Donald Trump's troubles compound as Democrats find more ammo in whistleblower's plaint; politics behind impeachment enquiry explained

Donald Trump, in a rush to rubbish the impeachment process started against him, admitted to reporters that if then US vice president Joe Biden had sought favors from Ukraine in 2015, it would have constituted an "impeachable event".

And yet, more than once, he asked Ukraine's president for help in investigating his Democrat political foe. Time and again, he reminded Volodymyr Zelenskiy how much the US has done for Ukraine.

Most political observers agree that there was no explicit quid pro quo in Trump's half-hour phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskiy last July, apparently the subject of a classified whistleblower complaint the administration refused for weeks to show to Congress before dropping objections. But it wouldn't have been a stretch to make a connection between Trump's pleas for help and his mentions of US assistance.

 Donald Trumps troubles compound as Democrats find more ammo in whistleblowers plaint; politics behind impeachment enquiry explained

File image of US President Donald Trump. AP

"We do a lot for Ukraine," Trump said at one point.

"Do us a favour," he asked at another.

On the contrary, Trump offered no evidence whatsoever even till today to back his allegations that the former vice president sought to interfere with a Ukrainian prosecutor in regard to his son Hunter.

"Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great," Trump told Zelenskiy, asking for help in investigating Biden. He referred to Giuliani, his personal attorney and trusted advisor, as a "highly respected man" and said, "I will ask him to call you along with the attorney general."

The 25 July conversation between the two leaders is part of a whistleblower's complaint that is central to the formal impeachment inquiry launched Tuesday by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

By White House' own account, Trump was willing to engage a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a political foe and that he went so far as to volunteer his attorney general to help. Critics argue that there ought to be more to the conversation.

Days before the call, Trump froze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine. It was not clear from the loosely transcribed account of a conversation between the two leaders, whether Zelenskiy was aware of that; the White House did not clarify. The president has insisted he did nothing wrong and has denied that any request for help was tied to the aid freeze.

Trump's "favor" from Zelenskiy was seeking his help looking into a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and determined it was carried out by Russia. Trump has falsely suggested Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian.

Then Trump moved to "the other thing" — raising the subject of one of his leading Democratic rivals and a Ukrainian prosecutor: "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."

Did Trump offer attorney general to dig up dirt on a political rival?

In offering Ukraine's president the help of attorney general Barr in investigating Biden, Trump has once again thrust the nation's top law enforcement officer in a political fray.

In the conversation, Trump doesn't distinguish between the roles of Giuliani, his personal attorney and political ally, and Barr, who as the nation's top law enforcement officer and is meant to be above the political fray. Therein lies the problem.

Attorney generals traditionally strike a delicate political balance. As members of the cabinet, they are expected to back a president's law enforcement agenda. But as the heads of the Justice Department, attorney generals are expected to be above politics and not let political considerations guide their actions.

Miriam H Baer, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School told Politico that it does not matter whether that singular conversation, offered for scrutiny by the president's White House itself, violated a particular statute of the US legal framework. What matters is whether Trump's overall conduct amounted to high crime and misdemeanour.

"To that end, the House rightfully will want to investigate all of Mr. Trump’s direct and indirect contacts with Ukraine," she said.

Baer's guess is that attorney general's involvement in the matter, as suggested by Trump himself, complicates matters and sooner than later, he would be asked to testify before Congress as a fact witness. This would put pressure on him to recuse himself from the whole impeachment procedure.

Barr has been a staunch defender of Trump, most notably during the Mueller investigation. Trump losing his active support will be something unto itself.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the attorney general was first notified of Trump's conversation with the Ukrainian president "several weeks after the call took place" when the department received the referral about potential criminal conduct.

"The president has not spoken with the attorney general about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son. The president has not asked the attorney general to contact Ukraine -- on this or any other matter," the spokeswoman said.

Democrats find more ammo against Trump in the whistleblower's complain 

After weeks of refusing to reveal the whistleblower complain, the White House had to relent. Democrats who reviewed the complaint called it "deeply disturbing" and said it gives them new leads to pursue as they consider impeachment.

The complaint is at least in part related to the said phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Zelenskiy.

House Democrats emerging from a secure room would not divulge details of the complaint but described it as disturbing and urgent. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said it "exposed serious wrongdoing" and "certainly provides information for the committee to follow up with others."

“It reaffirmed the nature of the conversation, which is that the sitting President of the United States used the full weight of his office to reach out to the President of another country and ask him for dirt on a political opponent,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate freshman who flipped a district last fall and endorsed impeachment earlier this week told Time.

Trouble compounds for Trump as whistleblower agree to meet Congressmen

The anonymous whistleblower — a member of the intelligence community — who filed the complaint has tentatively agreed to meet with congressional lawmakers, according to CNN.

The news website reported that the meeting could take place on the condition that acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire approves appropriate security clearances for the individual's legal counsel so that they can accompany their client.

Furthermore, acting director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is set to speak publicly for the first on Thursday. Maguire is not expected to reveal many details about the substance of the complaint when he testifies before the House intelligence committee, but House Democrats hope to grill him over why he withheld the complaint from Congress for weeks.

Not Trump's first brush with allegations of colluding with foreign powers

It's not the first time Trump has sought foreign assistance to undermine a political rival. He publicly asked Russia to find missing Hillary Clinton emails in 2016, but this is his first documented time doing so while president with the weight of the US government at his disposal.

The White House did not say whether there are any records of Giuliani's communications with Zelenskiy, nor did it address whether the president's personal attorney learned anything from them. The White House has also not commented on whether Trump discussed Biden on 21 April call with the Ukrainian leader or with any other foreign power.

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration's diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.

Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats, confident that the spectre of impeachment led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2019 13:11:57 IST