WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump asked Ukraine’s leader to investigate Democratic presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden in a July phone call, and though a transcript summarizing that call released Wednesday details Trump’s efforts, federal officials representing Oswego County are split on pursuing an impeachment inquiry against the president.
The July phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is one part of a whistleblower’s complaint on the president’s actions that this week brought calls for impeachment to the forefront. A transcript of the phone call, released by the White House on Wednesday, shows Trump urged the Ukrainian government to work with the attorney general and his personal attorney to investigate Biden and his son with the alleged threat to withhold aid.
In the phone call, Trump alleged Biden sought to interfere in an investigation related to his son Hunter. Trump is direct in raising the question of Joe and Hunter Biden and a Ukrainian prosecutor during the phone call, saying “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.”
Trump appeared to be seeking 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 dealing with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there is so far no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
The White House transcript indicates Trump was seeking to recruit a foreign leader to investigate Biden, a possible opponent in the 2020 presidential election, and even offer the attorney general’s assistance in such an investigation.
“Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump told Zelenskiy, asking for “a favor” in investigating Biden, adding his personal attorney Rudy Guiliani and Attorney General William Barr would call Zelenskiy to follow up.
Seeking assistance in U.S. elections from a foreign government is illegal under federal law.
Democratic leadership had largely been opposed to impeachment, but prior to the release of the transcript House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday an impeachment inquiry would be launched.
Oswego County’s congressmen, Anthony Brindisi and John Katko, expressed concerns about reports Trump solicited help from a foreign power but have not called for the impeachment of the president.
Rep. Brindisi, D-Utica, who is one of the few House Democrats to so far stop short of supporting impeachment, called the allegations surrounding the intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint “incredibly concerning.”
“The thought that any government official, especially our commander-in-chief, would hold up foreign aid to an ally and suggest they investigate a political opponent is a grave and troubling accusation,” Brindisi said. “It is clear that this administration needs to provide answers.”
Following the release of the transcript Wednesday, Brindisi said the director of national intelligence must comply with federal law and release the whistleblower report to congressional intelligence committees “in order to uphold our constitution and the rule of law.”
“To not do so would be against the law,” Brindisi said. “As a member of Congress, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. There is an opportunity for the administration to answer questions and allow Congress to execute its Constitutional oversight duty on this important national security matter."
Katko, R-Camillus, who was silent on the issue Wednesday following the release of the transcript, said Tuesday that after serving 20 years as a federal prosecutor he believes in following the facts wherever they lead. Katko said the “full facts surrounding” the conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy need to come out, and called the “abrupt decision” by Pelosi to launch an impeachment inquiry without waiting for the facts “a dramatic overstep.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Tuesday she supported the House starting an impeachment inquiry into the issue in an effort to gather the basic facts.
“I’m calling for an impeachment inquiry to make sure we can open an investigation,” she said in a conference call with reporters. “It is very important that we have an opportunity to take testimony, gather documents and understand what the facts are through the House of Representatives. I am calling on that process to start.”
The Associated Press (AP) reports Trump froze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine just days before the phone call, prompting speculation the White House was withholding the money as leverage. Trump, however, had denied that charge and in the transcript released Wednesday Trump does not threaten to withhold the funding in exchange for cooperation in the investigation.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said the request was not tied to the aid. In an appearance at the United Nations with Zelenskiy, Trump said there was “no pressure” put on his Ukrainian counterpart and Zelenskiy said “nobody pushed” him.
Prior to the release of the transcript, Trump said Democrats should apologize and would be caught by surprise after a “perfect call” with the Ukrainian president amidst the looming impeachment inquiry from House Democrats.
Speaking at the United Nations on Wednesday, Trump dismissed the claims and said he’s the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt in American history.” Trump Tuesday night tweeted “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!”
Democrats Dana Balter, Francis Conole and Roger Misso, who are vying to challenge Katko for New York’s 24th Congressional District come next November, all advocated for the House of Representatives to begin an impeachment inquiry.
Conole, a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq War veteran, said he is calling for a “deliberate approach” to an impeachment inquiry. Conole told The Palladium-Times Wednesday the transcript “makes it clear there is a sense of undermining our national security and our election system.”
Misso — a Wayne County native and a Naval Academy graduate — called the contents of the transcript an “abuse of the office of president.”
"Immediately after the leader of a foreign power says he's 'ready to buy more (weapons),' the president of the United States says ‘I would like you to do us a favor’ and attempts to coordinate an investigation into a political rival's son with his attorney general and lawyer,” he told The Palladium-Times Wednesday.
Misso called that exchange the “height of political corruption” and a “shocking betrayal of our electoral process.” The Red Creek native said Trump’s actions were “an abuse of the office of the president and the trust of the American people,” adding it is “clearly an impeachable offense.”
“Congress must continue to exert its constitutional authority and hold this president accountable,” Misso said.
Former Syracuse University Professor Dana Balter, who ran against Katko in 2018, said the transcript suggests Trump is “a clear and present danger to our country” and urged House Democrats to move “swiftly” on impeachment. Balter also accused Katko of prioritizing “giving Trump cover.”
“He didn't think the facts that we already knew yesterday were enough to warrant investigation,” she said. “Apparently, he doesn't think the facts released today are enough either.”
The phone call with President Zelenskiy is not the first time Trump has sought foreign assistance to undermine a political rival — he publicly asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails during the 2016 presidential election — but it does mark the first time as president with the weight of the U.S. government as his disposal.
Washington lawmakers have been demanding details of the whistleblower’s complaint, but the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has so far refused to share the information. Maguire is scheduled to testify before the House today, and lawmakers are expected to have access to details of the complaint beforehand in a classified setting.