By Dan Novak, Horus Alias, and Gabrielle Wanneh, Capital News Service

For the fourth time in history, Congress is opening an impeachment inquiry into the president of the United States, an extraordinarily fast-moving development after months of debate among Democrats over whether to proceed with such a constitutionally serious step against President Donald Trump.

“This week the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said on the evening of Sept. 24, after meeting with House Democrats in the United States Capitol. “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

“The president must be held accountable,” Pelosi said.

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump responded immediately via tweet, calling the announcement, “Breaking news witch hunt garbage.” Trump issued three more tweets condemning the impeachment inquiry within 15 minutes of the first tweet.

White House Press Secretary, Stephanie Grisham, said in a press release Sept. 24 there was “nothing new here,” and accused Democrats of continuing to “weaponize politics when they should be working on behalf of their constituents.”

The impeachment inquiry follows revelations that Trump sought help from Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate a 2020 political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Reports emerged last week that Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire blocked a whistleblower from relaying the substance of Trump’s calls to Zelensky to Congress.

Intelligence community watchdog, Michael Atkinson, called the information “urgent” and credible, but Maguire, a Trump appointee, has thus far refused to turn information over to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

A steady stream of House Democrats that previously did not support an impeachment inquiry changed course in less than a day, bringing the total number of representatives who favor impeachment to more than 170 and counting. None are Republican.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Sept. 23, seven House Democrats with national security backgrounds condemned Trump’s phone conversations with the president of Ukraine.

“Congress must determine whether the president was indeed willing to use his power and withhold security assistance funds to persuade a foreign country to assist him in an upcoming election,” the lawmakers wrote.

The representatives’ forceful criticism is all the more remarkable because they represent battleground districts previously held by Republicans. They were the kinds of Democrats in marginal districts Pelosi had been trying to protect which was critical to keeping her majority in the House before the Ukraine controversy surfaced.

Despite the already-existing plethora of investigations into the president’s conduct, Democrats say his willingness to compel a foreign leader to interfere in American elections crossed a red line.

Trump admitted on Sept. 20 that in a July 25 phone call with Zelensky, he asked the leader to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who previously sat on the board of one of the largest natural gas producers in Ukraine.

The Washington Post then revealed on Sept. 23 that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to the eastern European country in the days leading up to the phone call.

Out of Maryland’s House delegation, only one member, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, opposes Trump’s impeachment. When asked if he supported impeachment measures, he told Capital News Service, “Of course not,” in an email statement.

Reps. Anthony Brown, D-Bowie, Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, John Sarbanes, D-Towson, and David Trone, D-Potomac, previously had favored an impeachment inquiry.

As media coverage surged on Sept. 24 about Pelosi’s impending announcement of a formal impeachment investigation, several Maryland Democratic lawmakers issued statements supporting the move.

“President Trump’s actions are a threat to our democracy,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland. “It has become clear that the tools provided by an impeachment inquiry must be employed.”

He had attacked the administration’s withholding of $250 million in Pentagon funds to Ukraine in a tweet on Sept. 20, calling the action “downright criminal” in light of Trump’s conversations with Zelensky.

Ruppersberger accused Trump of committing triple offenses in seeking foreign help in the 2020 elections, diverting aid appropriated by Congress to Ukraine, and blocking a whistleblower’s testimony to Congress.

“We have no choice but to start a formal impeachment inquiry and hearings,” he said.

Sarbanes called Trump’s actions “a blatant abuse of power” and “signify an unprecedented new level of corruption and lawlessness in the White House.”

The two most powerful members of the delegation, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, have, like Pelosi, had been cautious in voicing support for impeachment when any effort is likely to fail in the Senate. But Sept. 24 was a tipping point.

“I have grave concerns about the president’s troubling admission that he sought Ukrainian interference in the 2020 election, undermining America’s national security,” Hoyer said in a statement.

“As the relevant committees continue their investigations under the umbrella of the impeachment inquiry, we will continue to pursue the facts and follow them wherever they lead – including to articles of impeachment,” he said.

“When the history books are written about this tumultuous era, I want them to show that I was among those in the House of Representatives who stood up to lawlessness and tyranny,” Cummings said in a statement.

Earlier on Sept. 24, Cummings, along with the chairmen of the House committees on Intelligence and Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to the White House requesting additional information about the Ukraine phone call, including the whistleblower complaint.

Trump said in a tweet he would release a “complete, fully unclassified and unredacted transcript” of the call on Sept. 25.

“Any attempt by a president to use the office of the presidency of the United States for personal political gain…fundamentally undermines our sovereignty, democracy, and the Constitution,” the House chairmen wrote.

The Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the whistleblower complaint be sent to congressional intelligence committees.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, spoke on the House floor Tuesday afternoon, urging his colleagues to deploy impeachment measures.

“There comes a time to be moved by the spirit of history to take action to protect and preserve the integrity of our nation,” Lewis said.

“We cannot delay,” he said. “I truly believe the time to begin impeachment proceedings against this president has come. To delay or to do otherwise would be to betray the foundation of our democracy.”

Even if articles of impeachment are drawn up and pass the House, Trump appears unlikely at this point to be convicted by a two-thirds majority vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Still, Pelosi said, Maguire and congressional Republicans will soon have to “choose whether to break the law or honor (their) responsibility to the Constitution.”