By Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, in coordination with the U.S. attorney general and Trump’s personal lawyer, according to a summary of a momentous telephone call released by the Trump administration on Wednesday.
The official account of the half-hour July call laid bare an astonishing exchange of requests, pledges and ingratiation, including some unrelated to Biden, such as when Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “to do us a favour” involving a controversy arising from the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
The summary was released a day after House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democratic-led chamber was launching an official impeachment inquiry, setting up a dramatic political showdown that threatens Trump’s presidency even as he campaigns for re-election in 2020.
The details of the July 25 call drew furious reactions from Democrats, who accused Trump of soliciting Ukraine’s help to smear Biden, the front-runner among Democratic candidates seeking to challenge the Republican president next year.
The call occurred after Trump had ordered a freeze of nearly $400 million in American aid to Ukraine, which the administration only later released.
“What those notes reflect is a classic Mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader,” Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said.
According to the summary, Trump told Zelenskiy that Attorney General William Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official, and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani would speak to him about re-opening a Ukrainian investigation into a Ukrainian gas company for which Biden’s son Hunter had served as director.
“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said, referring to Barr.
In the summary, Trump never explicitly told Zelenskiy that U.S. aid was contingent upon him investigating Biden, but Trump emphasized the importance of American support before pressing him for action on Biden.
“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine,” Trump said. Trump then said German Chancellor Angela Merkel “doesn’t do anything” for Ukraine but that “the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
According to the summary, Zelenskiy responds that Trump is “1,000%” right, thanks Trump for “your great support in the area of defence” and expresses interest in making another U.S. arms purchase.
In raising the Biden issue, Trump told Zelenskiy that “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.” Trump said he would have Giuliani – a political ally with no formal role in the U.S. government – and Barr call him.
“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. It sounds horrible to me,” Trump said.
Zelenskiy assured Trump that his next prosecutor general “will be 100% my person” and “will look into the situation.”
Zelenskiy, a former comedian, then volunteered that the last time he visited the United States, “I stayed at the Trump Tower,” one of the president’s businesses.
“I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation,” Zelenskiy added.
After Zelenskiy’s promise, Trump invites him to visit the White House, saying, “Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call.”
Trump never actually asked Barr to contact Ukraine, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, and Barr has not communicated with Ukraine about a possible investigation or any other subject. Barr, a Trump appointee, first found out about the conversation several weeks after it took place, Kupec said.
The House inquiry could lead to articles of impeachment in the House that could trigger a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office.
Pelosi said the notes of the call confirm that Trump engaged in behaviour that undermines the integrity of U.S. elections, the dignity of presidency and American national security.
“The president has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad,” Pelosi said.
Trump has repeatedly suggested wrongdoing by Biden and his son but has offered no evidence to back up the assertion.
The administration added a note of caution regarding the summary, saying it “is not a verbatim transcript of a conversation” and merely records the “notes and recollections” of White House staff assigned to memorialize the talk. The summary was developed with assistance from voice recognition software along with note takers and experts listening, a senior White House official said.
Trump has withstood repeated scandals since taking office in 2017. House Democrats had considered, but never moved ahead with, pursuing articles of impeachment over Trump’s actions relating to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election aimed at boosting his candidacy.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House has the power to impeach a president for “high crimes and misdemeanours.” No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Democrats currently control the House and Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate.
Justice Department officials concluded last week that Trump’s conduct on the call did not amount to a criminal violation of campaign finance law because what he was asking for – an investigation of a political rival – was not a quantifiable “thing of value,” said a senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trump has defended his actions in the Ukraine matter as appropriate. Trump denounced the impeachment move on Wednesday as “the single greatest witch hunt in American history.”
There has been no evidence that Biden, who served as U.S. vice president from 2009 to 2017, used his position as vice president to help his son in the Ukraine matter.
The United States, European countries and others had pushed for the ouster of the Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the energy company because he was not pursuing it aggressively enough. The prosecutor who replaced him, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Reuters on Friday that no wrongdoing was found on the part of Biden’s son in his relationship with the energy firm.
Ukrainian officials have not said publicly that they would open any investigation of Biden or his son.
Many Republicans came to Trump’s defence and said the absence of a quid pro quo – a Latin phrase meaning a favour for a favour – in the call showed that the concerns of Democrats were overblown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced what he called the Democratic “impeachment obsession.”
But Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he had read the memo and “it remains troubling in the extreme.”
Pelosi would not commit to an impeachment timetable but Judiciary Committee Democrat David Cicilline said articles of impeachment could move to the House floor in a matter of weeks, if the allegations against Trump prove true.
An investigation of the Bidens was not the only request Trump made to the Ukrainian president. Even before he brings up the Bidens, Trump tells him, “I would like you to do us a favour though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
Trump then mentions CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee in 2016 to investigate a cyberattack later attributed to a Russian government hacking unit as part of Moscow’s election interference to boost Trump’s presidential bid. It is not a Ukrainian company and its co-founders are not Ukrainians.
AID TO UKRAINE
The United States has been giving military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The $391.5 million in aid at issue in the current controversy was approved by the U.S. Congress to help Ukraine deal with an insurgency by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
The current controversy arose after a whistleblower from within the U.S. intelligence community brought a complaint with an internal watchdog relating to Trump’s conversation with Zelenskiy. Even though federal law calls for such complaints to be disclosed to Congress, the Trump administration has not done so.
The whistleblower was concerned that Trump was pressuring a foreign leader to take an official action that would help his 2020 re-election, according to a legal memo released by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The Inspector General’s office found “some indication of an arguable political bias” by the whistleblower in favour of a rival political candidate,” but determined that the allegation appeared credible, according to the office.
The Justice Department concluded that the whistleblower complaint did not need to be shared with Congress because the relevant law only covers conduct by intelligence officials, not the president, according to a legal analysis released by the department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Barr must recuse himself from any Ukraine-related investigations, but Kupec, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said he would not recuse himself. Barr was not directly involved in the decisions involving the whistleblower complaint or the criminal investigation, she said.
U.S. intelligence agencies and a special counsel named by the Justice Department previously concluded that Russia boosted Trump’s 2016 presidential election bid with a campaign of hacking and propaganda aimed at harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Patricia Zengerle, David Morgan, Richard Cowan, Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)