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8 Takeaways From The Trump-Ukraine Scandal

President Trump arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Thursday aboard Air Force One.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
President Trump arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Thursday aboard Air Force One.

Well, that escalated quickly.

At the beginning of this week, it wasn't at all clear that the country was heading toward another impeachment investigation, 21 years after Republicans filed articles of impeachment against Democratic President Bill Clinton.

But by the end of this week, that's exactly what was happening. Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry against President Trump after the release of an official transcript of a call between Trump and the president of Ukraine — and a whistleblower complaint that detailed allegations of a pressure campaign from Trump and his allies toward Ukraine to help investigate Joe Biden.

Here are eight things that have become clear in this murky story and where politically this all might be heading:

1. The president of the United States solicited help from a foreign country to investigate a potential 2020 political rival, while withholding military aid to that country.

If that sounds like a jaw-dropping bombshell, that's because it is. "I would like you to do us a favor though ...," President Trump told President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to the official White House account of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy in July. That ask came after Zelenskiy thanked Trump for U.S. military support and said he'd like to buy more.

The favor? Investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Russia wasn't really behind the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, and "the other thing," Trump said, "there's a lot of talk about Biden's son." Trump urged Zelenskiy to work with Attorney General Bill Barr and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on an investigation into the Biden family.

Zelenskiy agreed and said he is appointing a new prosecutor, who "will be 100% my person" and "he or she will look into the situation."

A week before the call, Trump admits, he held up $391 million in military aidto Ukraine already allocated by Congress. Trump changed his reasoning for why he delayed the aid, from corruption in Ukraine to wanting European countries to pay more.

Trump and Republicans defend the call, saying there was no explicit quid pro quo. Democrats note that is beside the point as it relates to impeachment. Ukraine is largely dependent on the United States for aid and support, as it faces a continued threat from neighboring Russia.

One question raised by all of this: Why was aid really held up, and are there emails or communications illuminating the reasoning?

2. Trump and the White House are already trying to discredit the whistleblower. Expect more of that.

The identity of the whistleblower is not known to the public. But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire said the whistleblower and the intelligence community's inspector general acted in "good faith." "I have every reason to believe that they have done everything by the book and followed the law," he said in a congressional hearing Thursdaybefore the House Intelligence Committee.

That's important to keep in mind as Trump and those backing him aim to discredit the whistleblower. Trump tweeted Friday that the whistleblower, who went through official channels, is "sounding more and more" like he or she "isn't a whistleblower at all."

Talking to U.S. diplomatic officials in New York, Trump equated the people who talked to the whistleblower as "almost a spy" and then said: "You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now."

3. The whistleblower complaint raises a lot more questions Democrats might dig into.

Trump and Republicans are right when they say the whistleblower is giving a secondhand account. The individual said so in the complaint. But the person gathered lots of information, talked to numerous people who were on the call and the inspector general said the complaint is credible.

Here are some of the questions the complaint raises that may well become part of the impeachment inquiry:

— Was the White House account of the call, compiled from contemporaneous notes of those in the room or on the call, removed from the computer system where "transcripts are typically stored" to one normally used to "store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature," as the whistleblower alleges?

— If true, why was that done if, as the whistleblower notes, "the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective"?

— Has the White House attempted to "lock down" other calls or interactions that might be deemed politically problematic for Trump? And will those come to light or be released — either through official means, or leaks from others concerned in the intelligence community?

— What is the depth of Rudy Giuliani's involvement? And did the State Department help the president's personal attorney in setting up a meeting with the Ukrainians to pressure them to begin an investigation of the Bidens?

— Why was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine really removed?

Democrats are likely to look into at least some of these questions. In fact, on Friday, as part of the impeachment inquiry, Democrats subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for documents related to Ukraine.

The House Intelligence Committee will hold a closed briefing with the inspector general of the intelligence community next Friday. And the whistleblower could testify as soon as next week, something three-quarters of Americans said they want to see happen, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

4. Support for an impeachment inquiry has gone up.

That NPR poll found that 49% of Americans are now in favor of moving forward with an impeachment inquiry. In April, 39% said the Mueller report should lead to impeachment hearings.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll out this week also showed support for impeachment on the rise – 43% in that survey said impeachment proceedings should begin, up 7 points from the previous poll.

There needs to be more data to tell us where public opinion is and where it will be. The NPR poll was conducted over one night — after the call notes were released but before the whistleblower complaint was made public. Developments in this story have been fast-moving, and the details are still settling in for the American public.

5. Democrats will have to work to win over independents.

Support for beginning an impeachment inquiry may be trending upward, but the poll also found that Democrats have some work to do to win over key groups, such as independents and suburban voters.

Just 44% of independents said they approved of the inquiry, while 50% said they didn't. And suburban voters were split: 48% approve, 49% disapprove. The messaging fight — and how all of this is framed — over the next many weeks will be key. (More on that below.)

6. Still, the center appears to have moved.

As to be expected, the overwhelming majority of Democratic lawmakers are in favor of the impeachment inquiry, and most Republicans are saying there's nothing to see here.

But what about the middle? Many key moderate Democrats, those critical to Democrats taking back the House in centrist districts in 2018, are in favor of the inquiry. And even some Republicans are saying the call is troubling.

So you don't need a poll to tell you that's where the center is immediately following the release of the call notes and whistleblower complaint.

7. The messaging fight is on.

This is so key. Democratic strategists acknowledge their party's deficiency with independents on the impeachment question, and they say it's important for their party to keep the message simple and focused.

The call, what transpired and the "favor" Trump was asking for, they say, is understandable for most Americans. That's something that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted as well. And that's what they need to stay laserlike focused on, they say. They worry that if Democrats get too far afield with other grievances against Trump, it could confuse and distract.

Republicans in Trump's corner, for their part, are going to question the whistleblower's character, talk about how there was no explicit quid pro quo and continue to pivot back to the Bidens.

8. We will likely know whether Trump will be impeached by the end of the year.

Democrats don't want the impeachment inquiry to drag on. Voting in the Democratic primary begins in February, in just over four months. Congressional Democrats would prefer that this is wrapped up before then.

That's partially why they are likely to stay narrowly focused on the Ukraine call and whistleblower complaint, with the inquiry spearheaded by Rep. Adam Schiff and the House Intelligence Committee, instead of bringing in things like the potential obstruction of justice incidents laid out in the Mueller report and Trump's personal financial conflicts.

The potential impeachment of a sitting president will be front and center and will overshadow everything else, so get ready for a very intense focus on every detail.

Trump is in a fight for his political life, and the country is about to see, for the first time in its history, the impact of an impeachment inquiry on a president up for reelection.

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Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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