Editorial: If Trump won’t come clean about Ukraine, an impeachment inquiry is the only option

President Trump
(Los Angeles Times)

Impeachments are among the fastest ways to traumatize a divided nation.

That’s why this page has been reluctant to endorse calls for the House of Representatives to launch a formal impeachment investigation into President Trump.

But this week the president crossed a new line.

It’s clear from Trump’s own public comments that he improperly raised the subject of former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son in a telephone conversation this year with the new president of Ukraine. Trump said on Sunday that his conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky concerned corruption in Ukraine and “the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son [adding] to the corruption” already in that country. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the president went even further, asking Zelensky about eight times to investigate Biden’s son Hunter and to work in that effort with Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The best way to establish the truth about this troubling affair is for the administration promptly to turn over to the House and Senate intelligence committees and congressional leaders any record of Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Zelensky. Congress must also be provided with the whistleblower complaint lodged by a member of the intelligence community that apparently stemmed from Trump’s contacts with Ukraine. If the administration continues to obstruct and obfuscate, the only choice left to the House will be a vote on the floor to start a formal impeachment inquiry so it can compel the White House to come clean.

Here is what we know so far. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the time his father was leading the Obama administration’s efforts to encourage the government in Kiev to adopt anti-corruption measures. As part of that effort, the U.S. and a number of its allies pressed for the removal of a prosecutor who once scrutinized the younger Biden’s firm — not because the prosecutor was putting too much heat on well-connected Ukranians, but because he wasn’t aggressive enough in targeting alleged abuse. No available evidence suggests that Joe Biden’s actions had anything to do with his son, yet Trump has accused both Bidens of wrongdoing. On Monday he said: “What Biden did is a disgrace. What his son did is a disgrace.”


What we don’t know for certain is how close Trump came in this conversation to tying an investigation into the Bidens to the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid. The money was released without explanation this month, and Trump has denied any quid pro quo. Just pressing for an investigation of the Bidens is bad enough; if Trump did so in connection with foreign military aid, it would be an even more blatantly corrupt use of the powers of the presidency and even more clearly an impeachable offense.

So far, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to forward the complaint to Congress as provided for in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. Maguire is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. On Sunday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wrote to her colleagues in both parties that “we expect him to obey the law and turn over the whistleblower’s full complaint to the committee. We also expect that he will establish a path for the whistleblower to speak directly to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees as required by law.” In an obvious allusion to impeachment, Pelosi added that if the administration continued to stonewall, it “will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.”

The president’s casual slander of a political rival is sadly familiar by now. Trump is notorious for violating norms of diplomacy, accusing his political opponents of criminality (remember “Crooked Hillary”?), calling for federal prosecutors to investigate his critics, and brushing off concerns about conflicts of interest. But even for him, enlisting a foreign leader in an attempt to blacken the reputation of a potential 2020 opponent would be an egregious abuse of the presidential office. On Sunday, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the few congressional Republicans willing to criticize Trump, said: “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.” That’s putting it mildly — too mildly.

Like Pelosi, this page has been cautious about supporting an impeachment investigation, despite a litany of actions by Trump that could justify proceedings, including his multiple efforts to frustrate the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. We’ve said before that a proceeding that weakened Trump but didn’t result in his removal from office by the Senate might actually enhance his prospects for reelection. But we also have said that there is a point at which failure to act in the face of criminal or dangerous conduct becomes more damaging than moving forward. We won’t know whether Trump’s contacts with the Ukrainian president constitute such a turning point until we know the extent of what he said and did. Full disclosure is essential.

If it takes an impeachment inquiry to get the truth about Trump and Ukraine, so be it.