U.S. President Donald Trump is facing renewed calls for impeachment amid recent reports that he urged Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden’s son in an apparent effort to harm his candidacy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to launch a formal impeachment inquiry over Trump’s conduct, according to a Tuesday report from The New York Times.
Trump confirmed that he talked about Biden in a call with Zelensky on July 25. The Trump-Zelensky discussion came under the spotlight after an unidentified whistleblower – a member of the U.S. intelligence community – filed a complaint with intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson, on August 12. Atkinson referred the complaint to Joseph McGuire, the Trump-appointed acting director of national intelligence, who declined to notify Congress of the complaint, angering Democrats.
Biden’s son, Hunter, formerly had business interests in Ukraine. About a week before the call, Trump directed his staff to withhold about $400 million in aid from Ukraine, fueling speculation that he sought to use his power to pressure the Ukrainian government in a bid to influence the 2020 election.
The president has admitted that he withheld the aid, but claims that the decision was based on his belief that the U.S. was spending too much to assist Ukraine and that E.U. countries weren’t doing enough.
Trump said he plans to release a transcript of the call on Wednesday and said that his conversation with Zelensky was “totally appropriate.”
However, according to reports, Trump’s efforts to convince the Ukranian government to turn over potentially damaging information on Biden’s son went beyond the July phone call. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump told Zelensky that he should work with his personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, on the matter. Giuliani has admitted that he separately urged the Ukranian government to investigate Biden.
Now, more than 150 House Democrats are calling for Trump’s impeachment. On Tuesday, the chairmen of three major House committees sent a letter to the White House council warning that they will launch impeachment proceedings imminently if the Trump administration fails to cooperate with Congressional inquiries into the scandal.
“In light of these grave allegations, the president must immediately abandon his stonewalling of Congress and his refusal to submit to any scrutiny or examination of his actions. Failure to comply with our request will compel our Committees to resort to escalated measures,” the three Chairmen concluded.
To help break down the legal complexities surrounding the situation and what they could mean for Trump, The Globe Post spoke to Claire Finkelstein, a Professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the Faculty Director at the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law. Finkelstein is also an expert in national security law, the law of armed conflict and military ethics.
TGP: Can you explain to us what happened in the recent days and what the potential legal implications for President Trump are?
Finkelstein: There are so many different aspects of the story. It looks as though the White House is engaging in obstruction of justice, which is a violation of federal law in telling the Attorney General’s office, telling the Justice Department, to intervene in a valid whistleblower complaint, which the inspector general’s office has sole authority to determine the validity of. And if he does determine it to be valid, his job is to send it to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and have them extend it to Congress.
But what the White House has done is to reach into the attorney general’s office and to instruct the attorney general to declare a whistleblower complaint invalid. As far as we know, this is what happened. And the A.G. did that. And then they got an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel to further defend its position that this was not valid. But under the whistleblower statute, it’s not up to the Office of Legal Counsel to give any advice on this point. It is solely up to the inspector general to indicate whether or not the complaint is valid, at which point ODNI should send the complaint to Congress.
BREAKING: Rep. John Lewis calls for impeachment proceedings against President Trump: "We must not wait! … To delay or to do otherwise would betray the foundation of our democracy." pic.twitter.com/D12ipUU34m
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 24, 2019
So we are cooking up to a historic battle because Adam Schiff [the chair of the House Intelligence Committee] has sent out a subpoena. And the president has the Justice Department in his pocket and he is trying to make sure that that complaint does not emerge.
What is the court going to do? Is the court going to order that members of Congress receive the complaint or not? As a matter of law, it’s my view that they should. Will ODNI comply with that request if the court does order the complaint to be sent the members of Congress? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. ODNI, unfortunately, seems to be firmly in the pocket of the president as well, judging from current behavior. Undoubtedly that office is feeling the pressure of the current situation though and hopefully they will do the right thing and send it to Congress.
TGP: Trump has denied doing anything improper. How Americans can still trust him?
Finkelstein: Well, what’s interesting here is that while the president is huffing and puffing about fake news, he is admitting to the underlying conduct. And so nobody has any doubt about the fact that this conversation took place. By his own admission, and by Giuliani’s admission, he is engaging in highly improper conduct with a foreign power and abusing his office for that purpose – abusing his office and engaging in what would be multiple crimes were it not for the fact that the Justice Department would have to initiate any criminal process. It is following an Office of Legal Counsel directive that says a sitting president cannot be indicted. Which, by the way, is absolutely wrong legally and morally as well as politically. And we’re seeing the result of that now.
I don’t think that in this one, we’re into a “he said, she said.” The president is doing everything he’s doing right there in the open and claiming some kind of mistaken view of executive authority or executive privilege for being allowed to do it.
Donald Trump is the most corrupt president in the modern history of this country.
Enough is enough.
I hope the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House will begin the impeachment process. pic.twitter.com/WHth62v5br
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 24, 2019
So if we don’t impeach this president now, we can really kiss the rule of law goodbye. Because he is openly rejecting any constraints that would normally apply to the office of the president and claiming the right to do it, and then marshaling the Office of Legal Counsel support to claim that he has the right to do what he’s doing, which is a terrible abuse and a sad day for that office.
So this is the moment that Congress has to step up to the plate to vindicate its own authority, as well as to protect the rule of law in the country and protect our democracy.
TGP: Why do you think that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has so far resisted calls to formally begin the process of impeachment?
Finkelstein: I think we are at a turning point on that. First of all, you know, about two weeks ago, Pelosi started to abandon her opposition to impeachment. And I think that is linked to it.
In other words, she started to realize the story that was brewing and that this is the moment that she’s been waiting for. She’s never been opposed to impeachment on the merits. She’s been opposed to it if it could not result in a conviction in the Senate and then the ultimate expulsion of this president from office.
I think that her opposition to impeachment has weakened. And my guess is that this is sort of the smoking gun she’s been waiting for. And maybe there is more that she knows that we don’t know. I think that Senate Republicans are in a very tricky position at the moment, because to support this president in this degree of lawlessness and abuse and criminality, it will surely now start to broaden their political careers and their reputations. They are supporting this president, but he will now take them down with him if they continued to support him. I am very hopeful that the politics around this would start to shift.
TGP: Do you think Ukraine can be the new Russia during the 2020 elections?
Finkelstein: It’s very interesting. It came out many months after the fact that there had been a meeting at Trump Tower in which Donald [Trump] Jr. had gone with the expectation that he would be able to get information on Hillary Clinton. But we found that out many months after it had occurred and after Trump had already been declared the winner of the 2016 presidential race.
This is happening more in real time. But it’s the same conduct and it’s a violation of lots of different laws – campaign finance laws, a very severe violation. And, you know, the idea that we would tolerate this a second time, that we would tolerate foreign powers interfering in our elections and being willing to supply dirt to the least ethical candidate in yet another national presidential election is a bridge too far. And so I think that the winds will start to change on this. I think we do extreme damage to our ability to continue with democratic government: the elections are becoming tainted.
Bryan Bowman contributed to this report.