Trump already faces impeachment inquiries but the Ukraine call is reported to be related to an intelligence community whistleblower complaint about the president’s behaviour which is at the heart of a standoff between the White House and Congress.
Donald Trump lashed back at his critics on Saturday, as questions swirled in the latest scandal to hit his extraordinarily embattled White House.
“Nothing was said that was in any way wrong,” Trump said of a phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which, according to the Wall Street Journal, the US president asked “about eight times” that the Ukrainian leader investigate the son of former Vice-President Joe Biden.
Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. His son Hunter was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice-president.
As the weekend rolled in, a new question set Washington abuzz. Did the US president use or attempt to use military aid to Ukraine as leverage in seeking the investigation of a political rival?
Trump and Zelenskiy spoke on 25 July. About a month later, it was reported that $250m in US military assistance to a country fighting Russian-backed separatists was being delayed after Trump requested a review.
“The potentially most explosive issue here is whether the president essentially offered Ukraine a quid pro quo,” Richard Pildes, professor of constitutional law at New York University, told the Guardian.
“‘I’ll provide substantial US foreign aid if you provide damaging information concerning Joe Biden or his son.’”
Republican claims about the Bidens and Ukraine concern a visit by the then vice-president in March 2016. The country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was fired soon after – an aim of the US, allies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which thought Shokin was turning a blind eye to corruption.
An investigation into company for which Hunter Biden worked was dormant at the time. In May this year, Ukraine prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko told Bloomberg News “we do not see any wrongdoing” by the younger Biden.
On Saturday, Trump used Twitter to allege it.
“The Fake News Media,” the president wrote, “and their partner, the Democrat sic Party, want to stay as far away as possible from the Joe Biden demand that the Ukrainian Government fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son, or they won’t get a very large amount of US money, so they fabricate a story about me and a perfectly fine and routine conversation I had with the new President of the Ukraine.
“Nothing was said that was in any way wrong, but Biden’s demand, on the other hand, was a complete and total disaster. The Fake News knows this but doesn’t want to report!”
He also tweeted a video on the subject produced by his campaign.
On Friday, Trump was asked if he brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy.
“It doesn’t matter what I discussed,” he said. He also urged the media “to look into” Biden’s background with Ukraine.
Biden said that if the reports were true, “then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country”.
He also said Trump should release the transcript of his conversation with Zelenskiy.
The whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s behaviour was filed on 12 August. The US government’s intelligence inspector general has called it “serious” and “urgent”. On Friday Trump dismissed it, insisting “it’s nothing … just another political hack job”.
“I have conversations with many leaders,” he said. “It’s always appropriate. Always appropriate. At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country.”
But questions remain about Trump’s view of Russia and relationship with Vladimir Putin, even after the conclusion of an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by Robert Mueller. The special counsel did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy but did lay out links between Trump aides and Russians and multiple instances of potential obstruction of justice.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in June 2014 and now backs separatists in the Donbass region. On Friday the Washington Post cited a former senior administration official who had “repeatedly discussed the issue with Trump” as saying the president thought military aid to Ukraine “was pointless and just aggravating the Russians”.
“The president’s position basically is, we should recognize the fact that the Russians should be our friends, and who cares about the Ukrainians?” the Post quoted the official as saying.
Ukrainian foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko, meanwhile, told Ukrainian outlet Hromadske his country was not interested in taking sides in US politics, but said Zelenskiy had the right to keep the contents of his conversation with Trump secret. He also said US investigators had every right to uncover information.
“I know what the conversation was about and I do not think there was any pressure from Trump,” Prystaiko said. “There was a conversation, different conversation, leaders have the right to discuss any existing issues. This was a long and friendly conversation that touched on a lot of issues, sometimes requiring serious answers.”
In New York next week, Trump and Zelenskiy will meet on the sidelines of the United Nations.
In Washington, the standoff with Congress over the whistleblower complaint raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump appointees are protecting the president.
Adam Schiff, chair of the House intelligence committee, has said he will go to court to get hold of the whistleblower complaint. Trump has abused Schiff on Twitter.
Lawmakers are also looking into whether Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to investigate Hunter Biden.
On CNN on Thursday, Giuliani was asked if he asked Ukraine to look into Biden. He said, “No, actually I didn’t,” but seconds later added: “Of course I did.”
The former New York mayor has spent months trying to drum up damaging evidence about Biden’s ties to Ukraine. He told CNN Trump was unaware of his actions.