Washington was abuzz on Wednesday, the first day that the U.S. Capitol went to work under the shadow of an official presidential impeachment inquiry. President Trump defended himself throughout the day, saying at a press conference in New York that the proceedings are part of "hoax" and a "witch hunt."
The fervor intensified early in the day after the White House released a memorandum that detailed a rough transcript of a July phone call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, which revealed that Trump pushed the leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who previously served on the board of a major Ukrainian gas company.
"This is bad, and this is their version. Imagine what the whistleblower complaint looks like," Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told Cheddar.
According to the five-page memo, Trump told Zelensky that "there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great." In the following sentence, Trump urged Zelensky to "look into it."
The official impeachment inquiry was announced Tuesday evening, before the release of the memo, by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Trump enlisting a foreign government to hurt a political opponent was a "betrayal of his oath of office" and a "betrayal of our national security." The controversy surrounding the call came to light earlier this month after reports surfaced that a whistleblower in the intelligence community had filed a complaint regarding Trump's conduct during the conversation.
Trump, who was in New York Wednesday to attend the United Nations General Assembly, said there was "no push, no pressure, no nothing" during the call. The president's allies in Congress also came to Trump's defense, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) who told Cheddar that the memo showed a conversation "between two people talking about common goals to root out corruption."
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In a statement Wednesday, Biden said that the White House memo showcased "a tragedy for this country that our president put personal politics above his sacred oath." Trump, according to the memo, also asked Zelensky to "do us a favor" and made a vague reference to CrowdStrike, a widely used computer security firm that was hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the hacking of its computer server during the 2016 election.
"When you ask someone for a favor, you owe them something," Swalwell added. "And when that someone is a foreign government that means you would be in a position to put a foreign government ahead of America."
Ryan Thomas, the spokesperson for the pro-impeachment advocacy group, Stand Up America, called the transcript a "smoking gun."
The White House memo also revealed that Trump told Zelensky that his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr would be in touch, and that "we will get to the bottom of it." The revelation came after several reports showed that Giuliani, who is not a U.S. government employee, was directly involved in pushing Ukrainian officials to probe the Bidens. Giuliani defended his involvement and Trump's conduct, saying on Twitter Wednesday that the call memo showed "an agreement on both sides to fully investigate very serious allegations regarding corruption at the highest levels of both countries."
The Justice Department also said Wednesday the Barr was unaware that he was discussed during the call. "The President has not spoken with the Attorney General about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The President has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine – on this or any other matter," Kerri Kupec, the department's spokesperson, said in a statement.
However, Biden said in his statement that invoking the Justice Department on the call was a "direct attack on the core independence of that department, an independence essential to the rule of law."
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Pelosi's call for impeachment came after months of urging restraint on the issue. Talk of impeachment among Democrats first spiked in April after Special Counsel Robert Mueller released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, which revealed that the Trump campaign was open to Russian assistance.
"He comes to this with priors," Swalwell said. "So there is an urgency to make sure the next election is one that is free from any foreign interference."
The controversy surrounding the Ukraine call has largely coalesced Democrats, including top leaders like Rep. John Lewis, around impeachment. "This president is putting himself above the Constitution for his political use," Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) told Cheddar. "I stand with the Constitution. No one is above the law."
Yet Republicans and Trump allies argue that impeachment is a major overreach and claim that the probe will backfire on Democrats. Erin Perrine, the deputy communications director for Trump's 2020 reelection campaign, told Cheddar that impeachment is "going to help us flip more House seats ... and make America redder in 2020." Gaetz added that the House's investigations will bring voters "out of the hills" and "out of the backwoods" to support Trump.
Yet Biden on Wednesday sought to elevate the issue above the political fray, adding in his statement, "This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It is a national security issue. It is a test of our democratic values."
Several activists groups — including Stand Up America, By the People, Women's March, and Need to Impeach — also sent a letter on Wednesday to Pelosi and Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), demanding that House leadership cancel the upcoming two-week Congressional recess in October.
"The House has a constitutional duty to protect our democracy by holding a corrupt president accountable — and this is not the time for our elected representatives to go home," the letter read. "In place of this recess, we urge you to begin an aggressive hearing schedule, swiftly draft articles of impeachment, and vote to impeach Trump this fall."
Update: This story was updated September 25, 2019 to add comments from President Trump's afternoon press conference.