According to President Donald Trump, his conversation in July with the new Ukrainian president was about:
Withholding $400 million in U.S. aid; Not withholding aid, actually; Ukraine needing to investigate Trump’s leading Democratic opponent; Ukraine needing to crack down on corruption; Europe having to pay more; He can’t say, but it was perfect; All of the above.
As is frequently the case with Trump, the correct answer is “all of the above,” and all in a span of just 96 hours, which again highlights his credibility problem as the House starts the process of organizing a formal impeachment effort.
Trump said Tuesday on Twitter that he would release “the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript” on Wednesday ― but made no mention of the intelligence community inspector general’s report about the incident, a report Trump is keeping secret despite a law that requires its release to Congress.
“We can’t believe his statements, nor should we,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama. “That’s why many of us who otherwise don’t like the precedent of releasing a presidential transcript are encouraging it in this case. Because there’s no other option than documentary evidence. His constant deception is pushing us towards new and dangerous territory.”
Trump himself told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the impeachment push is “just a continuation of the witch hunt,” and claimed it would actually help his reelection. “They say it’s a positive for me,” he said following a meeting with Iraqi President Barham Ahmed Salih at the United Nations in New York.
How Trump and the White House try to explain the Ukraine episode may matter to congressional investigators, but may not matter much to the general public. A recent CNN poll found that only 28 percent of Americans believe all or most of the information coming from the White House.
Trump had appeared to survive the threat of impeachment when Democrats failed to use the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to respond forcefully. That document detailed Trump’s solicitation and acceptance of help from Russia in his 2016 election, and pointed to 10 specific instances where Trump had worked to obstruct that probe.
The new push, though, is based on his attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, who Trump and his allies believe would be his strongest opponent if he were to win the Democratic presidential nomination next year. The overtures to Ukraine began with efforts by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to speak with Ukrainian officials, including a meeting in Madrid.
In July, Trump put a hold on nearly $400 million in aid, including military hardware, to Ukraine. On July 25 he spoke with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, by phone from the White House.
Trump’s subsequent descriptions of what happened during and around that phone call have varied with the date and time of day he has been asked.
On Friday, in the Oval Office, Trump refused to say what he’d discussed, but added: “I don’t know the identity of the whistleblower. I just hear it’s a partisan person, meaning it comes out from another party. But I don’t have any idea. But I can say it was a totally appropriate conversation. It was actually a beautiful conversation.” On Sunday morning, leaving the White House, Trump told reporters that he had not withheld the aid, but admitted the call concerned Biden: “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption ― all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.” On Monday afternoon, he said of Zelensky: “He gets elected on the basis of ending corruption in Ukraine. Well, I think that’s good, and that’s what I want to see. But when Biden does a thing like that, then there’s still corruption, and that’s not good.” And on Tuesday, Trump said that he had, in fact, withheld money, but only because other European countries weren’t paying enough: “My complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they’re not doing it.”
The contents of that phone call would likely have remained secret, had it not been for an intelligence community official who filed a complaint under a whistleblower law. The inspector general, a Trump appointee, found the complaint to be both credible and “urgent,” but the White House blocked him from turning it over to relevant committees in Congress, even though the law requires it.
It wasn’t until House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) publicized the failure to turn over that complaint that news reports began emerging about Trump’s apparent attempts to coerce Ukraine into investigating Biden.
“This raises serious concerns about whether White House, Department of Justice or other executive branch officials are trying to prevent a legitimate whistleblower complaint from reaching its intended recipient, the Congress, in order to cover up serious misconduct,” Schiff said on Sept. 13.
The White House, meanwhile, on Tuesday continued arguing that it does not consider the complaint to be covered under the whistleblower statute. Executive branch employees are not permitted to file such complaints based on a president’s conversation, said one White House official on condition of anonymity.
That refusal, though, was cited by a number of previously impeachment-skeptical Democratic House members from districts Trump won as a reason they changed their minds.
“This flagrant disregard for the law cannot stand,” seven first-term Democrats wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post late Monday. “If these allegations are true, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense.”