WASHINGTON - The US Democratic Party has begun a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over allegations that he pressured a foreign power to damage a political rival.

Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi said the president “must be held accountable”. Trump has denied wrongdoing and called the efforts a “witch hunt”.

There is strong support from House Democrats for impeachment, but the proceedings would be unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

The high-stakes move by House Speaker Ms Pelosi, prompted by allegations that Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate his leading political rival Joe Biden, lays the groundwork for a potentially hugely consequential confrontation between Democrats and the president ahead of the 2020 election.

If the inquiry moves forward, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will vote on any charges. If Democrats were to remain united, the measure would be carried - and Trump would become the third president in US history to be impeached. But the proceedings would be expected to stall in the Senate, where the president’s Republican party holds enough seats to prevent him from being removed from office by a two-thirds majority.

Party accuses Trump of improperly pressuring Ukrainian president

Ms Pelosi did not provide any timeline for how the process might play out.

Senior Democrats including Ms Pelosi had previously resisted growing calls from within the party to begin impeachment proceedings. But the party’s leadership united on the issue after an intelligence whistleblower lodged a formal complaint about one or more phone calls between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Trump administration has so far refused to release the whistleblower complaint to Congress but Democrats say Trump threatened to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless Mr Zelensky agreed to investigate unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Trump’s leading political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump has admitted discussing Joe Biden with Zelensky. He has denied that he exerted pressure on the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rival.

Transcript released

On Wednesday, the Trump administration released the much-anticipated transcript summary of President’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, after Trump authorized publishing the transcript. A memo summarizing the call shows that the president urged Zelensky to probe Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.

The memorandum released by the Justice Department is not, according to the administration, a verbatim transcript. The text, according to the document released by the administration, is the record of the notes and recollections of the officers and National Security Council policy staff “assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form.” 

According to the document, the president said on the call that he would like to find out what happened with “this whole situation with Ukraine” and he said his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani would be traveling to Ukraine. Zelensky said he would meet with Giuliani when he visited. 

Zelensky pledged that his new prosecutor would look into the case, and he asked for additional information.

Trump told Zelensky in the July 25 call that he would have Giuliani give him a call, and also have Attorney General William Barr call to get “to the bottom of it.”

Mr. Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” and “find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine” with regards to Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity company which helped investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump also asked Zelensky about the Bidens. The president has claimed without offering evidence that Biden, as vice president, had worked to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor specifically because he was investigating a company where Hunter Biden sat on the board of directors. That prosecutor was seen by the US and by many European allies as corrupt. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me,” Trump told Zelensky, in reference to Joe Biden.

On Tuesday, Trump confirmed that military aid to Ukraine had been withheld but said he had done this to try and pressure European nations to increase their contributions to the country. Two presidents have been impeached in US history - Andrew Johnson in 1868, and Bill Clinton in 1998. But neither were removed from office by a Senate trial. Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 before he could be impeached.

For months now, Democratic leaders have been playing a semantics game. They wanted those who supported and those who opposed a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump to both think they were getting what they wanted.

This strategy suggested Pelosi and others feared that heading down the path to impeachment would put moderate Democrats facing tough 2020 re-election fights at risk. That calculation has changed after the rapid drumbeat of new revelations about Trump’s contacts with the Ukrainian president. Now even middle-of-the road politicians are coming out in favour of impeachment proceedings.

 

 

Biden has denied wrongdoing and no evidence has emerged to back up the claims against him. He has also said he supports impeachment proceedings unless the US president complies with investigations.

Impeaching Mr Trump “would be a tragedy”, Biden said. “But a tragedy of his making.” He is the current frontrunner to take on Trump in the 2020 election.