Yesterday, in announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump—whatever that might mean different from what’s already been going on—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began by citing what she called “a violation of the law.” Said violation is the refusal of the Trump administration to hand over the “whistleblower” report to Congress. “I can say with authority the Trump administration’s actions undermine both our national security and our intelligence and our protections of the whistleblowers, more than both,” the speaker declared. “This Thursday, the Acting Director of National Intelligence will appear before the House Intelligence Committee. At that time, he must turn over the whistleblower’s full complaint to the Committee. He will have to choose whether to break the law or honor his responsibility to the Constitution.”
An hour or two later came word that the White House is likely going to release the whistleblower statement to Congress by the end of the week. In other words, the threat (combined with a “sense of the Senate” resolution to which no Republican objected yesterday) shook the tree. Congress will get the report. And poof, one of the two reasons Pelosi gave for making the impeachment inquiry formal will no longer be operative.
Now, if the report is incredibly damaging, of course, this is a distinction without a difference. In that case it will be a crucial piece of circumstantial support for the second and more dangerous allegation for Trump, which is that he used the powers of the presidency to compel a third party in another country to go after a political rival. And surely that is what the report itself infers, otherwise we wouldn’t be at this point today.
But it matters what the evidence is that bolsters the contention. If, as at least one report suggests, the whistleblower did not in fact personally hear Trump on the phone call but was only relaying second-hand information, Congress will find itself trying to adjudicate the facts in a game of political telephone. And if the transcript, or whatever it is, of the phone call between the president and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky does not feature Trump saying “give me what I want or I’ll punish you,” Pelosi and the Democrats will find themselves on the defensive if they argue that it is meet and proper to vote to remove a president from office for a series of thought associations.
All of this may suggest a deep imprudence on the part of Pelosi and the Democrats, insisting on taking impeachment to the next level before they actually know what is in the transcript and what the whistleblower report says.
The question here is what Pelosi already knows. By which I mean, maybe House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff has been told what’s in the whistleblower report and has been protecting the whistleblower from possible leak charges by acting as though he doesn’t. (This would be akin to a journalist protecting a source.) And maybe he has conveyed that information to Vladi—I mean, to Pelosi, in a way that has broken down her reticence about impeachment and has led her to think it could now be a positive rather than a dangerous negative for her caucus.
This is rank speculation, but then, so is much of the commentary on this whole matter. Would Pelosi be so feckless as to undertake a move toward impeachment without knowing more than the information publicly available? Trump has said he talked to Zelensky about the matter, and at the very least, that seems indefensible. But indefensible and impeachable are not synonyms—and just as Trump was playing with fire by raising the conduct of Joe Biden’s son with Zelensky, Pelosi would be playing with fire if she has gone ahead in this way without knowing what the supporting documentation actually says. Which is why I wonder whether she does already know what the documents say.