WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday angrily denied any wrongdoing in a phone call with a mystery foreign leader that led an intelligence whistleblower to sound the alarm, as reports said the call was to his Ukrainian counterpart.
The allegations have triggered a showdown between Congress, whose Democratic leaders are demanding to see the complaint, and the executive branch which has barred them from doing so.
They are also reviving concerns Team Trump may have sought to pressure Ukraine into providing damaging information on former vice president Joe Biden, the top Democrat seeking to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
According to a report by The Washington Post, which cited two unnamed former US officials, the complaint stemmed from Trump’s communications with Ukraine, and a “promise” allegedly made by the president.
“It’s a partisan whistleblower,” Trump fumed to reporters, while in the same breath saying he does not know the person’s identity.
Trump insisted he had a “totally appropriate” conversation, without detailing with whom, or what was said.
The scandal has set Washington on edge. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her first public comments on the matter Friday, saying the “reliable” reports about the whistleblower complaint “raise grave, urgent concerns for our national security.”
Pressure on Ukraine
Suspicions have focused on a call known to have been made in July between Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who was elected in May.
Trump’s Democratic opponents have been probing that call in connection with allegations Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to pressure the Ukrainian administration.
Trump allegedly sought to encourage the Ukrainians to pursue corruption charges against Biden’s son Hunter, who worked with a Ukrainian natural gas company.
When asked by reporters whether he discussed the Bidens with Zelensky, he waved off the inquiry, saying “it doesn’t matter what I discuss.”
But he did not deny having done so, and instead urged the media to “look into” Biden’s involvement in Ukraine.
Most polls show Biden leading against Trump in a head-to-head matchup.
Amid the swirling allegations, Giuliani told CNN Thursday that “of course I did” ask Ukraine to investigate Biden.
Giuliani said he did not know whether Trump brought up Biden, but said he would have “had every right to say to the Ukrainian president: ‘We have two outstanding allegations of massive corruption and you should investigate.”
Adding yet another layer to the controversy, congressional policymakers were reported to be concerned the Trump administration had been holding back military aid to Ukraine at the time.
The aid was finally released last week.
Zelensky inherited an armed conflict against pro-Russian rebels that has killed nearly 13,000 in five years and caused serious economic difficulties.
Democratic lawmakers say that a president conditioning foreign aid on providing dirt on a US election rival would amount to grounds for impeachment.
“The president can’t use US aid as a weapon to serve his own political purposes,” House Democrat Seth Moulton tweeted. “This is an impeachable offence if true.”
Democrats have expressed concern foreign powers will seek to influence the 2020 election, in a potential repeat of 2016, and that Trump is welcoming it.
“The president asked a foreign power to help him win an election. Again,” Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016, tweeted Friday.
As the crisis swells, Trump and Zelensky will meet face to face for the first time Wednesday, during the United Nations General Assembly.
Their talk will focus in part on the “incredible energy and success President Zelensky has put forward in implementing anticorruption efforts,” said a senior US administration official.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy visited Ukraine recently and discussed with Zelensky the cut off of aid and “the inappropriate demands the Trump campaign was making of him,” the lawmaker tweeted Friday.
“Zelensky did not explicitly connect the two in our meeting, but he was VERY concerned about the cut off of aid, and VERY aware of the conversations that Rudy Giuliani was having with his team,” Murphy said.
The whistleblower scandal mushroomed this week when House intelligence chairman Adam Schiff revealed that the acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, refused to hand over the complaint to Congress, rejecting the recommendation of the intelligence community’s inspector general.
Maguire is scheduled to publicly testify about the issue before Schiff’s committee next Thursday.