Written by Julian E. Barnes, Michael S. Schmidt, Kenneth P. Vogel, Adam Goldman and Maggie Haberman
President Donald Trump pressed the Ukrainian president in a July call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, according to a person familiar with the conversation, an apparently blatant mixture of foreign policy with his 2020 reelection campaign.
Trump also repeatedly told President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to talk with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who had been urging the government in Kyiv for months to investigate Biden and his family, according to two other people briefed on the call.
Trump’s request for an investigation of the family of Biden, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is part of the secret whistleblower complaint that is said to be about Trump and at least in part about his dealings with Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the complaint.
The president has made no secret that he wanted Ukraine to investigate whether there was any improper overlap between Biden’s own diplomatic efforts there and his son’s role with a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch. “Someone ought to look into Joe Biden,” he told reporters on Friday in response to a question about whether he brought up Biden during his call with Zelenskiy.
The new revelations gave added urgency to critical questions about Trump’s dealings with the Ukrainian government. At the same time that the president sought an investigation into a potential political rival, the Trump administration for weeks froze military aid for Ukraine, which is battling Russian-controlled separatists in the country’s east.
The United States suspended the assistance to Ukraine in early July, according to a former American official. Trump did not discuss the aid in the July 25 call with Zelenskiy, whose government did not learn of the suspension until August, according to people familiar with the call. The Wall Street Journal first reported details of it.
For Democrats who want to examine the whistleblower complaint — itself the subject of an internal administration dispute over whether to hand it over to Congress, as is generally required by law — the key question is whether Trump was demanding a quid pro quo, explicitly or implicitly. Democratic House committee chairmen are already investigating whether he misappropriated the American foreign policy apparatus for personal political advantage and have requested the transcript of his call with Zelenskiy from the State Department and the White House.
The burgeoning controversy had echoes of the dominant scandal of the first years of Trump’s administration: whether his campaign sought help from Russia to benefit him in 2016. Ultimately, the special counsel found that although “insufficient evidence” existed to determine that Trump or his advisers engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the Russians, his campaign welcomed Moscow’s election sabotage and expected to benefit from it.
Any attempt by Trump to ask a foreign power to “dig up dirt” on a political rival while withholding aid is corrupt, said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels that is examining Trump’s Ukraine dealings.
“No explicit quid pro quo is necessary to betray your country,” tweeted Schiff, who has also pushed for the whistleblower complaint to be given to Congress.
Trump opened a direct counterattack on Friday on the whistleblower, whose identity is unknown, as are many details about the complaint. The president dismissed the allegations and labeled the whistleblower, without evidence, a political partisan.
“It’s a ridiculous story. It’s a partisan whistleblower,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, though he also acknowledged he did not know the person’s identity. “They shouldn’t even have information.”
Trump and Giuliani have pressed for an investigation of the Bidens for weeks, after reports this year in The New York Times and elsewhere examined whether a Ukrainian oil company that had faced corruption investigations had sought to buy influence in Washington by hiring Biden’s younger son, Hunter Biden, who had a lobbying business in Ukraine while his father was vice president.
Biden cast himself during his vice presidency as both the Obama administration’s booster of military assistance to Kyiv but also the chief antagonist of the notorious corruption in Ukraine’s government. In early 2016, he threatened to withhold $1 billion in American loan guarantees if its top prosecutor was not dismissed after accusations that he had ignored rampant corruption.
Biden succeeded; the prosecutor general was voted out of office. And Hunter Biden had an interest in the outcome: The owner of the energy company whose board he sat on had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.
The former vice president accused Trump in a statement of using the power of the United States to extract “a political favor.” Biden called for the president to release the transcript of his call with Zelenskiy and said that if the reports about it proved true, “there was no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country.”
He also said the allegations that he or his son committed wrongdoing in Ukraine are baseless. “Not one single outlet has given any credibility to his assertion,” Biden told reporters Friday after a campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Controversy over the administration’s Ukraine policy has swirled for weeks but was confined mostly to foreign policy experts. The revelations about the whistleblower complaint plunged the issue into the center of the political debate.
Congress has still not seen the whistleblower’s allegation. Although the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, has sought to provide it, the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has blocked him in a dispute over legal requirements.
Maguire and his general counsel decided against providing the complaint to Congress after consulting with Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, according to a person familiar with the move.
Mounting evidence that the White House was involved in the effort to withhold the complaint from lawmakers has stirred anger on Capitol Hill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Maguire of violating the law.
“If the president has done what has been alleged, then he is stepping into a dangerous minefield with serious repercussions for his administration and our democracy,” she said in a statement.
Republicans were largely silent about Trump’s calls for a foreign investigation of his political rival. Their apparent desire to avoid criticizing the president during a political crisis stood in contrast to the criticism from Republicans, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, after the administration froze the military aid to Ukraine.
The administration, critics said, has struggled to explain the move, which has convinced some Democrats that it was part of an effort bring about a Biden investigation.
“They have no shame,” said Michael Carpenter, a former aide to Biden and expert on Ukraine. He added, “They released the assistance in mid-September after the bipartisan uproar over the freeze — and under pressure from the House investigations. But strikingly, the administration never articulated why the assistance was frozen in the first place.”
Giuliani has spearheaded a push for a Biden inquiry. He met with Zelenskiy’s emissaries this summer in hopes of encouraging his government to pursue investigations into the family as well as whether Ukrainian officials took steps during the 2016 election to damage Trump’s campaign.
Giuliani has said he was acting on his own, though his comments Thursday seemed to draw a closer connection to Trump. “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job,” Giuliani tweeted shortly after a CNN appearance where he first denied, then admitted, asking the government in Kyiv to investigate the Bidens.
Although they agreed to meet with Giuliani, the Ukranians have so far refused to open the investigations. But there is little doubt the pressure from Trump is causing stress on the new government, according to a former Ukranian official.
Since 2014, Ukraine has been under attack by Russia and its proxy, a fight that has become a grinding continuing conflict and one that has made it difficult for Kyiv to continue its reform efforts and work to become more integrated with Europe and the West.
But now Ukraine also finds itself potentially at odds with the leader of its most critical partner, the United States, and at the center of a political battle in Washington.
Trump and Zelenskiy will meet next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a senior administration official confirmed after Zelenskiy’s office announced the meeting Friday. But the administration has put off any commitment for a White House meeting, which Zelenskiy views as critical for the relationship.