House Democrats are bringing the impeachment focus back to Russia as they draft formal charges against President Donald Trump.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is connecting the dots — “all roads lead to Putin,” she says — and making the argument that Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine was not an isolated incident but part of a troubling bond with the Russian president reaching back to special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings on the 2016 election.
“This has been going on for two-and-a-half years,” Ms Pelosi said on Friday.
A day earlier she said: “This isn’t about Ukraine … It’s about Russia. Who benefited by our withholding of that military assistance (to Ukraine)? Russia.”
The framing is taking on greater urgency and importance, both as a practical matter and a political one, as Democrats move seriously into writing the articles of impeachment.
It’s an attempt to explain why Americans should care that Trump pushed Ukraine to investigate rival Joe Biden while withholding $400 million in military aid that Congress had approved for the struggling Eastern European ally fighting a border war with Russia.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Well I don’t know about Ukraine. I don’t know that much about Ukraine’,” Pelosi said on Thursday after announcing the decision to draft formal charges. “Well, our adversary in this is Russia. All roads lead to Putin. Understand that.”
At the same time, tracing the arc of Mr Trump’s behaviour from the 2016 campaign to the present, stitches it all together.
And that helps the speaker balance her left-flank liberals, who want more charges brought against the president, including from Mr Mueller’s report, and centrist Democrats who prefer to keep the argument more narrowly focused on Ukraine.
Ms Pelosi and her team are trying to convey a message that impeachment is indeed about Ukraine — Mr Trump’s asking-for-a-favour phone call that sparked the probe — but also about a pattern of behaviour that could stoke renewed concern about his attitude toward Russia ahead of the 2020 election.
“It shows that a leopard doesn’t change his spots,” said Representative Eric Swalwell, a member of the Intelligence Committee, which drafted the 300-page report on the Ukraine inquiry that serves as the foundation for the impeachment proceedings.
With articles of impeachment coming in a matter of days and votes in the House expected by Christmas, Mr Trump’s team is hardening its argument that the president did nothing wrong. They say voters will stick with him at the Democrats’ expense next November.
Late on Friday, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone informed the Judiciary Committee that the administration would not be participating in upcoming hearings, decrying the proceedings as “completely baseless.”
And Mr Trump’s campaign announced new rallies taking the case directly to voters — as well as a new email fundraising pitch that claims the Democrats have “gone absolutely insane.”‘
“The Democrats have NO impeachment case and are demeaning our great Country at YOUR expense,” Mr Trump wrote in the email to supporters. “It’s US against THEM.”
Democratic lawmakers and aides were to work behind closed doors over the weekend as the articles were being drafted. Judiciary Committee members are preparing for hearings and votes expected next week.
The articles are likely to encompass two major themes — abuse of office and obstruction — as the drafters strive to reach the Constitution’s bar of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.
But they could be divided up into multiple articles.
Democrats argue Mr Trump abused his office when he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a “favour” during a July 25 phone call congratulating the newly-elected comedian-turned-president.
Mr Trump wanted Ukraine to announce it was investigating Democrats including Mr Biden, according to a rough transcript released under pressure by the White House.
They might also include a charge of “bribery”, based on Mr Trump’s decision to withhold the military aid and stall on granting Mr Zelenskiy a coveted White House visit the new president was seeking as a show of support from the US, its most important ally. The money was eventually released once Congress began investigating in September. The meeting never happened.
Obstruction articles could include obstruction of Congress, as the White House ordered officials not to comply with House subpoenas for testimony or documents in the impeachment inquiry. They could also include obstruction of justice, based on Mr Mueller’s report on the original Trump-Russia investigation.
There is still robust internal debate among House Democrats over how many articles to write and how much to include — and particularly whether there should be specific mention of Mr Mueller’s findings from his two-year investigation into Mr Trump’s possible role in Russia’s 2016 election interference.
The special counsel could not determine that Mr Trump’s campaign conspired or coordinated with Russia. However, Mr Mueller said he could not exonerate Mr Trump of obstructing justice in the probe and left it for Congress to determine.
Ms Pelosi is particularly protective of the views of the new class of freshman lawmakers, who won elections in 2018 to give Democrats the House majority and will be up for re-election in 2020.
Many of those Democrats who supported launching the impeachment probe have yet to say whether they will vote to impeach.