Washington — President Trump moved on Wednesday to stave off the most serious threat to his presidency yet, releasing a summary of a conversation with the president of Ukraine that’s at the center of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. In a series of public appearances, Mr. Trump argued the summary cleared him of wrongdoing, despite it showing he repeatedly urged the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his potential Democratic rival.
The president was in his hometown of New York to meet with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, but it was the fight back in Washington that dominated the agenda.
The developments began Wednesday morning when the Justice Department released a summary of the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The call is included in an anonymous whistleblower complaint that the administration initially refused to hand over to Congress, a decision that ultimately led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment probe after months of reluctance.
The summary, which was not a verbatim transcript, showed the president urged Zelensky to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr to investigate the aspects of the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, as well as “the other thing” — Biden’s efforts in 2016 to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor widely seen by the West as corrupt.
Mr. Trump and Giuliani have alleged Biden acted to remove the prosecutor to protect his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that had been under investigation.
“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,” Mr. Trump is summarized as saying. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
Biden has denounced the allegations as a “smear,” and no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged.
If Mr. Trump thought releasing the summary of the call would quell his critics or tamper calls for his impeachment, he was mistaken. Democrats reacted with disbelief that the administration would voluntarily offer up the document as exculpatory evidence. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, likened the conversation to a “classic mafia-like shakedown.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said it was “far more damaging to the president’s case than any of us anticipated.”
The whistleblower complaint itself finally reached Capitol Hill, with members of the intelligence committees and party leaders gaining access to the document for the first time late in the afternoon. The whistleblower did not hear the call or see the summary, but was told about it by “White House officials,” according to the Justice Department. After reviewing the complaint, Schiff said he “found the allegations deeply disturbing” and “very credible.”
Throughout the day Wednesday, Mr. Trump did not waver from his characterization that the call showed there was “no quid pro quo,” and used a fortuitously scheduled meeting with Zelensky himself to drive the point home. Seated next to Mr. Trump, the newly elected Zelensky said he did not want to get involved in U.S. politics, but told reporters “nobody pushed me” to reopen investigations into the Bidens.
At a 40-minute press conference in the afternoon, during which he uncharacteristically took few questions, the president insisted he had done nothing wrong, and appeared surprised at the heated reaction from top Democrats.
“They must laugh their asses off,” he said. — Stefan Becket