By Ken Bredemeier
The White House on Sunday defended President Donald Trump’s bid to get Ukraine to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, saying the request did not amount to an impeachable offense.
“Nothing would lead to a high crime or misdemeanor,” one of Trump’s top aides, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN. She was referring to the standard for impeaching a U.S. president days after the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved proceedings for the impeachment inquiry targeting Trump over his actions related to Ukraine.
But Conway said she did not know whether Trump had initially conditioned release of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv investigating Biden, his son Hunter Biden’s work for Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma, as well as a debunked political theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, had hacked into Democratic National Committee computers to try to help defeat Trump in the 2016 election.
“I feel comfortable in saying that [Trump] never mentioned a quid pro quo or 2020” in a late July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Conway said.
“Let’s be honest …,” she added, “what is not there [in the phone call between the two leaders] is holding up the aid. They got that aid.”
Democrats contested White House assertions. “The Congress appropriated money for foreign aid for Ukraine, and the president illegally withheld that money,” Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told ABC.
Trump said on Twitter, “Many people listened to my phone call with the Ukrainian President while it was being made. I never heard any complaints. The reason is that it was totally appropriate, I say perfect. Republicans have never been more unified, and my Republican Approval Rating is now 95%!”
On CNN, Conway said Trump has “great faith” in the U.S. intelligence community. But she declined to say whether Trump believes its conclusion that Moscow, and not Ukraine, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state.
Several Trump administration national security and diplomatic officials have told impeachment investigators in the House that Trump had temporarily withheld release of the money that Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russians separatists in the eastern part of the country in an effort to pressure Ukraine to open the investigations to help him politically.
But Conway dismissed the accounts of the witnesses, saying it was “inappropriate to cherry pick 10 hours of testimony.”
Soliciting and receiving foreign contributions in an election is illegal under U.S. campaign finance law.
Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash whether it was appropriate for Trump to ask a foreign country to investigate an American citizen, Biden, Conway said, “That’s a very simplified version of what happened.”
Conway said, “Joe Biden is not insulated from his past actions,” when as second in command under former President Barack Obama, he, along with European leaders, pressed Ukraine to oust a prosecutor they believed was not investigating high-level corruption in the eastern European country.
Neither of the Bidens has been implicated in any wrongdoing. The younger Biden, however, has acknowledged that he used “poor judgment” in accepting the position on the Burisma board, which he left months ago, because it has caused his father political problems as he tries to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination to face Trump in the 2020 election that is a year from Sunday.
Trump has repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo even as he asked the Ukrainian leader for “a favor” in the form of politically-related investigations.
The impeachment inquiry in the House was touched off by the account of a whistleblower, identified in news reports as a Central Intelligence Agency official who formerly worked in the White House, who was troubled by Trump’s request to Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son.
“The Whistleblower got it sooo wrong that HE must come forward,” Trump said Sunday on Twitter. However, the general thrust of the whistleblower’s account was verified by a rough transcript of the Trump-Zelenskiy call released in September by the White House and subsequent testimony to the impeachment investigators.
“The Fake News Media knows who he is but, being an arm of the Democrat Party, don’t want to reveal him because there would be hell to pay,” Trump said. “Reveal the Whistleblower and end the Impeachment Hoax!”
CBS reported the whistleblower has offered to answer written questions posed by Republican lawmakers without having to go through the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic majority, according to the whistleblower’s attorney. Republicans have argued that Trump is entitled to confront his accuser.
If the full House, on a simple-majority vote, approves articles of impeachment against Trump in the coming weeks, a trial would be held in the Republican-majority Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be needed to convict him and remove him from office. With the votes of at least 20 Republican senators needed to turn against Trump to oust him, his conviction remains unlikely.