Opinion: Can Democrats keep their impeachment eyes on Ukraine? Or will they go fishing?


For some Democrats, starting an impeachment process was just a tool to get at information that the White House had withheld about President Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Now that the administration has put out a set of notes that describe the conversation, though, the process isn’t going to be stopped. So a key question for Democrats is, where do they want to go with it? Should the House use the added power of an impeachment inquiry to get all the information the administration has been withholding from the Government Oversight, Judiciary and Ways and Means Committees — for example, the president’s tax returns, his company’s financial records and the testimony of former White House Counsel Don McGahn about Trump’s efforts to interfere in Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation? Or should it focus narrowly on the allegation that Trump abused the power of his office to seek Ukraine’s help in his reelection?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who’s been the main firewall between Trump and the liberal House Democrats eager for impeachment, is advocating a singular focus on the Ukrainian revelations, the Washington Post reported. It’s a strategy with risks and benefits: The risks include the possibility that some voters will shrug off Trump’s behavior as small beer, and that Trump will manage to shift the spotlight to the actions in Ukraine of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son in the Ukraine. But the principal benefit is that the House won’t be seen as re-litigating a matter that Mueller supposedly had settled. Instead, it’s a fresh incident that’s rooted in well-established Trump failings.


I think the country will be far better off if the House doesn’t drag us through what’s sure to be a bitter and divisive impeachment. Yet the notes released Wednesday morning cry out for some kind of corrective response from the legislative branch. So it makes sense for the House to find out as much as it can about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — not just what happened on the call, but what his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been saying to Ukrainian officials in the name of the U.S. government, and what steps Trump has directed actual U.S. officials (such as Atty. Gen. William Barr) to take in pursuit of the Bidens.

The president and his supporters may see the July 25 conversation as harmless banter, but it was anything but. Trump opened the call by reminding Zelensky how much more help Ukraine received from the United States than from its European neighbors. Right after that — and after Zelensky said he was looking to buy more weapons from the United States — Trump pivoted into asking for “a favor”: He apparently wanted help re-investigating some of the intrigue involving hackers aligned with Russia meddling in the 2016 election. And he explicitly asked Zelensky to investigate Biden — then the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in 2020 — and his son, as well as to work with Barr and Giuliani on that issue.

Granted, that’s not an explicit quid pro quo. The threat is implicit: “You are dependent on me. Here’s what I’d like in return.” Imagine your boss telling you how much you seem to be enjoying the company car, then saying she’d like you to contribute to her favorite candidate. You’d probably see the connection between those two things, which makes the request feel more like an order.

Republicans on Wednesday pooh-poohed the revelation and noted that the White House has been providing all the information Democrats demanded about Ukraine, eliding the administration’s previous efforts to suppress that information. The Democrats, they say, keep “moving the goal posts” on the Ukrainian investigation in their zeal to find an excuse to impeach Trump, rather than doing the work their constituents sent them to Washington to do.

Never mind that the House has passed scores of bills on healthcare, gun safety and other important topics that the GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t taken up. Republicans have a point: The impeachment process could become a black hole that sucks up all of Congress’ attention and energy. The risk of that happening will only increase if Democrats expand the impeachment process to include some of the many other grievances they’ve compiled since before Trump was elected.