On Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of an official impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s constitutional violations, focusing on his alleged efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to undermine Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden. Earlier in the day on Tuesday, Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy had issued a statement calling on the House to begin an impeachment inquiry into the president’s “corrupt efforts to press a foreign nation into the service of his reelection campaign.” Murphy noted in his statement that despite his inclination to allow the House to consider its options free from senatorial advice, he could no longer remain silent in the face of lawbreaking. (As more information about the president’s relationship with Zelensky has become public in recent days, the impeachment inquiry has taken on new urgency.)
Earlier this month, Murphy traveled to Kyiv, where he met with Zelensky. I reached out to ask him about the nexus between Ukraine-gate, which needs a better name, and Tuesday’s reluctant calls for impeachment. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: Sen. Murphy, in some sense we’ve been down this road already. Wasn’t the very basis of the Mueller report that a foreign power had intervened in the 2016 elections, and didn’t Mueller find that as a matter of indisputable fact? Mueller also warned that Russia would manipulate the 2020 election, and that didn’t seem to elicit calls for action.
Why is the Ukraine scandal any different?
Sen. Chris Murphy: This moment with Ukraine is different because the president clearly asked a foreign country to coordinate with his reelection campaign to serve his political ends—and in plain sight. The president of the United States should never be allowed to use the Oval Office for personal gain, especially when it includes leveraging away the international credibility of the United States. This is really a turning point. If the president can get away with this, then there’s no stopping him or any future incumbent from using the awesome power of the executive branch in order to punish political opponents. That undermines the very foundation of our system of government.
Donald Trump has offered several benign explanations for his multiple attempts to have Zelensky reopen the Hunter Biden probe. On Tuesday, he seemed to have settled on the claim that there was no quid pro quo, so nothing inappropriate could have occurred. Does that settle the matter?
Obviously not. When the president demanded a foreign government [to] do his political bidding, that’s when he crossed the critical threshold. Just because the president didn’t hyperexplicitly threaten to cut off aid at the exact moment he demanded the corruption does not mean the message wasn’t crystal clear to the Ukrainians about what his demands were. There is an implicit threat in any demand that a president makes of a foreign nation, especially a nation so dependent on us as Ukraine. The idea that a president can solicit corruption and get away with it just because he doesn’t also, at the exact same time, threaten another nation is absurd.
One of the challenges with this president is that so much of the bad acts happen openly and flagrantly, ranging from attacks on judges or the free press, to self-enrichment via Trump properties. It leads me to wonder why we seem to be more mobilized by the things he does behind closed doors than that which he does, almost daily, out in the open?
I think there is some malevolent genius in the president’s habit of brazenly advertising his corruption. As a nation, we are conditioned to believe that bad actions will be concealed, so when the president’s corrupt actions are out in the open, it throws us all off a bit. I think this incident is rising to the next level of concern because it fundamentally compromises our entire nation’s security, maybe in a way that other actions have not. If the world simply sees our foreign policy as an extension of the president’s reelection campaign, it drives away potential allies and makes us much less safe.
One of the reasons proffered for not moving forward with impeachment is that Senate Republicans will not vote to convict, under any circumstances, such that the result is a foregone conclusion. Can you imagine any set of facts under which your colleagues on the other side of the aisle might bring themselves to convict? An actual quid pro quo withholding of aid money? Refusal to share the whistleblower report? Shooting someone on Fifth Avenue?
We don’t even have a clue whether we will actually have articles of impeachment, so I think it’s way too early to guess what Senate Republicans will do if there is actually an impeachment trial. For me, these newly uncovered actions are so serious that it doesn’t really matter how the politics fall. The American experiment is fragile, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen its checks and balances tested by leaders who see them as an inconvenience. But ultimately, I think that the seriousness of the moment requires all of us to speak out in order to preserve our commitment to the rule of law.
Last question. Pelosi announced the start of an “official impeachment inquiry.” Is that what you were seeking? How does that differ from what the House was de facto already doing? Does it empower the House to do anything differently or is it largely the same oversight and litigation, with a narrower focus and some new urgency and maybe some more authority in court proceedings? Do you think it wise to limit the probe to Ukraine as opposed to all the past acts?
I’ve already butted into the House’s business by recommending they proceed with impeachment. I’m not going to tell the House how to run the details of their process. It’s up to them to decide how they want to approach this. I guess my only hope is that the process moves as quickly as possible and that if it comes to a trial in the Senate, we’re not holding it next September.