WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump urged the new leader of Ukraine this summer to investigate the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, a person familiar with the matter said. Democrats condemned what they saw as a clear effort to damage a political rival, now at the heart of an explosive whistleblower complaint against Trump.
It was the latest revelation in an escalating controversy that has created a showdown between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration, which has refused to turn over the formal complaint by a national security official or even describe its contents.
Trump defended himself on Friday against the intelligence official’s complaint, angrily declaring it came from a “partisan whistleblower”, though he also said he didn’t know who had made it. The complaint was based on a series of events, one of which was a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to a two people familiar with the matter.
Trump, in that call, urged Zelenskiy to probe the activities of potential Democratic rival Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company, according to one of the people, who was briefed on the call. Trump did not raise the issue of US aid to Ukraine, indicating there was not an explicit quid pro quo, according to the person.
In an interview with Ukrainian outlet Hromadske published Friday evening, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said that his country is not interested in taking sides in US politics, but that Zelenskiy has the right to keep the contents of his conversation with Trump secret. He noted, however, that US investigators have every right to uncover the information at their end.
Biden reacted strongly late Friday, saying that if the reports are true, “then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country”.
The government’s intelligence inspector general has described the whistleblower’s Aug 12 complaint as “serious” and “urgent”. But Trump dismissed it all Friday, insisting “it’s nothing.” He scolded reporters for asking about it and said it was “just another political hack job”. “I have conversations with many leaders. It’s always appropriate. Always appropriate,” Trump said. “At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country.”
Trump, who took questions in the Oval Office alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistleblower’s complaint centered on his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy. The president responded, “I really don’t know,” but he continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was “perfectly fine and respectful”.
Trump was asked on Friday if he brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy, and he answered, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.” But then he used the moment to urge the media “to look into” Biden’s background with Ukraine.
There has yet to be any evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden or his son regarding Ukraine.
The standoff with Congress raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump’s appointees are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president.
In the whistleblower case, lawmakers are looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani travelled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president’s re-election effort by investigating the activities of Biden’s son.
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2019