Path toward impeachment takes shape with primary focus on Ukraine revelations

House Intelligence Committee will work through recess on whistleblower complaint as Ukraine becomes focus for impeachment.
Image: Donald Trump
White House officials moved records of some of the president's communications with foreign officials onto a separate computer network, according to a whistleblower's complaint. Evan Vucci / AP

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By Heidi Przybyla, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Alex Moe and Geoff Bennett

WASHINGTON — The path forward for a formal impeachment process against President Donald Trump is taking shape among House Democrats, with aides and lawmakers describing the whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a political rival as both a primary focus and a tipping point.

“The consensus in our caucus is that focus now is on this allegation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. “All of the other work that relates to abuse of power, ignoring subpoenas of government, of Congress, abuse — contempt of Congress by him — those things will be considered later.”

For months, the House Judiciary Committee has been the backdrop for an investigation into the president and his encouragement of foreign assistance from Russia in the 2016 race. Now the epicenter will shift to the Intelligence Committee, where Pelosi’s close ally, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, will be center stage conducting hearings.

The speaker has said she wants to move “expeditiously,” and that likely means weeks, not months, according to sources. “As soon as the Intel Committee has finished its work, she is likely to say to the other committee chairs, ‘whatever you have that’s ready to go, send it,’” a source close to the investigation told NBC News.

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In an initial hearing on Thursday looking at the complaint with acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Schiff and his colleagues elicited a promise that the anonymous whistleblower, who alleges Trump is “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” will be permitted to testify before Congress.

While Congress is set to depart on a two-week recess Friday, the Intelligence Committee plans to keep pushing ahead, and two sources tell NBC News that another hearing is in the works for next week.

“We’ll be working through the recess,” Schiff told reporters Thursday. “I think the complaint gives us a pretty good roadmap of allegations that we need to investigate.” The committee will also continue to pursue hearing from the whistleblower directly.

“We do anticipate bringing in witnesses next week,” Schiff said, but wouldn’t elaborate on details.

Moving the focus to the Intelligence Committee and Trump’s dealings with Ukraine will help Democrats streamline their messaging about impeachment as Pelosi views the president’s misconduct in this particular instance as simple and straightforward, according to aides.

Aides say they expect more revelations about what is alleged to be a concerted effort by the president to withhold military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. “Over the past four months, more than half a dozen U.S. officials have informed me of various facts related to this effort,” according to the whistleblower complaint.

According to the summary of a July 25 phone call between the two leaders released by the White House this week, Trump asked Zelenskiy for a favor and urged him to look into potentially damaging material on Biden, a Democratic presidential front-runner, and offered the assistance of Attorney General William Barr. “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,” the summary quotes Trump as saying.

Ukraine is a country that is dependent on U.S. aid after Russia invaded and annexed a portion of its territory in 2014, and the conversation between the two leaders took place in the context of an ongoing discussion about pending aid that Congress had already approved.

In addition to the whistleblower’s testimony, aides note that a summary of the July phone call between the president and Zelenskiy includes multiple ellipses, or omitted exchanges, after Trump’s name that they hope will be filled in, shedding more light on the president’s actions. According to the whistleblower complaint, White House officials moved the records of some of Mr. Trump’s communications with foreign officials onto a separate computer network from where they are normally stored.

But multiple committees are moving forward with more complex and time-consuming probes into possible corruption and abuse of power by Trump and his administration. Those areas, including Trump’s tax returns, emoluments clause violations, and concerns raised in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, have been mired in the courts and have failed to capture public attention in a way Democrats had hoped.

The committees will furnish reports, which, like the Intelligence Committee’s probe on Ukraine, will be sent to the Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with drafting specific articles of impeachment. And elements of those investigations could be part of any articles of impeachment brought to the floor.