WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that House Democrats will launch a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, taking a historic step that could result in the third impeachment of a president.
In a short televised statement, Pelosi escalated the battle between Democrats in Congress and the president, setting up a process that will intensify the investigation into Trump and likely will be met with equal force by the White House.
“Today, I'm announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry,” Pelosi said. "The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law."
Pelosi tied the historic step to Trump’s effort to enlist Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden and his family.
“The president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically,” she said.
“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,” Pelosi said.
Trump responded by calling it “a total Witch Hunt!” in a tweet from the United Nations. He added, “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”
In another tweet, he said: "Such an important day at the United Nations, so much work and so much success, and the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage. So bad for our Country!"
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused Democrats of trying to reverse the 2016 election of Trump. McCarthy also challenged whether Pelosi had the authority to make the announcement that she did.
"She cannot unilaterally decide we’re in an impeachment inquiry," McCarthy said. "What she said today made no difference."
While a vote in the full House approved the start of an impeachment inquiry for Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Daniel Schwarz, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), said no House vote is needed to launch the inquiry.
Pelosi also said the Trump administration “violated the law” when acting Director of National Intelligence James Maguire refused to transmit a whistleblower complaint that his inspector general found “credible” and “urgent” to Congress’ intelligence committees.
Pelosi’s announcement came after Biden called on Congress to open an impeachment inquiry — belatedly joining other Democratic candidates for president — and as a growing number of House Democrats, including moderates, voiced support for it Tuesday.
For Pelosi, the call for an inquiry represented a turnaround. Since January, she has braked her progressive wing’s drive to impeach the president, fearful it would invigorate Trump voters and harm reelection prospects among moderate House Democrats.
But Pelosi said that of all the many issues that Democrats have raised as impeachable offenses — including his obstruction of the Mueller investigation and personal enrichment while in office — his actions to get help for his campaign from Ukraine is the most easily understood by the public.
Pelosi indicated there would be little change in House Democrats' current approach. “I'm directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” she said.
The inquiry does not mean that the House will actually approve articles of impeachment, an act that would begin the impeachment trial before the Senate. Even if the House takes that step, the Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to vote to remove the president.
In his short statement, Biden dismissed Trump’s attacks on himself and instead focused on Trump's refusal to cooperate with House Democrats in their scores of investigations into him by blocking testimony and refusing to honor requests for information.
“Denying Congress the information, which it is constitutionally entitled to, and obstructing its efforts to investigate actions is not the conduct of an American president,” Biden said. “It's an abuse of power. It undermines our national security. It violates his oath of office, and it strikes at the heart of the sworn responsibility of the president. The president has to put national interest before personal interest.”
While Biden and Pelosi urged Congress to fight back against Trump’s refusal to cooperate with lawmakers’ requests for information and testimony, the president made a concession, tweeting he would release the transcript of his phone call with Zelensky.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that was not enough. He proposed a resolution to demand that Maguire transmit the whistleblower’s complaint to the intelligence committees.
“Getting the transcript is a good step, but it is the complaint that we need,” Schumer said. The resolution passed unanimously.
Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the lawyer for the whistleblower who lodged the formal complaint with the intelligence community inspector general "would like to speak to our committee and has requested guidance” from Maguire on how to do so. Schiff said the whistleblower’s testimony could come as soon as this week.
Pelosi made her statement after she spoke with the leaders of the six House committees that have been investigating Trump and his administration and the full House Democratic caucus in a closed-door meeting.
Democrats have stepped up their interest in a potential impeachment of Trump after reports broke about the whistleblower complaint and after Trump admitted he had urged Zelensky on July 25 to reopen the investigation of Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani accused Biden of withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine when he was vice president in 2014 until the country’s officials fired a prosecutor who had investigated the gas company that had paid Hunter Biden.
The United States was joined by other European countries in pushing for the removal of the prosecutor because he was not acting to end corruption in Ukraine. Later, a new appointed prosecutor did not investigate the gas company.
Trump’s phone call came soon after he had suspended nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine approved by Congress. But Trump has repeatedly said that in that call, there was no “quid pro quo.”
But Pelosi, at the Atlantic Festival held by an online news outlet, said that Trump “had crossed the Rubicon” and that for an impeachable offense, “there is no requirement there be a quid pro quo in the conversation.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Pelosi's announcement.