WASHINGTON — While House committees have been focused on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and alleged interference in the 2016 election in recent months, the House’s official inquiry will move in a different direction, focusing solely on recent revelations about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
For months, Democratic lawmakers have investigated numerous aspects of the Trump administration and have condemned a wide range of allegations against the president — including sexual assault and his responses to white nationalism and the attack in Charlottesville. But Pelosi said Thursday the focus of the impeachment inquiry would be incredibly narrow.
“The inquiry and the consensus in our caucus is that our focus now is on this allegation,” she told reporters at her weekly press conference. “The president thinks that this proves his innocence, which goes to show how further he doesn’t understand right from wrong. This is the focus of the moment.”
If lawmakers or voters are concerned about issues like gun violence, immigration, climate change, equal pay, and abortion rights, Pelosi said, they should “save that for the election.”
“That has nothing to do with impeachment,” she said. “The impeachment is about the facts of his actions.”
Pelosi declined to discuss what she believes potential articles of impeachment should include, but said other issues might be considered later.
“Let’s not make any conclusions about articles of impeachment,” the speaker said.
Several House committees have been investigating Trump for months, and Judiciary Committee members have acknowledged since August that their work was part of an impeachment investigation. But the formal inquiry now underway — and the thing that finally brought Pelosi around on impeachment — is focused on recent reports about Ukraine.
The Washington Post first reported Wednesday that top Democrats, in a private meeting, agreed that the probe should focus solely on the Ukraine saga, which has been the subject of a series of recent reports. A leadership source confirmed that decision to BuzzFeed News on Thursday.
On Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump put a hold on $400 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. When the two leaders did speak, according to a non-verbatim transcript of the call released by the White House on Wednesday, Trump explicitly asked for “a favor” and pushed for information on former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who had business in Ukraine.
On Thursday, the whistleblower complaint that triggered the first stories about the call was released publicly. It outlines concerns raised by White House officials who say that Trump has used his office “for personal gain,” a decision they said they were “deeply disturbed” by. The complaint also alleges that White House officials tried to cover up the call.
“I think it is the absolute right call,” Rep. Kathleen Rice said of focusing the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine. “The allegations surrounding the president’s call with the Ukrainian president are far and away some of the most serious to come out of this administration, and I think it’s really critically important to separate the [Mueller and Ukraine] inquiries.”
For many Democratic members, the support of the public has been central to their own support for an inquiry, and Rep. Jim Himes told BuzzFeed News on Thursday he believes voters understand the seriousness of the Ukraine story.
“Americans will understand Donald Trump trying to extort a foreign leader for help in the election more than they’re likely to understand the esoteric aspects of obstruction of justice,” Himes said. “Americans understand shakedowns, and they understand cover-ups.”
Several Democratic lawmakers have told BuzzFeed News this week that they believe the Ukraine story is an easier story to tell voters than many of the other investigations they’ve conducted on Trump. As Rep. Mark Pocan put it, “He's just coming out and saying, ‘Yeah, I did it, and yeah, my office held up the money, and let me save you any more time and just let's get to it. Let's dance.’”
Himes, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said he believes the other committees need to continue their work investigating other issues in the administration. “There’s plenty to be investigated in this White House, but a lot of the stuff doesn’t touch as specifically on national security as the whistleblower allegations do,” he said.
Focusing the impeachment inquiry on the whistleblower allegations also makes sense, Himes said, because the complaint offers a strategy for the investigation.
“One of the hardest things about investigations is coming up with a plan of investigation,” he said. “The whistleblower complaint supplies us with that plan. We’re going to be able to really accelerate.”
The Congressional Black Caucus, which has focused heavily on Trump’s nationalist agenda and racism, discussed impeachment at a standing meeting on Wednesday, aides to several lawmakers told BuzzFeed News, though the exact parameters of the discussion are unknown.
Two members — Reps. Al Green of Texas and Maxine Waters of California, who are among President Trump's most vocal critics — have seen now dozens of colleagues join their once-lonely chorus this week. Earlier this week, Green, who was the first member of the House to call for Trump’s impeachment, told BuzzFeed News he believes the investigation should include Trump’s history of racist comments and discrimination against people of color, saying he hopes “there will be at least one article of impeachment concerning the president's bigotry infused into policy that is harming our society.”
In a brief interview Wednesday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, told BuzzFeed News the six committees investigating the president have a job to do on the matters relating to whether the president's actions on Ukraine amount to impeachable offenses. She left the door slightly ajar on matters unrelated to the current scope of the investigation.
She added that the committees will continue their probes into the president outside of the Ukraine issue as well. “We're all going to continue our investigations, which will cover many issues — certainly the Mueller report, obstruction of justice. And as we do that, we will ultimately come to how the articles of impeachment should be crafted,” Jackson Lee said.
She said the broad contours on those matters “are already in sort of the arena” in the early stages, and that as the process moves along lawmakers will have to “see where it finds its place.”
While she left the door open to potential articles of impeachment that go beyond the scope of the Ukraine investigation, the speaker on Thursday said she believes ideological issues are best left out of the inquiry.
“On the Ethics Committee, we were trained, it’s about the facts and the law … nothing else matters,” she said.
Darren Sands contributed reporting to this story.