Reporter Roundtable: Trump Impeachment Inquiry

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 11:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the country yesterday, she stood in front of a row of American flags. She insisted that her duty to the country required her to take a step that she had previously resisted. Pelosi will formally view the House investigations of President Trump to be an impeachment inquiry.

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NANCY PELOSI: The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our election.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, President Trump has publicly admitted raising his political rival Joe Biden in a phone conversation with Ukraine's president. So there's not much doubt about that. Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has publicly admitted that he sought information for his client from Ukrainian officials. The president has also admitted that he suspended military aid to Ukraine, though he's given various reasons for doing that.

So many facts are out in the open, although so much is yet unknown, so let's talk through what we know so far with NPR's senior political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: And also NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow is here in our studios. Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning.

INSKEEP: What key pieces of information are still unknown?

DETROW: Actually a lot. Congress still has not seen the whistleblower complaint that started all of this. The administration has not turned it over. And Speaker Pelosi argues that is clearly required by law. That is a big part of what many of the more moderate Democrats said yesterday when they came out in favor of moving forward with impeachment.

They'd said they supported impeachment if this was true and if the White House keeps not providing the information. We also have not seen the transcript of what could've been a key call between President Trump and Ukraine's president. That's something President Trump is promising he'll make public today.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let's just get the president's exact words on this. He says that he will release the, quote, "complete and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation." Former White House officials have cast doubt about, is this really a transcript? Is it some notes? We don't know what it really is because we haven't seen it. But the president has promised this.

DETROW: So I think Democrats are certainly taking a short-term, big political risk if the underlying documents are not as clear-cut as this initial wave of reporting. And remember, that's something that happened when the Mueller report finally came out - a lot of damning evidence, a lot of major concerns about laws that may have been broken, but not a clear-cut conclusion of this definitely violated a law. And that left Democrats kind of in a lurch - that is, until this Ukraine story happened. And Pelosi and a lot of Democrats said, this is a line too far. We need to act.

INSKEEP: We do, though, have the president making this promise. We have the Office of the Director of National Intelligence apparently talking through a lawyer with Congress about getting the whistleblower in front of Congress. So, Domenico, can the White House disclose its way out of this, release more information and cause this to go away somehow?

MONTANARO: Maybe. Not necessarily. How's that for an answer?

INSKEEP: OK.

MONTANARO: I mean...

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INSKEEP: Thank you very much. Domenico Montanaro, ladies and gentlemen...

MONTANARO: There you go. I think...

INSKEEP: ...No. Please, continue.

MONTANARO: I think we have to actually see what's released, then what's actually in them. I mean, is this going to be the real transcript of the entire call, as you pointed out, or just someone's, you know, more detailed notes in the White House? Will the whistleblower complaint actually be sent to Congress in full? Will the whistleblower be allowed to testify in open Congress? And why did it take, by the way, saying the word impeachment for the Trump administration to even take these steps?

So there's a lot of questions to be answered before we can say or see if it mitigates steps to impeachment. And remember, yesterday, Nancy Pelosi said there are a whole lot of other elements that have happened that certainly are potentially impeachable offenses.

INSKEEP: Is it fair to point out that we're still relatively early in this process? And Pelosi's step, while dramatic, doesn't move the ball that much, right? It could be that this is something that you threaten in order to get documents and information out of the White House. It could be something you go through with, but it would take months to do. Is that right?

DETROW: Absolutely. And in terms of what happens next with any inquiry, nothing really changes. The key committees - committees like judiciary, oversight, intelligence - are continuing to investigate as they've been doing since Democrats took control of the House, essentially, investigating various aspects of this. They will deliver information to Pelosi, who will move forward.

So what changed here is the political sense that Nancy Pelosi, who had been incredibly hesitant to go down this road, has now said, I as the speaker of the House endorse this idea. I'm willing to move forward. So now the reality of an impeachment vote on the House floor has come forward. And that changes the political sense.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the political sense of this, Domenico. I know this is another question you can't answer because we're casting forward in the future. But let's at least put the information that is available out there. One reason for Democrats to be reluctant to go for impeachment is because it could be politically damaging. It could backfire on them. And it might not work at all. What are the politics of this? What are the potential pitfalls for each side?

MONTANARO: I mean, first of all, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this was a historic day. I mean, really, only four presidents - three before this president - have faced impeachment proceedings. You know, Richard Nixon wound up resigning before he could actually be impeached.

And historically - look, we should note, impeachment has never been all that popular. That hasn't stopped past Congresses, though. You know, Nixon, for example, just 19% of people supported impeachment at the beginning of that process. It only got over 50% in the week that he resigned.

INSKEEP: Wow.

MONTANARO: Currently, when we look at polling, it's in about the 40s when you look at whether or not you support impeachment or continuing investigations. A Reuters/Ipsos poll out last night found that support for impeachment, you know, ticked down slightly to about 37% overall. But the more people knew about this Ukraine call, the more they favored impeachment.

INSKEEP: Really? That's interesting to know. I guess, then, the next question is how we should view that. It's easy to be cynical about lawmakers and say, well, they're only going to act if a poll tells them that more than 50% of the people wants them to or that their political base does. But is that actually how this works, Domenico? It is a political process, not exactly a legal process?

MONTANARO: I think Nancy Pelosi was looking at that kind of information and was saying, look, we don't want to get into a situation like in the late '90s, where President Clinton was impeached. And then it wound up that Clinton wound up doing better politically standing wise - you know, wound up leaving office with over 60% approval rating. What this means, though, now is we are down a path toward impeachment. And this is going to become a major, major messaging fight over the next several months politically.

This is going to be about - again, if people - the more they know about the Ukraine call, then they more support impeachment. If that continues to be the case, then you're going to see Democrats having to hammer what this - what actually happened on this call. Pelosi says that this is the most understandable of all of the potentially impeachable offenses. Well, let's see if she and Democrats can make the case.

INSKEEP: Scott.

DETROW: And I think that's why this was so notable that Speaker Pelosi took this step. One of the things that she'll say in almost every speech that she gives is that public sentiment is everything, that lawmakers, leaders need to move with the public. That is how she's viewed impeachment all along.

She is now moving ahead of the public. And she's doing so, as she laid out to Democrats yesterday, because the reports, the allegations are so serious, she thinks they will severely damage the constitutional responsibilities of the presidency.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks to you.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.