The early-afternoon statement from Staten Island Congressman Max Rose Sept. 24 began like his standard explanation for not supporting the impeachment of President Trump: “The American people are absolutely disgusted with our politics to the point it’s assumed that corrupt behavior is so widespread that it’s part of the process…It’s assumed that Republicans and Democrats will always put winning ahead of the country. And it’s now assumed that it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, the opposing party will try to impeach them.”
That climate, he added, was “why I have opposed a partisan impeachment process that would only deepen those divisions, not solve them.”
He then added, “However, a President attempting to blackmail a foreign government into targeting American citizens is not just another example of scorched-earth politics. It would be an invitation to the enemies of the United States to come after any citizen so long as they happen to disagree with the President.
‘Americans Deserve the Truth’
“The American people deserve the truth and Congress needs the facts,” Mr. Rose’s statement added. “That’s why I’m calling on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and my Republican colleagues to put country over party and join me in demanding that the Trump Administration release all documents related to the whistleblower case. This is a serious crisis, all options must now be on the table, and it’s time Republicans are as interested in the truth as the American people.”
Less than two hours later, Mr. Trump tweeted that he had authorized the release the following day “of the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine.” He then added that it would show it was a “totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”
By late afternoon, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who for most of the year had been tamping down expectations that House Democrats would launch impeachment proceedings, made clear she believed Mr. Trump had crossed a line and she no longer feared the political fallout if she took him on. After meeting with chairs of the various House committees that have been conducting inquiries into his conduct, she told reporters, “The actions taken to date by the President have seriously violated the Constitution” and he “must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
Dozens of Democrats who previously opposed impeachment crossed the threshold with her. Some were longtime allies who had deferred to her judgment until she decided the time was right. But others were among the roughly three dozen freshman Democrats who gained office last year by winning in congressional districts that Mr. Trump had carried in 2016. Ms. Pelosi had been especially reluctant to put their seats at risk next year by pursuing an impeachment process that, even if the House voted to charge the President, seemed likely to be short-circuited by the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
But a day earlier, Haley Stevens of Michigan, who won a longtime Republican seat in the Detroit suburbs whose voters helped Mr. Trump narrowly capture the state in 2016, had joined the move to impeach in the wake of a Washington Post report that the President had ordered Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold $391 milllion in military aid for Ukraine last July prior to Mr. Trump allegedly telling that nation’s President during a phone call that he wanted him to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
The President told reporters at the United Nations Tuesday morning that he had held up the military aid but claimed that he did so because he wanted other European nations to pay their fair share. But that contradicted earlier statements he made accusing Mr. Biden, in 2016 while still Vice President, of pressing for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Mr. Trump said had been investigating an energy company that placed Hunter Biden on its board of directors for as much as $50,000 a month. Mr. Trump claimed Mr. Biden had threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Mr. Shokin was dismissed, which he ultimately was.
But Mr. Shokin had been accused by other Obama Administration officials and other international leaders of turning a blind eye to corruption in the Ukraine, including some involving his own aides and top Ukrainian political officials.
Mr. Biden last year, according to the New York Times, said that during a visit to the Ukraine while Vice President he had told top government officials, “We’re leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.” No evidence has emerged, however, that the former Vice President engaged in any wrongdoing.
Mr. Trump was accused in a complaint secretly filed in August by a member of the U.S. intelligence community of applying inappropriate pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by holding up $391 million in authorized U.S. military aid, which the country needed to protect itself against Russian aggression, unless corruption charges against Joe and Hunter Biden were pursued there. At the time, the former Vice President was not only the clear front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination but the one candidates who polls showed easily defeating Mr. Trump in a head-to-head matchup next year. The polls since then have tightened in the primary battle, with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren emerging as a serious challenger to Mr. Biden, and the two of them were among five Democrats with leads over Mr. Trump of at least nine points in a voter survey released Aug. 28 by Quinnipiac University.
Another previously on-the-fence Michigan rookie Congresswoman who was elected in a district the President won in 2016, Elissa Slotkin, had been among seven new Representatives who authored a Washington Post op-ed stating that if the allegations of improper pressure on a foreign leader by Mr. Trump were true, “we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense.” Ms. Slotkin, the paper noted, was a former CIA officer who spent extensive time in the Middle East and became Director for Iraq Policy on the National Security Council, then worked for both the State Department and the Pentagon prior to her election.
Ms. Pelosi was particularly biting in describing the new alleged abuse of authority circling the White House, saying, “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of the President’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
Positioned as Moderate
Congressman Rose, an Iraq War veteran, unseated Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan last November despite Mr. Trump’s endorsement of the incumbent. He ran as a moderate, making clear he was not enamored of Ms. Pelosi and refraining from criticizing Mr. Donovan for his failure, as Staten Island District Attorney in 2016, to secure an indictment against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.
Asked why the latest episode of questionable behavior by Mr. Trump in dealings with a foreign leader would have prompted Mr. Rose to, while stopping short of calling for impeachment, start calling out Republicans, State Sen. Diane Savino said that Mr. Trump’s holding back the allocated aid for the Ukraine amounted to “a serious breach of protocol, at the least. This really does warrant a much-closer look.”
Her State Senate district covers much of the same area Mr. Rose represents in the House: a sizable chunk of Staten Island and a slice of western Brooklyn. Asked whether his demand for the whistleblower documents indicated his constituents—who overwhelmingly backed Mr. Trump in 2016—might be having second thoughts, she replied, “If you’re a hard-line Trump supporter, you’re willing to overlook anything; if you’re a hard-line Trump opponent, you want to investigate everything. The vast majority of the people [in the district] are neither. But when it seems like the President has committed a serious abuse of power, I think they’re going to want to know more about it.”
Speaking from Ireland, Ms. Savino said she doubted that constituent sentiment about Mr. Trump’s actions had taken shape enough to have persuaded Mr. Rose to suddenly be prodding Republican officials to pressure the White House, even as he stopped short of endorsing impeachment hearings. Rather, “It’s an indication that he changed his position because he has real concerns about the President’s behavior: ethical, legal, moral,” she said.
When the White House the following day released a rough draft of the transcript of the President’s July 25 phone conversation with the Ukrainian President, it became clear those concerns were justified.
He stated that the U.S. “has been very, very good to Ukraine,” prompting President Zelensky to say, “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps; specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
‘Do Us a Favor’
Perhaps sensing that this was an allusion to the military aid he had withheld earlier in the month, Mr. Trump then said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” After making a couple of references to hacking and Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server related to the 2016 election, Mr. Trump said, “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down, and you had some very bad people involved.”
The President then responded to a remark Mr. Zelensky had made about a conversation one of his assistants had with Rudy Giuliani by saying, “Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the Mayor of New York City, a great Mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General [referring to William Barr]. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him, that would be great.”
That account of the conversation had particular resonance for a couple of reasons. One was that several weeks after it took place, Mr. Giuliani had embarrassed himself during an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo by initially denying he had spoken with Ukrainian officials about investigating Mr. Biden but, pressed 25 seconds later on whether he had made a call, sputtered, “Of course I did.”
The other was that Chris Christie, in an interview with ABC-TV’s George Stephanopoulos a few hours before the transcript was posted, said that the only aspect of Mr. Trump’s part of the conversation that could do real damage to him would be “if he’s saying, listen, do me a favor: you know, investigative Joe Biden…”
The administration’s hope that releasing the full transcript would defuse the uproar with some careful spinning didn’t pan out. Nor did Mr. Trump’s alternative explanation for why he held up the military aid authorized by Congress: that he believed the U.S. was paying a disproportionate share of the foreign aid to the Ukraine in comparison to European nations. As veteran New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker stated in a tweet, between 2013 and 2017, the U.S. had provided the Ukraine with $1.3 billion in aid plus $600 million in security assistance, while the European Union since 2014 had sent the country $16.5 billion.
Shakedown to Get Dirt?
Bill Kristol, one of Mr. Trump’s critics from what used to be regarded as the conservative establishment before the President hijacked the national Republican Party, tweeted, “So: in order to get dirt on a political opponent, the president removed a U.S. ambassador, used (paid?) a private citizen [Mr. Giuliani] to threaten a foreign government, personally called a foreign leader, and delayed disbursing appropriated funds for that nation. All to get dirt on Joe Biden.”
As former Clinton Administration official Matthew Miller tweeted, “If this is the part the White House wanted us to see, what else is out there?”
A good indication—although not for Mr. Trump—came forth the following day when the complaint by the whistleblower, whom The Times said sources had indicated was a CIA officer who had been detailed to work at the White House, was released.
Addressed to the respective chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Adam Schiff, the whistleblower began, “I am reporting an ‘urgent concern’“ as required under law, then stated, “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals. The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appeared to be involved as well.”
The whistleblower stated that his information had come from “more than a half-dozen U.S. officials…in the course of official interagency business.”
He noted, “I was not a direct witness to most of the events described. However, I found my colleagues’ accounts of these events to be credible because, in almost all cases, multiple officials recounted fact patterns that were consistent with one another. In addition, a variety of information consistent with these private accounts has been reported publicly.”
After stating that he believed the alleged misconduct amounted to “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse or violation of law or Executive Order,” he added, “I am also concerned that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.”
An Unreliable Prosecutor?
He noted that during the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, “The President also praised Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Mr. Yuriy Lutsenko, and suggested that Mr. Zelensky might want to keep him in his position. (Note: Starting in March 2019, Mr. Lutsenko made a series of public allegations—many of which he later walked back—about the Biden family’s activities in Ukraine, Ukrainian officials’ purported involvement in the 2016 U.S. election, and the activities of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.”
The whistleblower continued, “Based on my understanding, there were approximately a dozen White House officials who listened to the call—a mixture of policy officials and duty officers in the White House Situation Room, as is customary. The officials I spoke with told me that participation in the call had not been restricted in advance because everyone expected it would be a ‘routine’ call with a foreign leader. I do not know whether anyone was physically present with the President during the call.”
He then described an alleged cover-up once it became clear that Mr. Trump over the course of that call may have crossed serious legal lines. “In the days following the phone call,” the whistle-blower stated, “I learned from multiple U.S. officials that senior White House officials had intervened to ‘lock down’ all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced—as is customary—by the White House Situation Room. This set of actions underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call. White House officials told me that they were ‘directed’ by White House lawyers to remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored for coordination, finalization and distribution to Cabinet-level officials.”
The actions he said took place were the kind of response generated when people who have either done something improper or work for someone who has realize that they are sitting on dynamite.
Defenders of Mr. Trump, as well as the President himself, questioned the veracity of the whistle-blower based on his having gotten most of his information second-hand. That argument was substantially undermined, however, by the fact that his account matched up so closely with the transcript of the call that had been released by the White House.
Mr. Trump also fell back into his pose as a tough guy, telling staffers from the United States Mission to the United Nations that anyone who provided information to the whistleblower was “close to a spy,” then alluded to the practice “in the old days” of hanging those who were convicted of espionage.
Did Business With Mafia
According to a Times account, “The remark stunned people in the audience.” But Mr. Trump during much of his business career has walked on the wild side, and was known to boast that during the 1980s he was purchasing concrete for his construction projects from a firm jointly owned by Gambino Crime Family boss Paul Castellano and the purported head of the Genovese Crime Family, Fat Tony Salerno.
Mr. Giuliani, during his time as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, prosecuted both Mr. Castellano, who in mid-trial was murdered at the order of John Gotti, and Mr. Salerno. As Mayor, he fetishized “The Godfather” with repeated showings of the classic movie attended by young aides. His fixation on that film seemed curious for a man whose path to elected office had been paved by his successful prosecutions of mobsters, as well as crooked politicians.
But it is no more curious than his apparently going down the road with Mr. Trump that has placed both men in legal jeopardy—and put Attorney General Barr in a precarious spot as well, based on the transcript of the call in which the President indicated that he, too, was part of the sordid business to build a political case against Mr. Biden.
In a bizarre way, Mr. Giuliani—once as vivid a symbol of law-and-order as could be found in this country—has wound up in an international version of “The Godfather”: he has the portfolio of Tom Hagen and has handled it with the brains of Moe Green.
As for Mr. Trump, he’s continued to thumb his nose at the law even after late in life taking an oath of office to uphold it. If the conversation with Mr. Zelensky, with the hints of a shakedown that are the most that gangsters—as well as his legal mentor who had his own mob ties, Roy Cohn—generally needed to get a desired result, is the beginning of the end of his presidency, it will be a variation on a familiar tale.
Since largely evaded political responsibility for Russian involvement in the 2016 election, notwithstanding Robert Mueller’s finding that there were 10 possible instances of obstruction of justice in connection with his probe that were avenues for Congress to explore, Mr. Trump seems to have learned nothing from apparently dodging that bullet. If he is undone by his attempt to get a foreign leader to aid his re-election bid this time around, it will be an old story in a new wrapping: someone dumb enough to get caught by returning to the scene of the crime.
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