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Donald Trump became the fourth US president to face impeachment proceedings after Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi accused him of betraying his oath of office and US national security by seeking a foreign power’s help in the 2020 election.
In a televised address, Ms Pelosi said the House would look into claims that Mr Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate the local business activities of the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders.
The impeachment inquiry announced by Ms Pelosi in a six-minute statement is the first since the House impeached Bill Clinton in 1998. The move came only hours after Mr Trump sought to blunt Democratic criticism by promising to release a transcript of his controversial July 25 telephone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president.
“The president must be held accountable. Nobody is above the law,” Ms Pelosi said. “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed . . . the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our election.”
Mr Trump, who was in New York to address the UN General Assembly, slammed the move on Twitter: “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!”
Stock across Asia-Pacific were lower on Wednesday on the news as well as Mr Trump’s more hawkish rhetoric on China during the address. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 1 per cent, South Korea’s Kospi index slipped 0.8 per cent while China’s CSI 300 of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed shares was down 0.5 per cent.
The scandal erupted after a still-unidentified whistleblower in the intelligence community raised concerns about conversations Mr Trump held with a foreign leader, later revealed to be Mr Zelensky. Joseph Maguire, the acting head of the US intelligence community, has refused to give Congress the whistleblower’s complaint, which Ms Pelosi said was a “violation” of US law.
Mr Trump has acknowledged speaking to Mr Zelensky about the Bidens. He has also confirmed that he personally decided to withhold nearly $400m of military aid to Ukraine before making the call to the Ukrainian president.
But Mr Trump has denied he was attempting to pressure Mr Zelensky. He said he was trying to urge European countries to pay their fair share of Ukraine’s costs in its battle against the Russian incursion in the eastern part of the country.
Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky are scheduled to meet Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary.
Mr Trump described the transcript of his call with Mr Zelensky as “perfect” and said it would prove he did not pressure his counterpart to interfere in US politics. One US official said the transcript would be a “verbatim” account of the conversation and would show that the Democrats had “over-reached” with the impeachment inquiry. Mr Trump later said Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, had received permission from Ukraine to release the transcript.
In addition to the transcript, Democrats are demanding a copy of the whistleblower’s complaint amid suggestions that it points to a pattern of problematic calls, beyond the one conversation in July. One Democrat said the party would not be able to determine exactly what Mr Trump had done unless it received access to the full complaint.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic head of the House intelligence committee, on Tuesday said the whistleblower had conveyed to the panel a desire to talk to lawmakers.
Mr Maguire, who has refused to give Congress the complaint, will appear before the intelligence panel on Thursday. Ms Pelosi said he would “have to choose whether to break the law or honour his responsibility to the constitution”.
In a statement, Mr Maguire responded that he had “upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way” and that he looked forward to “continuing to work with the administration and Congress to find a resolution regarding this important matter”.
US media reported on Tuesday night that the White House would provide the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms Pelosi had long resisted calls from Democratic House members to impeach Mr Trump because she thought the Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to convict him. She also worried that it would energise his voters, increasing his chances of re-election and endangering a number of freshmen Democrats who were elected last year in Republican-leaning districts to give the Democrats their House majority.
The California lawmaker has shifted her stance under pressure from members of her caucus who said the charges against Mr Trump were too serious to ignore. Her concerns about freshman Democrats also became partly moot after a number of the new lawmakers penned an op-ed in The Washington Post to call for impeachment.
One of the most prominent first-term House Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said she thought articles of impeachment could include several charges, including that Mr Trump had accepted assistance and favours from foreign governments.
Brendan Boyle, a three-term House Democrat from Philadelphia, told the Financial Times that it was a “watershed” moment. “We all are mindful of the gravity of this.”
The inquiry was lambasted by Republicans who joined with Mr Trump in calling it a witch hunt. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, said the move was another Democratic effort “to reverse their 2016 election defeat”.
“The result has been a two-and-a-half-year impeachment parade in search of a rationale,” said Mr McConnell, adding that Democrats were frustrated at the outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
To pass articles of impeachment, the Democrats only require a simple majority in the House, which they control. But they would need 20 Republican senators to abandon Mr Trump to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to convict the president and remove him from office.
Only two presidents have been impeached — Mr Clinton and Andrew Johnson in 1868; neither was convicted. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the judiciary committee in the House approved articles of impeachment against him.
Unlike the more recent cases involving Mr Clinton and Nixon — which came to the House after investigations by other authorities — the Ukraine scandal has only become public in recent days. Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Nixon Library, said the lack of a documentary trail made it hard to say how the Trump impeachment inquiry would fare.
“My greatest fear is that people will say the fix is in,” said Mr Naftali. “If we discover that the reporting on Ukraine is correct, then we have an impeachable case, and half the country won’t believe it.”
Shortly after her announcement, Ms Pelosi joined House colleagues on the steps of the Capitol for an unrelated event where she took selfies with members before being escorted to her car.
She did not answer questions about impeachment, but stopped to speak briefly with Ted Lieu, a California lawmaker who winked at her as he shook her hand.
Additional reporting by Brendan Greeley, Aime Williams, Kiran Stacey and Daniel Shane
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