U.S. President Donald Trump has openly called for both China and Ukraine to investigate one of his chief political rivals – publicly soliciting the kind of foreign election interference for which he already faces an impeachment inquiry.
Meanwhile, a slew of newly-released text messages appears to show that several of Mr. Trump’s advisors attempted to negotiate a meeting between the President and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in exchange for Mr. Zelensky opening the investigation.
In the texts, one top diplomat repeatedly raised concerns that the Trump administration was withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to push Kiev on the probe.
Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelensky in a private telephone call this past summer to look into 2020 Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden in relation to the business activities in Ukraine of his son Hunter Biden. On Thursday, Mr. Trump repeated the request in front of reporters on the south lawn of the White House.
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Then, the President went a step further, and said Chinese leader Xi Jinping should also go after the former U.S. vice-president.
“If they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens,” Mr. Trump said of Ukraine in the scrum with reporters. “And by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”
In 2013, Hunter Biden accompanied his father on an official trip to Beijing, during which the younger Mr. Biden met with a business associate. Mr. Trump has presented no basis for his assertions that the elder Mr. Biden intervened to help his son’s work in China.
Asked whether he has made a request directly to Mr. Xi, Mr. Trump said: “I haven’t, but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about. Because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being under that kind of scrutiny.”
He did not explain what he meant by “scrutiny.”
CNN reported that Mr. Trump had in fact discussed both Mr. Biden and Elizabeth Warren, another top Democratic contender, with Mr. Xi in a June 18 telephone call. The network, which attributed the information to two anonymous sources, said records of that conversation were hidden in the same secure vault as the transcript of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky.
Mr. Trump is locked in a trade war with China after putting tariffs on US$375-billion worth of that country’s goods. And he reminded reporters on Thursday that a Chinese delegation is coming to Washington next week in a bid to make a deal to end the dispute. The President has previously suggested he might put non-trade-related matters, such as the U.S. prosecution of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, on the bargaining table to help reach an agreement.
Legislative committees in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives launched an impeachment inquiry last week after a whistle-blower revealed Mr. Trump’s July 25 request to Mr. Zelensky. The President asked Kiev for the investigation shortly after freezing nearly US$400-million in military aid to the country, which is battling a Russian-backed insurgency.
Mr. Trump has claimed with no evidence that Mr. Biden’s efforts in 2016 to have Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired were motivated by Mr. Shokin’s attempt to investigate gas company Burisma, which employed Hunter Biden. In fact, Mr. Shokin was regarded by the European Union, other western leaders and Ukraine’s own Parliament as too soft on corruption, and failed to co-operate with a British investigation of Burisma.
Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s former point-man on the conflict in Ukraine, testified behind closed doors at the impeachment inquiry Thursday. He also turned over text messages between himself and several other officials, including William Taylor, the top U.S. envoy in Ukraine; Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer; and Andrey Yermak, an advisor to Mr. Zelensky.
In one exchange on July 19, Mr. Volker told Mr. Sondland that Mr. Zelensky had to tell Mr. Trump that Ukraine would “help investigation” on their upcoming call. In a text to Mr. Yermak on the morning of the call, Mr. Volker said Mr. Zelensky would get “a visit to Washington” if he told Mr. Trump he would do the investigation.
“[A]ssuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate/‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Mr. Volker wrote.
In subsequent exchanges, Mr. Volker said Mr. Zelensky would have to make a public statement announcing the investigation, and conferred with Mr. Giuliani about what Mr. Zelensky should say. Mr. Volker said Mr. Zelensky’s announcement should name Burisma.
On August 30, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Volker discussed Mr. Trump cancelling a planned trip to Warsaw where he was to meet with Mr. Zelensky.
Mr. Taylor on several occasions suggested that “security assistance” – an apparent reference to military aid – was being withheld by the U.S. to pressure Kiev.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked in one text. In another, he wrote that the “hold” on the assistance had “shaken” the Ukrainians’ faith in the U.S.
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote on Sept. 9.
“I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Mr. Sondland wrote back, and told Mr. Taylor to “stop the back and forth by text” and switch to a phone call.
The officials also discussed an “interview” that they appeared to want Mr. Zelensky to do, but do not specify what exactly this was.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Trump’s public appeals to foreign governments Thursday were tantamount to admissions of guilt.
“The President has confessed to his violation of his oath of office, right then and there,” she said.
But the President’s comments were not enough for Republicans to break ranks with Mr. Trump, who has benefited from a congressional caucus that almost uniformly does not criticize him.
Vice-President Mike Pence said nothing was wrong with Mr. Trump asking Mr. Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden.
“Anyone that looks at the President’s transcript will see that the President was raising issues that were appropriate,” he told reporters in Arizona. “The American people have the right to know if the vice-president of the United States or his family profited from his position.”
Republican Congressman Jim Jordan emerged from a closed committee hearing with Mr. Volker, to say “not one thing” Mr. Volker told legislators merited impeachment. Mr. Jordan would not weigh in on Mr. Trump’s public comments.
“We’ve been in the interview for two hours,” he said. “We don’t know what the President said. We haven’t looked at it.”
In a letter to Ms. Pelosi, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy accused her of “swiftness and recklessness” in pursuing impeachment.
Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Columbia University in New York, said Mr. Trump’s call for China and Ukraine to pursue one of his 2020 challengers may be a calculated move. By stating his requests publicly, he appears to be trying to make them seem less serious and nefarious – just part of the hyperbole for which the President is famous, she said.
“He’s allowing for the argument that ‘he just says whatever he feels like, nobody takes it seriously and it’s no big deal,’” Ms. Rodgers said in an interview. “I don’t think it helps in a legal sense, but he’s fighting this in the court of public opinion.”