WASHINGTON — After months of tamping down calls for impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that she’s on board, a move that could upend Donald Trump’s presidency just barely a year out from the 2020 election.
“Today I'm announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” the speaker told reporters after meeting with the Democratic caucus Tuesday afternoon. Pelosi said she will direct six House committees to investigate Trump “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry," adding, "The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
While the Judiciary Committee has already begun an impeachment investigation, Pelosi announced that the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Oversight, Ways and Means, and Financial Services committees will now formally join them in a broader inquiry.
The committees’ investigation is just a first step toward impeachment — a majority of the full House would still need to vote on articles of impeachment in order to indict Trump. The Senate is then responsible for holding an impeachment trial, but Republicans are unlikely to pursue one.
Trump's reaction to the announcement, predictably, was a series of tweets sent from Trump Tower as Pelosi spoke and in the minutes after. In one, he wrote that Democrats "purposely had to ruin and demean" his "important" day at the United Nations "with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage." He also noted that Democrats hadn't yet seen a transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president.
Democrats’ messaging on impeachment has been muddled in recent weeks. The Judiciary Committee has begun the formal process of setting up an impeachment investigation, and many of its members have argued since July that the House is already in an inquiry stage. While Pelosi had backed those efforts, she resisted calls for impeachment.
More than 170 Democrats had come out in support of an impeachment inquiry as of Tuesday afternoon, including many members in more conservative districts. Their support for the measure appeared to finally sway Pelosi, who has argued for months that the House cannot pursue an inquiry without having all the facts and has publicly worried impeachment would be too divisive and could lose Democrats their majority.
CNN reported Tuesday afternoon that Pelosi was encouraging her members to state their positions on an inquiry now, in order to make it clear to the public that there is a groundswell of support in the caucus. Pelosi also reportedly said she believes now that the American public understands the issue.
Several Democratic presidential contenders have announced or renewed calls for Trump to be impeached as the Ukraine story has unfolded. And many of the speaker’s allies announced their support for an inquiry Tuesday ahead of Pelosi’s own announcement.
“We cannot delay. We must not wait. Now is the time to act,” Rep. John Lewis of Georgia said on the House floor. “I have been patient as we tried every other path and used every other tool … I truly believe the time to begin impeachment proceedings against this president has come."
Though many Democrats said they were unified behind the impeachment inquiry, not everyone is on board. New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew said he feared that pursuing impeachment has the risk of tearing the country apart. “The majority of Americans, at this point in time, do not want to see this,” he said.
Ven Drew represents a swing district that voted for Trump, and said he fears Pelosi’s move could make reelecting Democrats in swing states more difficult. “I don’t know that everybody realizes how strongly people [feel] on both sides of the issue,” he said. “For that reason, I think it has the potential to really put us in harm’s way.”
While the full story about Trump’s recent phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remains unclear, the Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump put a hold on $400 million in aid to the country in the days before the call. When the two leaders did speak, Trump reportedly pushed for information on Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who had a seat on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. (Notably, Joe Biden is currently leading the Democratic primary field.)
The House and Senate have been working to get information related to a whistleblower’s complaint, which is reportedly related to Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, but have been stymied by the Trump administration. Pelosi also announced that the House will hold a vote Wednesday to formally condemn Trump’s attempts to block Congress from obtaining the complaint. The Senate passed a (similarly nonbinding) resolution Tuesday afternoon requesting a copy of the whistleblower’s complaint as well.
Trump tweeted Tuesday that he had ordered the “complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine” to be released on Wednesday. “You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo!,” he wrote.
But Democrats were quick to say that releasing the transcript was not enough, and soon after Trump’s announcement, Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff made an announcement of his own, saying on Twitter that the whistleblower who originally raised concerns about the call wanted to speak to the committee and has requested guidance from the acting director of National Intelligence about how to do so.
“We‘re in touch with counsel and look forward to the whistleblower’s testimony as soon as this week,” Schiff wrote.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that Pelosi's announcement was the culmination of a "two-and-a-half-year impeachment parade in search of a rationale."
“This rush to judgment comes just a few hours after President Trump offered to release the details of his phone conversation with President Zelensky. It comes despite the fact that committee-level proceedings are already underway to address the whistleblower allegation through a fair, bipartisan, and regular process," McConnell said.
Trump has gone back and forth in public statements about his call with the Ukrainian president. He acknowledged Monday that he had discussed Biden with Zelensky, but denied that he had offered to release aid funds for the country in exchange for information. "I put no pressure on them whatsoever," he told reporters. "I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been OK if I did. But I didn't. I didn't put any pressure on them whatsoever."
On Tuesday morning, however, the New York Times reported that Trump did acknowledge holding up aid funds for the country, but said it was because European countries have not paid their share of aid to Ukraine.
Democratic demands for documents and testimony from Trump, executive branch officials, and others around the president are almost certain to face legal challenges. Two House committees — Judiciary and Ways and Means — are already tangling in court with Trump and his administration over access to the president's financial records as well as documents from former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Those fights predate the whistleblower issue that prompted Pelosi's announcement on Thursday, but in arguing for the release of grand jury materials from the Mueller probe, the Judiciary Committee told a judge in July that it was part of a preliminary impeachment investigation.
Paul McLeod contributed to this story.