As the political world processed the gravity of President Trump’s efforts to force Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election, and to cover it up, House Democrats debated among themselves whether to limit their impeachment inquiry, then less than 24 hours old, to the issue of Ukraine, and even whether they should aim to complete the impeachment process by the end of October.
Events fortunately overtook that debate Thursday with the disclosure of the whistleblower complaint that set this scandal in motion, and the public testimony of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.
What we’ve learned should quiet the Democrats’ anxious desire to rush articles of impeachment to the Senate, because the Ukraine scandal turns out to be much larger than it appeared even 24 hours ago. Running it all to ground will take time, and may lead us back to the other areas of corruption these Democrats had apparently hoped to sideline.
The complaint essentially alleges that the plan to shake down Ukraine took shape long before the fateful phone call in which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, and implicates many people in Trump’s orbit, including Attorney General William Barr. It alleges that an equal purpose of the shakedown was to manufacture exoneration of Russia for its 2016 election interference, and possibly even of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who now sits in prison for crimes that trace back to his work as a political fixer in Ukraine.
It further alleges that the White House sought to conceal records of the Trump-Zelensky call by storing them on a classified system meant to house the country’s most sensitive national-security secrets, and that officials have used this tactic to conceal other politically damaging conduct the president has engaged in.
The Ukraine scandal might thus be a single thread in a web of corruption and criminality that implicates a large number Trump officials and connects back to other impeachable offenses that seem unrelated until you zoom out far enough.
It’s difficult to imagine that Democrats will have plumbed the full depths of this misconduct by late October, and that should serve as a reminder to those Democrats who, for whatever reason, instinctually want to get this all over with as quickly as possible: artificially limiting the probe will place most of Trump’s misconduct beyond the reach of accountability and provide Republicans a roadmap for weathering the deluge.
Now 48 hours into their inquiry, Democrats have only had enough time to scratch the surface of Trump’s abuses and what they’ve already uncovered is devastating. It has captured the national imagination, and made the possibility that Trump has systematically corrupted the government a live concern for millions of people—yet the full extent of it remains unknown. Shutting avenues of inquiry out of the impeachment process makes no sense on its own terms.
But it also carries other dangers. Democrats must recognize that if they rush articles of impeachment over to the Senate before the fullest-possible accounting of Trump’s corruption is complete, Republicans will likely acquit Trump as quickly as possible, and not only will the impeachment process come to an end but all regular oversight investigations of Trump’s corruption will as well. There will not be a second impeachment process; Democrats had to be browbeaten into launching this one, would be even more reluctant to launch another, and if they did Senate Republicans would shut it down with the simple argument that the House shouldn’t be allowed to commandeer the Senate into putting the president on trial over and over again.
The same House Democrats who were determined to avoid an impeachment process altogether now want to dispose of the one that’s working wonderfully as quickly as possible, and their judgment hasn’t improved much in the 72 hours since they relented.
It is possible that the Ukraine matter is such a raging fire of corruption that it starves other parts of the inquiry of media oxygen, but those investigations should continue, as forcefully as possible, until they run dry.
In the unlikely event that Republicans signal a willingness to remove Trump from office, it’d be irresponsible of Democrats not to move to end this emergency as quickly as possible. But short of that, their lodestar has to be maximizing the political value of the process, which includes both public hearings and a trial. Now is the time for chairs of the relevant committees to accelerate their inquiries, not dial them back, to bombard Trump with subpoenas, and enforce them aggressively, not to let their subpoena power lay fallow. Now, moreover, is the time for officials up and down the government with undisclosed knowledge of impeachable offenses to approach Congress, and for Congress to welcome them, and bring any credible allegations they make too light.
Only when that part of the process is complete should the House force the Senate into a trial. If Republicans intend to protect Trump from the penalty of removal then the only source of accountability available to Democrats is the thorough airing of his abuses—with respect to Ukraine, yes, but also with respect to his obstruction of justice, acceptance of bribes, lies, and attempts to use federal power to punish his enemies.
They can use the Ukraine matter to reach those other areas. In their call, Zelensky boasts to Trump of having stayed at his hotel—this is how foreign leaders signal that they have paid their corrupt dues to him; one purpose of the Ukraine shakedown is to help Russia off the hook for its past election meddling; the State Department involved itself in that effort, and the Justice Department participated in the coverup. It’s one big story. But members of the public deserves to know all of it, and we’ll only have one chance to tell it to them.