Whistleblower claims rightly led to impeachment probe

The readout of President Donald Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president is now public — and the impeachment inquiry into the president’s actions just got a jolt. 

The White House’s record of that conversation — more of a memorandum than an actual transcript — indicates that Trump urged Ukraine’s leader to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden — a leading Trump opponent in the 2020 presidential race.

And even in the saga that has been the Trump presidency, a whistleblower’s claims that led to the release of the readout became the straw that broke the camel’s back — at least on Capitol Hill. 

In this case, the allegations — that Trump linked U.S. aid to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s investigation of Biden — can derail the Trump presidency.

Whether there was a “quid pro quo” between Trump and Zelensky was enough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — until now no fan of impeachment — to call for a formal impeachment inquiry. The nature of the whistleblower complaint, with ties to sensitive intelligence and foreign relations, has rightly triggered an impeachment process.

In Trump’s favor, though, is that despite having mentioned Biden and Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, on a foreign policy call that should have nothing to do with domestic politics, the document released Wednesday does not appear to include an explicit quid pro quo regarding foreign aid although it was certainly implied. Still, the point remains that Trump seems to have pressured a foreign leader and suggested that alleged corruption on the part of his political rival should be investigated by a foreign power. A kind of reverse election meddling.

Pelosi really had little choice given the ongoing congressional investigations of Trump and the expanding chorus for impeachment proceedings. And the California Democrat knows that Congress is on solid ground. The Constitution allows Congress to remove presidents before their terms are over if enough lawmakers vote to say there’s enough evidence of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Proving that is another matter. Without the full whistleblower complaint, and more specifics about other calls or actions by Trump, House Democrats could appear disorganized or even ill-informed. They must ensure access to all information, will need to set up strict rules to govern the multiple investigations, and must show a good centralization of effort.

Impeachment is serious business. Our country has lived through it before and it can tear a nation apart. Process matters.

Because we are talking about the rule of law and potential abuse of power by the president, the proper place for this investigation is the House Judiciary Committee — which has more open deliberations than does, say, the House Intelligence Committee. Pelosi was right to put the issue in the hands of the Judiciary Committee.

Some have suggested a special panel. Creating a special panel would take months, would take explaining and would sound vaguely like the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller. Democrats can’t afford to create special committees and risk new rules being enacted.

This much we know for sure: Things are hot in Washington and it is not just climate change.

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state, advises students at The George Washington University.

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