Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Ukraine: The whistleblower standoff explained
Published 5:00 AM EDT Sep 22, 2019
WASHINGTON – A whistleblower complaint and concerns over President Donald Trump’s discussions with the Ukrainian president have sparked yet another inquiry into Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders and has spilled over into the 2020 presidential campaign.
The story, which has been reported in bits and pieces from a number of news outlets, folds together diplomatic efforts from both the Obama and Trump administrations. Here we’ve attempted to breakdown what everyone is talking about.
First, it’s important to know the players, who include familiar and some not-so-familiar names. They are: Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin and current Ukrainian secretary general Yuriy Lutsenko.
At the heart of the matter is an August whistleblower complaint by a U.S. intelligence community official and ongoing efforts by Democrats to learn more about Trump’s contacts with Ukraine. Democrats have demanded access to the whistleblower complaint.
Little is known about the complaint but The Washington Post and The New York Times have reported that at least part of it involved Ukraine.
Democrats separately have been investigating whether Trump sought to put pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the Democratic 2020 presidential candidate, and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma Group, an energy company in Ukraine. They contend that using official diplomatic contacts to try to undermine a political rival would amount to an abuse of power.
On Friday, Trump said it “doesn’t matter” if he asked Ukraine to investigate Biden and that the matter warrants scrutiny. The president also said his conversations with world leaders are “always appropriate, at the highest level always appropriate.” On the same day, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump asked Zelensky eight times to investigate Hunter Biden.
Hunter Biden in Ukraine
The New York Times reported in May that Biden, while in office in 2016, threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Ukraine reduced its corruption. Part of that demand called for removing the country’s top prosecutor, Shokin, who was investigating the oligarch behind an energy company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
Shokin was accused by U.S. officials of ignoring corruption in his own office. The Ukrainian Parliament eventually voted him out.
But Lutsenko, Ukraine’s current prosecutor, told Bloomberg News Service in May that he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
“Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing,” Lutsenko told Bloomberg. “A company can pay however much it wants to its board.”
Hunter Biden told the Times in May that he had “no role whatsoever” in the Ukrainian investigation of the company or any of its officers. The Post has reported there is “no evidence” Biden was trying to help his son.
Trump’s call with Zelensky
On July 25, Trump called Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. Trump allegedly told Zelensky he could improve that country’s image by pursuing corruption cases, according to a letter from House Democrats investigating the call.
Trump also withheld more than $250 million in security assistance that Congress had appropriated and that Ukraine desperately needed. But the Trump administration made the funding available earlier this month.
The day after Trump’s call, Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, was dispatched to meet with Zelensky. And days later, Giuliani met in Spain with Andriy Yermak, a Zelensky aide, to discuss a possible meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
Giuliani has tweeted allegations of Biden corruption repeatedly, at one point alleging “bribery, extortion, money laundering and fraud” by the Biden family in China and Ukraine.
Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield told The New York Times in May that Biden acted “without any regard for how it would or would not impact any business interests of his son, a private citizen.”
The whistleblower complaint
Democrats are in a standoff with the Trump administration, which is refusing to turn over to Congress an Aug. 12 complaint from a whistleblower within the intelligence community. The conflict intensified after The Washington Post reported that the whistleblower had raised concerns over Trump’s contact with the foreign leader, including a “promise” he made to the leader.
The inspector general for the director of national intelligence (DNI), Michael Atkinson, said in a Sept. 9 letter that the matter involves an “urgent concern,” which is defined as “a serious or flagrant problem, abuse, violation of the law,” but “does not include differences of opinions concerning public policy matters.” Atkinson said a preliminary review found the complaint credible.
Such complaints are typically reported to Congress within seven days. But Atkinson said he hit an impasse with Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, over sharing the complaint with Congress. Atkinson said he was told by the legal counsel for the intelligence director that the complaint did not meet the definition of an “urgent concern.” And he said the Justice Department said it did not fall under the director’s jurisdiction because it didn’t involve allegations concerning a member of the intelligence community or intelligence activity.
Atkinson said in a letter to Maguire he disagreed with that Justice Department view.
“I set forth my reasons for concluding that the subject matter involved in the complainant’s disclosure not only falls within the DNI’s jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people,” Atkinson wrote.
The inspector general said he requested authorization to at the very least disclose the “general subject matter” to Congress but had not been allowed to do so. He said the information was “being kept” from Congress.
Democrats say they have “grave” concerns about the Trump administration’s refusal to allow the complaint to be disclosed to members of Congress.
“Reports of a reliable whistle-blower complaint regarding the President’s communications with a foreign leader raise grave, urgent concerns for our national security,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “The president and acting DNI’s stonewalling must end immediately, and the whistle-blower must be provided with every protection guaranteed by the law to defend the integrity of our government and ensure accountability and trust.”
Giuliani admits he talked to Ukraine about Biden
Congressional Democrats were troubled by the appearance of Trump urging a foreign government to investigate a political rival.
“If the President, in his official capacity, asked a foreign government to dig up dirt on a political opponent,” Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a tweet. “Congress cannot let that stand. Our silence could doom the republic.”
The dispute had been simmering as Congress investigated what was said during the call. But it boiled over Thursday, when Giuliani first denied that he urged Ukraine to investigate and then acknowledged it.
“Of course I did,” Giuliani said during a rambling interview on CNN.
Giuliani said he visited Ukraine on his own and then told Trump.
“I did what I did on my own,” Giuliani said. “I told him about it afterward.”
Three congressional chairmen – Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.; Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md. – had announced Sept. 9 that they were demanding records from the White House and State Department about alleged attempts to manipulate Ukraine’s judicial system.
“As the 2020 election draws closer, President Trump and his personal attorney appear to have increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and its justice system in service of President Trump’s reelection campaign, and the White House and the State Department may be abetting this scheme,” said the letter from the Democratic chairmen.
The State Department has insisted that President Trump’s attorney is “a private citizen” who “does not speak on behalf of the U.S. Government.” Yermak publicly stated that “it was not clear to him whether Mr. Giuliani was representing Mr. Trump in their talks.”
The IG meets with the House Intelligence Committee
The inspector general met privately Thursday with members of the House Intelligence Committee. But Schiff, the committee chairman, said the official refused to describe the complaint, but called it “both credible and urgent.”
The committee plans to hold a public hearing with Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, on Sept. 26. Maguire and Atkinson also are expected next week at the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Schiff said the prospect of misconduct at the highest levels of government “raises grave concerns that your office, together with the Department of Justice and possibly the White House, are engaged in an unlawful effort to protect the President and conceal from the Committee information related to his possible ‘serious or flagrant’ misconduct, abuse of power, or violation of law.”
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., tweeted that withholding the complaint could become another part of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment investigation.
“This is deadly serious,” Cicilline said. “If the President does not allow the whistleblower complaint against him to be turned over to Congress, we will add it to the Articles of Impeachment.”
Trump said the complaint was partisan, although he later said he didn’t know who made it.
“It’s a partisan whistleblower,” Trump said.
Trump has said Biden should be investigated, but when speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Friday, Trump refused to describe his July call with the Ukrainian president and he dismissed the whistleblower complaint as a partisan attack.
“Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden’s statement, because it was disgraceful, where he talked about billions of dollars that he’s not giving to a certain country unless a certain prosecutor is taken off the case,” Trump said. “It’s a disgrace.”
Trump denied any impropriety in the call.
“I’ve had conversations with many leaders. They’re always appropriate,” Trump said. “It’s just another political hack job.”
Biden lashed out Friday at Trump’s effort to push Ukraine to investigate him.
“Not one single credible outlet has given credibility to these assertions. Not one single one,” Biden said during a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.. “So I have no comment other than the president should start to be president.”
Biden then put out a statement Friday evening.
“If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country,” the statement said. “This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes. It means that he used the power and resources of the United States to pressure a sovereign nation — a partner that is still under direct assault from Russia — pushing Ukraine to subvert the rule of law in the express hope of extracting a political favor.”
Biden said on Saturday he has never spoken to his son about his business dealings overseas.
“Here’s what I know,” he said. “Trump should be investigated.”
More about President Donald Trump’s clashes with Congress:
Impeach Trump? House Democrats face delicate choice as lawmakers, but not public, push for action
‘Slow-motion constitutional car crash’: Trump, Congress battle over investigations with no end in sight