WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives were set on Wednesday to move forward with a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, a move that could dramatically change the 2020 presidential race.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had for months resisted calls inside her party for Trump’s impeachment, announced that a formal inquiry would be launched after meeting members of her party on Tuesday.
In a brief, nationally televised statement, Pelosi accused Trump of seeking Ukraine’s help to smear Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 election.
She described the Republican president’s behavior as a “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”
Trump repeated his attack on Democrats on Wednesday and, as with the U.S. probe into alleged Russian meddling and potential obstruction of justice, called the inquiry a “Witch Hunt.”
Pelosi’s change of heart followed reports that Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 telephone call to investigate Biden, the former U.S. vice president, and his son Hunter, who had worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine.
Scrutiny over their conversation is expected to intensify on Wednesday as Trump is scheduled to meet the Ukrainian leader alongside a United Nations meeting in New York and later take questions from the media at a news conference.
On Tuesday, Trump said he would release a transcript of the call.
Trump has said he discussed Biden and his son in the call, but denied putting any pressure on the Ukrainian leader despite his administration’s withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid approved for Kiev by Congress.
Asked whether Trump improperly tried to sway him during the call, Zelenskiy told reporters: “Nobody can put pressure on me because I am the president of an independent state.”
Support from House members for impeachment has surged in recent days, fueled by anger over the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with a law requiring the release of a whistleblower’s complaint over the discussions with Ukraine.
Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth quoted Pelosi as saying Trump had told her that “he’d like to figure this out,” and Pelosi responded to Trump by saying, “Tell your people to obey the law.”
The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday, with no objections from Trump’s fellow Republicans, for a resolution calling for the whistleblower’s report to be sent to Congress.
The House is due to vote on a similar non-binding resolution on Wednesday.
Even if the Democratic-controlled House ultimately voted to impeach Trump, it would be unlikely to lead to his removal from office. Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate, where an impeachment ruling would need a two-thirds majority to pass.
But the process could damage the president’s image as he vies for re-election, with polls showing that only about 45% of Americans approving of his performance as president, especially if damaging information comes out during public hearings.
It could also boost Trump if Americans believe Democrats are unfairly targeting the president.
Global markets fell on Wednesday, partly on concerns of long-term political uncertainty in the United States, the world’s largest economy.
The U.S. dollar recovered early on Wednesday following the losses it suffered against most major currencies following the inquiry announcement.
The White House had refused to hand over the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress, but an administration official said it was now preparing to release it by the end of the week and would most likely allow the whistleblower to meet with congressional investigators, though Democrats remained skeptical.
“I have a question of whether we are going to see a word-for-word transcript or if we are going to see an interpretation by someone who works for the president of the United States,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told CNN.
Former White House and national security officials have said any statement about the call is likely to be complied from written notes taken by U.S. officials who listened in on the conversation.
Trump’s approval among Republicans remains strong. A Sept. 16-20 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 82% of registered Republicans approved of his job performance.
Kevin McCarthy, the party’s leader in the House, accused Democrats of seeking to overturn the 2016 election. “This is all about politics. Not about facts,” he said.
Pelosi had considered creating a select committee to lead the impeachment inquiry, but instead opted to rely on the House Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and other committees already conducting probes of the Trump administration.
Those investigations will continue and committee leaders will decide whether to hold public hearings.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has said his panel was communicating with an attorney representing the whistleblower and that the individual would like to testify this week.
There will be a burst of hearings this week, but lawmakers then leave Washington for two weeks and will not return until after the Oct. 14 Columbus Day holiday.