President Donald Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript of a call between the leaders released by the White House.
Mr Trump had said the transcript of the call that has sparked an impeachment inquiry would prove he did not try to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky by threatening to withhold nearly $400m in military aid.
While the transcript contained no direct evidence that Mr Trump said he would withhold the money, it revealed that he asked the Ukrainian president to talk to William Barr, his attorney-general, and Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, about Hunter Biden and his father.
“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 said according to the transcript, which continued, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
Mr Trump had pledged on Tuesday to release the transcript of the call at the heart of a scandal that has rapidly engulfed his presidency. But his effort to blunt the growing uproar from Democrats did not stop Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, from announcing that she would launch an impeachment inquiry because his actions had amounted to a “betrayal of his oath of office [and] betrayal of our national security”.
Mr Trump fired a barrage of tweets on Wednesday morning lambasting the Democrats for pursuing a “witch hunt” in language echoing his response to the now-concluded Russia investigation overseen by Robert Mueller.
“There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have. The Democrats are frozen with hatred and fear. They get nothing done. This should never be allowed to happen to another President. Witch Hunt!” Mr Trump tweeted from New York. “Will the Democrats apologize after seeing what was said on the call with the Ukrainian President? They should, a perfect call — got them by surprise!”
In a highly anticipated six-minute televised address on Tuesday evening, Ms Pelosi said six House committees would look into claims that Mr Trump had withheld military aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the local business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president Joe Biden who is one is on of the front-runners for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
The impeachment inquiry is the first since the House impeached Bill Clinton in 1998. The White House has scrambled to respond to the rapidly escalating scandal, which entered a new phrase on Tuesday with the impeachment proceedings just as Mr Trump was meeting world leaders at the UN General Assembly.
Mr Trump is expected to hold a previously scheduled meeting with Mr Zelensky on Wednesday afternoon. The White House is also working to release the whistleblower complaint that exposed the latest crisis.
The scandal erupted after a still-unidentified whistleblower in the intelligence community raised concerns about calls Mr Trump held with a foreign leader, later revealed to be Mr Zelensky. Joseph Maguire, the acting head of the US intelligence community, refused to provide Congress with the complaint — despite a legal requirement to do so — which helped trigger the decision to launch impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump.
Mr Trump has acknowledged speaking to Mr Zelensky about the Biden family and has also confirmed that he personally decided to withhold nearly $400m of aid to Ukraine before making the call to the Ukrainian president. But the president has denied he was attempting to pressure Mr Zelensky.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump described the transcript of his call with Mr Zelensky as “perfect” and said it would prove he did not pressure his counterpart to interfere in US politics. One US official said the transcript would be a “verbatim” account and would show that the Democrats had “over-reached”.
Mr Trump later said Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, had received permission from Ukraine to release the transcript. Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator who recently met Mr Zelensky in Ukraine, has said that the Ukrainian leader told him that he felt that Mr Trump was trying to pressure him to investigate Hunter Biden.