Donald Trump has acknowledged that he personally decided to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine but insisted it was not done in order to pressure the country to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden’s son.
The US president’s defence of his order comes as the controversy surrounding the July call to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, has led to a groundswell of support among Democrats in Washington to begin impeachment proceedings.
Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Mr Trump said he had delayed sending nearly $400m to Ukraine this summer because he wanted “other countries to put up money”.
“I think it’s unfair that we put up the money,” Mr Trump told reporters. “Germany, France, other countries, should put up money, and that has been my complaint from the beginning.”
US media reported late Monday that Mr Trump had instructed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to withhold the military aid already approved by Congress — raising fresh concerns that Mr Trump had sought to use the money as leverage to collect dirt on Joe Biden, the former US vice-president who is seen as a frontrunner to take on Mr Trump in next year’s US presidential election.
The scandal centres on a July 25 phone call between the US president and Mr Zelensky, in which Mr Trump reportedly urged Mr Zelenksy to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Mr Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. The younger Biden took up a lucrative board position with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, in 2014, when his father was still in office.
Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday that they would “understand” after seeing a “readout of the call, which I assume you will see at some point”.
“That call was perfect, it couldn’t have been nicer,” Mr Trump said. “There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. But there was pressure put on with respect to Joe Biden. What Joe Biden did for his son, that’s something they should be looking at.”
Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani have made a range of unsubstantiated allegations about the younger Mr Biden’s activities in Ukraine.
Mr Trump has repeatedly alleged that Joe Biden improperly pressured the Ukrainian government in 2016 to fire a top prosecutor who had opened an investigation into Burisma, in order to help his son. While the then vice-president called for the prosecutor’s dismissal and threatened to withhold $1bn in US loan guarantees if the prosecutor was not sacked, his calls were part of a wider effort involving US officials in Kiev, Western allies and international groups, including the IMF and the World Bank, to crack down on corruption in the country.
While campaigning in Iowa at the weekend, Joe Biden said he had “never” spoken to Hunter about his overseas business dealings, adding: “Trump is doing this because he knows I’ll beat him like a drum, and he is using the abuse of power and every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me.”
Mr Trump and his allies have sought to shift the focus of the growing scandal to the Bidens as Democrats in Washington get closer to deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against the US president.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has so far resisted calls to take steps to remove Mr Trump from office. But in a letter to lawmakers on Sunday, Mrs Pelosi warned that the White House risked entering a “grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us in to a whole new stage of investigation”.
Mrs Pelosi was expected to confer with top Democrats on Tuesday morning, ahead of a meeting of the House Democratic caucus in the afternoon.
The mood on Capitol Hill has changed in recent days, as more details have emerged about Mr Trump’s phone call with Mr Zelensky. On Monday, three separate congressional committees threatened to issue subpoenas if the US state department does not hand over documents relating to Mr Giuliani’s activities in Ukraine.
“Seeking to enlist a foreign actor to interfere with an American election undermines our sovereignty, democracy, and the constitution, which the president is sworn to preserve, protect, and defend,” the chairmen of the committees said. “Yet the president and his personal attorney now appear to be openly engaging in precisely this type of abuse of power involving the Ukrainian government ahead of the 2020 election”.
At the same time, some centrist Democrats who have previously been hesitant about beginning impeachment proceedings have changed their tune.
In an op-ed published by the Washington Post late Monday, a group of freshman Democrats in the House wrote: “Congress must determine whether the president was indeed willing to use his power and withhold security assistance funds to persuade a foreign country to assist him in an upcoming election. If these allegations are true, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offence.”
Rosa DeLauro, a longtime Democratic congresswoman and ally of Mrs Pelosi, said in a statement late Monday that Mr Trump’s latest actions marked a “turning point”.
“An impeachment inquiry may be the only recourse Congress has if the president is enlisting foreign assistance in the 2020 election,” Ms DeLauro said. “Congress must meet this pivotal moment in our nation’s history with decisive action.”
Another Democratic lawmaker said: “We are 100 per cent moving into impeachment territory. There’s no question about it. None.”