President Trump urged China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, potentially adding a dramatic new risk for the White House in an impeachment inquiry focused on Trump’s outreach to foreign governments to help him win reelection next year.
Unlike Trump’s then-private appeal in July for Ukraine to dig up dirt on his domestic political opponents, the crux of the House Democrats’ investigation so far, the president publicly solicited China’s help Thursday in front of TV cameras on the South Lawn of the White House.
In both cases the president smeared Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, with a stew of unsubstantiated or false allegations of corruption. No evidence has emerged of any wrongdoing by the former vice president or his son Hunter, who had business dealings in both Ukraine and China.
“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump declared before heading to an event at the Villages, a retirement community in central Florida.
He added: “You may very well find that there are many other countries that they scammed.”
Trump said Chinese officials would visit Washington next week in an effort to revive the stalled trade talks that have harmed both economies, suggesting a leverage point in his push against Biden. “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power,” he said.
Asked whether he had sought President Xi Jinping’s intervention, Trump replied, “I haven’t, but it’s certainly something we can start thinking about.”
In a July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden and other Democrats after Zelensky asked to buy U.S. weapons to help fight a Russian-backed insurgency, according to a call memorandum released by the White House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who announced the impeachment investigation last week, wrote a letter of complaint to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and expressed amazement on Twitter that Trump would solicit China to take down a prominent American politician.
Once again, she wrote, Trump “has called on a foreign country to interfere in our elections — just the latest example of him putting his personal political gain ahead of defending the integrity of our elections.”
Republican lawmakers, who have generally defended Trump against the impeachment effort, were largely silent about his pulling China into the political maelstrom.
Trump’s comments came as the House inquiry reached a milestone, as lawmakers began interviewing witnesses to events and conversations under scrutiny in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Kurt Volker, who resigned Friday as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, was the first known witness to be deposed behind closed doors by the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees.
Multiple lawmakers attended the deposition, which lasted several hours, but staffers conducted most of the questioning.
The committees last week requested five current and former State Department employees, including Volker, to appear. On Monday, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said they needed more time to prepare, but Volker clearly decided he was ready.
Volker’s testimony could be key. According to a whistleblower complaint sent to Congress, Volker and another senior U.S. diplomat visited the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv a day after Trump’s July 25 phone call, and met with Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to advise them “about how to ‘navigate’” Trump’s demands.
“Not one thing he has said comports with any of the Democrats’ impeachment narrative. Not one thing,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee, told reporters a few hours into the deposition.
Democrats, however, said Volker urged Ukrainian officials to stay out of U.S. politics and warned Trump’s emissary, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that his sources were unreliable.
Over the last week, Trump has appeared enraged by the impeachment inquiry. But as Thursday’s outburst showed, he is also unbowed, publicly reiterating his request for Ukraine to investigate a Democratic presidential candidate.
“So I would say that President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens because nobody has any doubt that they weren’t crooked,” Trump said.
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance law, said Trump is “giving House Democrats a huge middle finger” with his latest comments.
“He’s basically saying, ‘Catch me if you can,’” she said. “He’s almost conditioning us to think: If it’s happening in the open, it can’t be wrong.”
But Levinson said seeking China’s help out loud does not inoculate the president from the law.
“If you ask a foreign country for a thing of value for your political campaign, that’s illegal,” she said. “Period. Full stop. You can do it in a whisper, you can do it with a bullhorn, you can do it with a tweet, you can do it in some subterranean location — but it’s still illegal.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, called Trump’s comments “a jaw-dropping moment in American history,” suggesting it was more egregious than the Watergate scandal that forced President Nixon from office in 1974.
“At least Nixon had the decency to be corrupt behind closed doors, and the decency to tape it, which made it easier to determine,” Newsom said. “This president doesn’t even care to have any pretense on corruption.”
Trump’s comments also prompted Ellen Weintraub, the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission and a Democrat, to explain the law in a tweet.
“This is not a novel concept,” she said. “Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”
Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and the author of books about investigations into Presidents Nixon and Clinton, said Trump keeps offering new ammunition to those trying to impeach him.
“This has to be bad news” for Trump’s lawyers, Gormley said. “This is not what you want your client to be doing.”
In some ways, the president’s latest comments are not surprising. During a 2016 campaign rally, Trump publicly urged, “Russia, if you’re listening,” to help find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. Trump’s open appeal to Moscow was among the issues investigated by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
In June, Trump stirred a bipartisan political furor by saying in a televised interview that he would gladly take help from a foreign government in a U.S. election. Under fire, he later said “of course” he would call the FBI — but only after reviewing the material.
“If you don’t hear what it is, you’re not going to know what it is,” Trump said. “I mean, how can you report something that you don’t know?”
There’s no question that Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China and Ukraine created the appearance of a conflict of interest when his father was vice president, much as Trump’s two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have been criticized for continuing to run the Trump Organization over the last three years.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka led her fashion company for 18 months — and received 16 trademarks from China — after she entered the White House as a presidential advisor. She shut the company last year after negative publicity led to boycotts and some retailers dropped her brand.
In December 2013, Vice President Biden flew to China to meet with President Xi, and invited Hunter and a grandchild to join him for the final leg on Air Force Two. Once in Beijing, Hunter met with a business associate, Jonathan Li, and arranged for Li to shake hands with his father in a hotel lobby, the New Yorker reported.
Trump has falsely accused Hunter Biden of leaving China “with $1.5 billion in a fund” and alleged again Thursday that he took “billions of dollars” out of the country.
Li ran an investment fund that raised money in China, but there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing by the younger Biden. His lawyers said he did not own what became a 10% stake in the company until October 2017, nine months after his father left office.
In a statement Thursday, Biden called Trump’s presidency “an ongoing abuse of power,” and accused Trump of “flailing and melting down on national television.”
The president “tried to bully a foreign country into lying about the domestic opponent he’s afraid to look in the eye” in next year’s election, Biden added.
After Trump told reporters that “I think Biden is going down,” the former vice president tweeted back, “I know you want to rig the primary and pick your opponent, but I’m not going anywhere.”
Times staff writers Chris Megerian in Washington and Taryn Luna in Sacramento contributed to this report.