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Are Trump's Actions Regarding Ukraine An Impeachable Offense?

NOEL KING, HOST:

After Robert Mueller's testimony, it seemed like talk of impeaching President Trump had slowed down. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to even talk about it publicly until just a couple days ago. But now all of that has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.

KING: That was Speaker Pelosi talking yesterday. She announced she's opening an official impeachment inquiry into the president based on a July phone call that he made to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. President Trump admits that, in that call, he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Now, we have not seen a transcript of that call, but the White House says it will release it later this morning. So how will impeachment proceedings proceed?

Nick Ackerman served on the prosecution team that investigated President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, which led to impeachment hearings and Nixon's resignation. Good morning.

NICK AKERMAN: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KING: So in your capacity as a lawyer, let me ask you, is it illegal for a sitting president to pressure Ukraine's president to investigate a political rival?

AKERMAN: It certainly depends on all of the facts, but it would seem in this circumstance it wasn't only pressuring a foreign leader to investigate a rival, which probably could likely violate the campaign finance laws. It's seeking something of aid from a foreign person, which is against the law. But what makes it even more egregious here is the holding off of aid to Ukraine, which had been appropriated by Congress that was desperately needed for the government to fend off the Russian incursion into Ukraine. So it - the whole matter itself raises incredibly serious allegations.

KING: Well, President Trump has admitted that he held off the aid, but he hasn't yet said - he hasn't said, I should say, that he did it because Ukraine did not accede to his request. Right? So I guess what I'm pointing to is there are some facts that we know and there are some facts that we don't. At this point, at this moment, what are the facts that you would like to know before you can say openly the president's actions were an impeachable offense? What do you want to know, still?

AKERMAN: Well, I think what I'd want to know is how many calls were there? How many times did he speak to the Ukraine president? How many times did Rudy Giuliani make overtures to various people? Apparently, he met with people in Madrid. What was said there? What happened in those conversations, and why were they made? What was asked for? I'd want to be looking at exactly what the circumstances were on the withholding of the appropriated money to Ukraine. What was unusual? Why didn't it go over? What did the president say to various people?

There's also reports in the press that, apparently, a number of national security people were very nervous about the president speaking to the president of Ukraine for the very reason that we now find happened. You know, what was it that led them to believe in the first instance that President Trump would be making an overture to try and get the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden? I mean, I'd want to know all of those facts. There are lots of witnesses that would be involved in this.

All of these people have to be spoken to. It's not just the whistleblower that was involved. But it sounds like there are many, many people here who have relevant knowledge as to the circumstances surrounding this whole matter.

KING: Is the transcript enough, do you think? Or do you think we need the whistleblower's full complaint?

AKERMAN: I don't think the transcript comes close. I mean...

KING: OK.

AKERMAN: ...It's just one transcript of one conversation. Transcripts aren't always accurate. You really have to compare the transcript to the recording of the conversation, if there is such a recording. I mean, our experience in Watergate was that, you know, we had a situation where Nixon was trying to evade producing the tapes and giving us transcripts that were going to be listened to by then-Senator Stennis, who had a hearing problem because of his age. So you know, you've got to be very, very cautious of relying just on a transcript.

KING: What will investigators be looking for if they - if and when they get ahold of the whistleblower's complaint that will help them determine whether what happened is an impeachable offense? What's in that complaint that we really want to see?

AKERMAN: We want to know exactly what was said, what he based his knowledge on. Was it firsthand knowledge? Did he overhear the conversation? Did he just happen to see a transcript of the conversation afterwards? Who else did he speak to? What other evidence is out there that corroborates what he says? How specific is this complaint? How much detail is in there? These are all the kinds of things that we'll be looking for the moment that the whistleblower statement comes out.

KING: And do you expect it will come out?

AKERMAN: I think it's inevitable...

KING: OK.

AKERMAN: ...It's going to come out.

KING: OK.

AKERMAN: I mean, I think what we do know, though, is the inspector general basically said this was an urgent matter and was significant. So it's not like somebody who is in charge of this and is in charge of investigating this in the first instance is saying that this is not something that's credible. I mean, he's saying just the opposite. So that's what makes this so concerning.

KING: What happens next as we proceed along the path of this inquiry, this impeachment inquiry?

AKERMAN: I think what we're going to see is, with respect to this issue, which I think is really the prime issue at the front burner right now, we're going to see witnesses called in, people spoken to, more documents. I think they're going to have to really go back and retrace everything that occurred. I mean, this is going to be a very investigative, intensive matter, just like I said before. Because there are questions about why wasn't the money appropriated, what did Trump say to people, why did people go along with it? I just think there's just so many people to speak to. This is going to be a pretty intensive investigation.

KING: Very briefly, given your experience in Watergate, how does Congress keep this from becoming political theater? We just have a couple seconds, I'm afraid.

AKERMAN: I think what they really have to do is do a lot of this behind closed doors because a lot of this involves national security issues and classified information. So this has got to be held very close to the vest initially. And then Congress has to decide what it is they can reveal to the public.

KING: Sounds like a potential for a very frustrated or curious public, there, huh?

AKERMAN: (Laughter) For a while, anyway.

KING: For a while.

AKERMAN: I think eventually this will all come out.

KING: Nick Akerman is a former federal prosecutor who is a member of the Watergate prosecution team. Sir, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

AKERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.