President Trump appeared on the brink of a new scandal Friday over a whistleblower’s complaint that reportedly involves Ukraine and accuses Trump of making an improper promise to a foreign leader over the summer.
The controversy has refocused attention on Trump’s attempts to undercut former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading polls for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination, by urging Ukrainian officials to investigate son Hunter Biden’s business dealings there for possible corruption.
Trump tried to dismiss mounting concerns by calling the complaint “just another political hack job” and describing the whistleblower as “a partisan person” despite admitting he doesn’t know who it is. He insisted his conversations with world leaders are “always appropriate.”
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, where he was meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Trump refused to say whether he mentioned Biden in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, saying “it doesn’t matter” what they discussed.
But Trump, who is scheduled to meet with Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, said that “somebody ought to look into Joe Biden,” though he complained no one would “because he’s a Democrat.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that during their phone call, Trump had repeatedly urged Zelensky to help investigate Biden’s son Hunter. The Washington Post and the New York Times had previously reported that the whistleblower complaint involves Ukraine and Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, but much of the situation remains murky because the whistleblower’s identity and the specifics of the complaint remain under wraps.
The former vice president has denied any wrongdoing.
“Not one single credible outlet has given any credibility to [Trump’s] assertions,” Biden said after a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I have no comment, except the president should start to be president.”
The whistleblower complaint was filed on Aug. 12 with the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who notified the House Intelligence Committee on Sept. 9 because he considered the complaint “urgent” and “credible.”
Atkinson, a former federal prosecutor who was appointed to his current position by Trump, stressed the urgency of the matter in a second letter on Sept. 17, saying it “relates to one of the most significant and important of the [director of national intelligence’s] responsibilities to the American people.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the committee chairman, has fought to obtain a copy of the complaint. But the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has refused to release it.
The top lawyer for Maguire’s office wrote in a letter to Schiff that the complaint “concerned conduct by someone outside the intelligence community and did not relate to any ‘intelligence activity’ under the DNI’s supervision,” meaning there was no requirement to provide it to Congress.
Democrats say Maguire is violating the law, which his office denies. The dispute is likely to become a new front in the legal battles between House Democrats and the White House.
Presidents have wide latitude to deal with foreign leaders and disclose classified information, so it wasn’t immediately clear why Trump’s conduct triggered an intelligence officer’s complaint to the inspector general. Schiff said there’s no reason to believe the whistleblower merely disagreed with Trump’s policies.
“This involves something more sinister, something involving a serious or flagrant abuse or violation of law or misappropriation,” he said Friday.
Maguire is scheduled to testify publicly on Capitol Hill next Thursday.
Democratic leaders rallied around Schiff’s efforts. The dispute raises “grave, urgent concerns for our national security,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement. If Trump “has done what has been alleged, then he is stepping into a dangerous minefield with serious repercussions for his administration and our democracy” she added.
Trump has made no secret of wanting Ukrainian authorities to investigate Biden, an effort that could boost his reelection effort, much as he demanded U.S. authorities investigate his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“He’s a guy who has no boundaries,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly Trump’s communications director and has since become an outspoken critic. “He’ll do and say anything if he thinks it will help him.”
The president’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, has publicly urged Ukraine’s prosecutors to reopen an investigation involving Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company where Hunter Biden was a board member.
The company was scrutinized by a top Ukrainian prosecutor several years ago, but the Obama administration wanted him ousted as part of a crackdown on corruption in Kyiv. Biden, then the vice president, threatened to withhold a $1-billion loan guarantee to Ukraine if the prosecutor wasn’t sacked, and he was pushed out in March 2016.
No available evidence indicates that Biden’s demand was linked to his son, a Los Angeles resident who has not faced any accusations of wrongdoing for his role at Burisma. It’s unclear whether the investigation into the energy company was active when the prosecutor was pushed out.
Giuliani’s efforts to spark a new investigation in Ukraine reflects Trump’s fixation on a potential campaign match-up with Biden, whom he’s watched carefully in the run-up to next year’s primary season. The president has regularly asked allies and friends how he could attack the former vice president and how he might fare in that fight.
Taras Berezovets, who heads the Kyiv-based political consulting firm Berta Communications, said “it is not news here” that Trump wants the Burisma investigation reopened.
“If Zelensky goes ahead and does it, that will be strategically ruinous for the relations between our countries,” he said. “That would be direct meddling in U.S. internal affairs.”
There are suspicions that the dispute may be tied to U.S. military assistance for Ukraine, which has been battling Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine . The White House delayed providing $250 million worth of aid authorized by Congress, finally releasing it this month.
“When I was in Ukraine in early September, Ukrainian officials fretted that U.S. military assistance — then on hold at the request of the White House — was being held hostage to earlier Giuliani requests for dirt on Hunter Biden,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former United Nations undersecretary-general for political affairs.
There was a sense of deja vu in Washington over the latest White House mystery, which erupted five months after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released his report on the Russia investigation.
That case also revolved, in part, around Ukraine. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for tax evasion, bank fraud and other crimes related to his work as a political consultant for the country’s pro-Russian government, which has since lost power.
Mueller ultimately did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Although Mueller laid out ways the president tried to block the investigation, Atty. Gen. William Barr and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein concluded that Trump did not obstruct justice.
House Democrats have been slow to advance their own investigations since then, and Pelosi has avoided backing impeachment hearings, saying Congress would need overwhelming evidence and bipartisan support before trying to oust the president.
But now Trump faces the prospect of an entirely new scandal, complete with the drip-drip of leaks and mushrooming speculation about misconduct in office.
“It could be a whopping big deal if the president of the United States was using American governmental power to get a foreign power to help do his bidding in exchange for aid or other concessions from the U.S. — that would be absolutely lawless,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who already supports an impeachment inquiry over the Russia investigation.
Times special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report from Kyiv, Ukraine. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed from Washington. Times staff writer David Lauter contributed from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.