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What spurred House Democrats to ramp up impeachment efforts?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday announced an official impeachment inquiry -- but what exactly ramped up Democrats’ political momentum toward impeachment? And what's next for President Trump and Republicans? Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins join William Brangham for a broader look at the latest developments.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now for a broader look at some of these developments, how House Democrats got to this point, what's next for them, for the Republicans and for the president, again, our Lisa Desjardins is on Capitol Hill tracking the latest, and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor is following the president at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

    Welcome to you both.

    Lisa, to you first.

    What a difference a day makes. Help me understand. With a few exceptions, the facts that were on the table yesterday are largely the same facts that are on the table today. How did this change so dramatically?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's a great question, William.

    I think, talking to Democratic aides, even those most closely involved in the decisions today didn't expecting things to move quite this quickly.

    I do think a sign of the blowing kind of momentum was that letter from the seven House Democratic freshmen. They weren't just any freshman. They really were seen as almost holdouts on the question of impeachment. And they also are seen as having some of the most credibility when it comes to national security.

    So when they came out as a group late last night saying, we think it's time the move further on impeachment if these accusations are true about the whistle-blower, we think that is impeachable, which was actually sort of skipping a step from where the rest of Democrats have been, I think that really was just part of a wave of growing momentum over the weekend.

    And because of that, a dam that was breaking became more visibly breaking today for House Democrats.

    To me, the bigger question is, William, what exactly happened today? What does any of this mean really, right? And I think the headline is that Democrats in the House are moving to impeachment proceedings.

    Whatever you want to call them, Nancy Pelosi is now on board that effort.

    And here's another interesting thing, William, as we all try to get our hands around what is happening. I asked for some timeline information. Got it from only one member, Pramila Jayapal, who's an important member of the House Judiciary Committee, Democrat from Washington state.

    William, she said the point is, we're going to now move more quickly on this question. It will not be a matter of months, she said. It will be faster than that.

  • William Brangham:

    I know, Lisa, you have also been talking with Republican members as well.

    You heard Congressman Harris just now putting his defense forward. What are the other House members you're talking to saying about all this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And just in the past few minutes, we have seen responses from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

    Both of them are putting out a message that they think this is just another attempt to overturn the Trump presidency, from their point of view.

    It's important that McCarthy is also going a step farther. He's saying that he doesn't think Nancy Pelosi has the power to declare this an official inquiry, that to do that requires a House — a vote by the full House.

    So we're going to see some real process debate coming up. But I think, when you talk about the merits, more importantly, William, there seem to be two main camps of Republicans, those ardent defenders of the president, as we heard from a few minutes ago.

    But then I think most Republicans right now are not sure what to make of this. One of the more philosophical members I talked to, Mac Thornberry, told me he is concerned about what this does for the dialogue to the country and that, if there is just a continuing shouting over impeachment, he's not sure how one issue over another can be separated.

    So there's a little bit of concern about what this can do for divide.

  • William Brangham:

    We certainly have a lot of other moving pieces in this.

    We're going to — the president says he's going to release the transcript of this call. We still haven't seen the whistle-blower's complaint. But we know the director of national intelligence testifies Thursday.

    What are — what are some of the other steps you might see?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think that's right.

    We also are told by the House intelligence chairman, as we reported, he's hoping that the whistle-blower themselves will appear before the committee. That would be in a closed session. So there will be more information.

    That does put Democrats in an interesting position that they're moving forward, they're taking a big step before they have all the information, but they're confident, based on what they already know, not just in this investigation, but in several investigations, that it's time to move up, ramp up their steps on impeachment.

    But, you know, William, the endgame here for impeachment is the Senate. And the House is taking a big step here. House Democrats are making a big statement today. But, ultimately, for a president to be convicted, the Senate has to get on board.

    And, right now, the Senate's nowhere near that. But House Democrats seem to believe that now there is enough evidence to build a stronger case, if not taking the president out, at least convincing voters perhaps to vote against him next year.

  • William Brangham:

    Yamiche, turning to you, obviously, there's this growing army of Democrats saying, we need to start this formal inquiry. The speaker seems to be behind that.

    You're with the president. How is the president and the White House reacting to all of this today?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president is responding to Democrats saying that they're going to be opening a formal impeachment inquiry against him by lashing out at them.

    He's saying that this is part of a continued witch-hunt and that this really started with the Russia investigation and continues on now. He's been tweeting and talking about this all day. He essentially says that he's the victim of — quote — "presidential harassment."

    He also accused Democrats of trying to ruin and demean his day here at the United Nations. I have been also e-mailing with the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham. She said that Democrats were trying to weaponize politics.

    But then I asked her. I said, well, how are you going to push back on this impeachment inquiry? And how are you going to deal with all of this? And she said, well, we're going to be releasing the transcript of that call, and that's going to put all this to bed. That's going to make all of this look ridiculous.

    But, of course, Democrats are asking for the actual whistle-blower complaint. That's much different than just the transcript.

    So there — this is really going to be something that's going to continue to develop. And the White House is still trying to put together their plan.

  • William Brangham:

    We saw that the president today was also touting his approval rating amongst the GOP and tweeting out that percentage.

    Obviously, we have an election coming. That seems to be the sort of low rumble underneath all of this. Does the president see that this is a threat to him, or does he see that this might be a benefit to him?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Impeachment is really a double-edged sword for President Trump.

    On the one hand, publicly, he's saying that impeachment would be positive for him, it would help him get reelected by energizing his voters.

    But, privately, people that are close to the president are also very worried about whether or not this is going to be too distracting for him, that he's going to be so focused on impeachment and impeachment inquiries that he's not going to be focused on what Republicans want to get done in their time in office.

    Now, I have also been talking to people at the campaign. And the campaign was actually fund-raising off of this idea that the president might be impeached. They were collecting money and asking supporters for money for what they were calling an impeachment defense task force.

    The other thing to note is that the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, the campaign manager of President Trump's 2020 election bid, he was actually saying that this is going to, again, mobilize voters here.

    Now, I should say, there are risks on both sides. And I have been talking to Democratic sources and Republican sources all day who essentially are saying, we got here because people were really worried about whether or not this was going to be something good for either party.

    So what we're going to see is really rifts on both sides, and people really trying to figure out whether or not this is going to be good for their party.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Yamiche and Lisa, thanks for bringing us up to speed.

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