It would be the fourth such impeachment inquiry of a president in US history. But like so much of this presidency, the developments were delivered in a surreal atmosphere.
Republican lawmakers mostly brushed away questions about the latest scandal. Trump reversed course while at the United Nations and said he’d release a transcript of what he described as his “perfect” July phone call to the Ukrainian leader, which is at the center of the dispute, even after his top adviser, Rudy Giuliani, had ruled out that possibility hours earlier. Former vice president Joe Biden stood against a backdrop of American flags in Delaware and accused Trump of “shredding the Constitution” as he called for impeachment if the president doesn’t comply with a congressional investigation. And in a Twitter tirade, Trump dismissed the whole thing as “Witch Hunt garbage.”
Meanwhile, marking the time like a metronome all day were public statements by once-hesitant House Democrats, as lawmaker after lawmaker came out in favor of going down the impeachment path. Among the nearly three dozen to back an inquiry in a 24-hour period was Representative Richard Neal of Springfield, bringing the total in favor of impeachment to more than 170 and the political temperature in Washington close to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Today I come with a heavy heart deeply concerned about the future of our democracy. And I’m not alone,” Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon and one of the most respected congressional Democrats, said in a speech on the House floor declaring he was now on board for impeachment. “We cannot delay. We must not wait. Now is the time to act.”
Less than a week ago, the impeachment effort appeared stalled after a messy and contentious House hearing with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who stonewalled his way through five hours of questions. Some Democrats were left wondering if the push to continue highlighting the Mueller report’s findings on Russian election interference was a winning political strategy.
Trump appeared on the verge of skating away from the Mueller investigation despite ample evidence of potential obstruction of justice because Democrats feared a political backlash. But then Trump poked the bear again.
A whistle-blower complaint about Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and reports that Trump withheld US aid in an effort to force an investigation into Biden’s son turbocharged the impeachment drive. Trump then conceded he discussed Biden on the call. Although Trump said Tuesday that he would release a transcript of the conversation, his administration has denied Congress’s request to see the full whistle-blower complaint.
Massachusetts Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who has supported an impeachment inquiry since June, said House Democrats and even some Republicans were deeply disturbed by the latest revelations.
“It is the president, for the second time in as many elections, asking for foreign interference into our election, again,” he said, pausing as he hustled down the stairs to a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in the basement of the Capitol. “It’s — I wish I could say it’s stunning. It’s not. But it is inexcusable. And he needs to be held accountable.”
Democrats said anger at the president and a desire to act ran high at the crowded meeting, which lasted more than an hour. Some House members pulled out pens and pads to take notes. “We have crossed the Rubicon,” Pelosi told them, participants said. When she said she intended to move forward with an impeachment inquiry, the lawmakers broke out in applause, according to a senior Democratic aide.
“It is now full steam ahead,” Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington said after the meeting. “This is a national security issue.”
For some moderates like first-term Representative Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, it was a tough decision Tuesday to come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, which she did if Trump continued to withhold the whistle-blower complaint.
“This is not a politically expedient decision for me to make in a real swing district in a real swing state,” said Wild, who won a seat that Republicans had held for 20 years. “These are difficult decisions, but I think we just have the obligation at this point.”
Trump’s allies projected calm as Pelosi triggered the impeachment inquiry, arguing that the partisan clash will fire up the president, fuel his base, and help him win reelection.
“Expecting Donald Trump to go along and get along is like wanting Man o’ War to never run again,” Trump’s former campaign adviser Michael Caputo said, referencing the famous racehorse. “He’s a fighter — we hired him because he’s a brawler.”
But the focus on what Democrats are calling Trump’s abuse of power will likely put some Senate Republicans running for reelection in purple states in 2020 — including Susan Collins of Maine — in a tough spot.
“If you’re a Senate Republican this may not be the flaming pile of manure that you want to find on your doorstep one morning,” said Democratic consultant Ian Russell, the former head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
An impeachment inquiry could turn up more damaging information on Trump than regular committee investigations.
Senate Republicans defended the president Tuesday, insisting Democrats were jumping to conclusions without having all of the facts and even defending Trump’s request for an investigation into Biden.
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana said he would not be surprised to learn that Trump asked the Ukrainians for a corruption investigation of Biden’s son, something that should be investigated as much as the president’s actions, he said.
“He asks for investigations all the time. That’s the way this president rolls,” Kennedy said. “To me the issue, the real issue, is whether there was a quid pro quo. And the president says there wasn’t. And I think that eventually he will release sufficient information to ascertain the veracity of his denial.”
Talk of impeachment dominated the frantic day. The throngs of reporters and rapid-fire questions provided a glimpse into how Capitol Hill will be consumed by the topic for the foreseeable future heading into an election year in which Democratic leaders wanted to focus on health care and other kitchen table issues.
“If there is anyone who can tell you that they know how this is going to play out, they’re mistaken or they’re guessing,” said Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois. “They’re telling you who is going to win the World Series in the start of the exhibition season.”
Liz Goodwin and Ryan Wangman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jazmine Ulloa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jazmineulloa. Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.