Donald Trump insisted on Sunday he did not offer an incentive to the president of Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s son, as senior Democrats suggested they could launch impeachment proceedings over the controversy.
Speaking to reporters, the US president said he had not pressured Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Hunter Biden during a telephone call this year.
The allegations came to light after a whistleblower made allegations about Mr Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, including what the whistleblower reportedly called a troubling promise.
Mr Trump defended himself against accusations that he offered some sort of favourable foreign policy move in return for Mr Zelensky reopening the investigation into the former vice-president’s son. The president had been accused of “slow-walking” the dispersal of nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine, which was approved by Congress in August but not released by the White House until last week.
Mr Trump said he had not offered Mr Zelensky anything to investigate Mr Biden, a frontrunner in the Democratic presidential nomination race. “There was no quid pro quo,” he said. “It was a warm and friendly conversation.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, admitted last week that he had asked Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden.
Meanwhile the president’s allies sought to shift attention away from the president’s actions and back onto Hunter Biden’s previous involvement with a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Sunday: “The real issue here is not what the president said but what indeed did Biden’s son do?”
He added that he had not been on the call with Mr Zelensky but had “no reason” to believe that any incentive was offered to investigate Hunter Biden.
With Mr Trump due to meet Mr Zelensky this week at the UN General Assembly, Democrats are seeking to intensify the pressure on him, with many renewing their calls for impeachment.
Speaking at a campaign event on Saturday, Elizabeth Warren said: “It is time to call out this illegal behaviour and start impeachment proceedings right now.”
Ms Warren has just overtaken Mr Biden to top the polls in Iowa, the first state to vote for a Democratic candidate to challenge Mr Trump in next year’s presidential election.
Mr Biden himself has not gone as far as Ms Warren in calling for the president to be impeached, saying only that it “could” happen. But during an angry encounter with reporters on Saturday, he said: “You should be looking at Trump. Trump is doing this because he knows I’ll beat him like a drum.”
More significantly, Adam Schiff, the chair of the House intelligence committee, said on Sunday that he could back a move to impeach the president, reflecting a shift in party leaders’ thinking.
Mr Schiff’s committee will on Thursday question Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, who has refused to disclose details of the whistleblower’s complaint.
So far, senior Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, have been wary to launch impeachment proceedings because they believe Mr Trump would win the backing of Republicans, who hold the majority in the Senate.
But Mr Schiff told CNN’s State of the Union: “I hope that before we go down this route that we can persuade the public that this is the right thing to do. Part of persuading the public is showing that this is a last resort.”
He added: “This seems different in kind [than previous accusations against the president]. We may have crossed the Rubicon.”