What to Expect When You’re Expecting Impeachment

More senior officials, more countries, more Giuliani. Trump’s storm clouds just got a whole lot darker.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy., and Elias Groll
U.S. President Donald Trump waits to congratulate graduates during the 2019 graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on May 30.
U.S. President Donald Trump waits to congratulate graduates during the 2019 graduation ceremony at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on May 30. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparent effort to induce Ukraine to help him discredit a political rival dramatically widened on Monday, with reports that Trump pressured Australia to dig into the genesis of the Russia investigation and reportedly enlisted Attorney General William Barr in a similar effort. All that came after the House subpoenaed documents from the president’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The cascading developments in the impeachment investigation come as a national poll shows, for the first time, that a majority of Americans support the inquiry.

On Aug. 12, when an anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. intelligence community’s inspector general, it set off a chain of events that last week prompted House Democrats to announce that they were at last beginning a formal impeachment inquiry into the president—a move that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had long resisted. 

The inquiry began by focusing on the whistleblower’s allegations that Trump sought to persuade his Ukrainian counterpart in a July phone call to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice president and a potential presidential rival, and then to cover up such conversations. 

But it has escalated rapidly and is metastasizing far beyond the contours of the initial complaint as key players in the Trump orbit come under scrutiny and career officials are hauled in front of Congress to testify as to what they knew about Giuliani’s freelance foreign policy. It has already thrust Trump’s interactions with other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, into the spotlight.

As this fast-moving story heads into another week, here’s a quick rundown of where things stand and what to expect next. 

The latest twists in the investigation

House Democrats opened the week by slapping Giuliani with a subpoena for documents related to his activities in Ukraine. The subpoena targets Giuliani and his associates, and it requires that they turn over material related to their efforts to investigate Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, and his business ventures in Ukraine.

Amid reports that Giuliani freelanced as a foreign-policy operative on behalf of Trump, the document also requires the former New York City mayor to turn over material related to his activity on behalf of the president. 

The document request represents a major escalation of the Democratic inquiry and sets up a high-stakes fight between the House of Representatives and the president for access to documents that would likely form the heart of a potential impeachment inquiry. 

The inquiry into Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders also shows signs of expanding, with the New York Times reporting on Monday that Trump pressured his Australian counterpart, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to assist in a Justice Department probe of the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The growing political scandal may also ensnare Trump’s key lieutenants. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was among the officials who listened in on the July call that is at the heart of the whistleblower complaint. Pompeo’s presence on the call could place him in the crosshairs of Democrats investigating the call. 

Barr is also coming under increasing scrutiny. The Washington Post reported Monday that the attorney general has held meetings with foreign intelligence officials as part of the effort to secure information regarding the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and contact between Moscow and the Trump campaign. 

Democrats unveil subpoenas

In the opening salvo of the investigation, the chairs of the Democrat-led House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees subpoenaed Pompeo to turn over documents related to the probe by Oct. 4. 

Even before they received a copy of the whistleblower complaint, the three committees had twice requested any documents held by the State Department regarding the July call, the suspension of security aid to Ukraine, and anything that mentioned the investigations Trump cited in his call.

While the whistleblower complaint first propelled the issue into the national spotlight, Giuliani’s expeditions to dig up political dirt in Ukraine had for months drawn concern both in the halls of Congress and in Kyiv, where Ukrainians feared it could undermine Washington’s strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. Much of Giuliani’s activity was already public knowledge through press reports, but the whistleblower complaint upped the ante dramatically by revealing that Trump was personally involved—and that lawyers from the National Security Council sought to sweep it under the rug by instructing White House officials to move details of the conversation to a classified server.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment when asked if the secretary of state would comply with the subpoena. 

Coming attractions

With several State Department officials named in the whistleblower report, the House panels will attempt to zero in on what State officials knew and how they responded to Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy. The whistleblower complaint details how former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador for the European Union, had spoken to Giuliani in a bid to “contain the damage” to U.S. national security. 

Volker, a career foreign service officer who colleagues say is a consummate professional, became the first person to resign in the wake of publication of the whistleblower complaint. Volker has not made any public remarks on the matter. 

Over the next two weeks, the House panels have scheduled depositions with five state department officials, including Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. A career official, she was forced out of her post earlier this year after coming under attack from conservative commentators, among others. During his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump described the career ambassador not by name, but as “the woman,” and “bad news.”

Adam Schiff, the Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, which will likely lead much of the impeachment investigation, said he hopes the whistleblower will testify “very soon.” No time or date has been set for the whistleblower to appear before Congress, although a statement from his lawyer said that they are in talks with both House and Senate panels and were hashing out logistical details. 

While the whistleblower remains anonymous, the New York Times revealed on Thursday that he is CIA officer who was detailed to the White House. On Monday, the president told reporters in the Oval Office that “we’re trying to find out” the identity of the whistleblower. Andrew Bakaj, a lawyer for the whistleblower, said on Twitter shortly after the president’s comments that whistleblowers are entitled to anonymity and any attempts at retaliation would be a violation of federal law.

With the first two years of his presidency overshadowed by the Russia investigation, Trump is no stranger to controversy. But the Ukraine probe is different from the outset, as the complaint details Trump’s active involvement in soliciting potentially damaging information from the Ukrainian president. 

What to watch for 

While the probe was sparked by details of Trump’s interactions with Zelensky, his calls with other foreign leaders will likely be subject to scrutiny after CNN reported that White House officials had sought to restrict access to details of Trump’s conversations with Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, among others. 

The news Monday that Trump is seeking assistance from the leader of Australia, a U.S. ally, in an apparent bid to undermine the origins of the special counsel investigation that consumed the first half of his term showed his willingness to use diplomacy for personal ends.

The Mueller investigation was kicked off in part by a tip from Australian officials that a Trump campaign foreign-policy aide, George Papadopoulos, had told an Australian diplomat that Russia was in possession of damaging emails regarding former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his request for assistance from the Australian government, Trump is likely seeking information regarding that tip.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s other calls from foreign leaders will also come under scrutiny. Trump and Putin have had at least 11 phone calls since he came into office, but the White House has offered little detail on the content of those calls. Access to the transcript of at least one of the calls was tightly restricted within the White House, according to CNN. 

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that any release of the details of Trump and Putin’s conversations would require Russia’s approval, a request congressional investigators will likely spurn. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

 Twitter: @EliasGroll