Trump Asked Ukraine to Work With Giuliani, Barr on Biden Probe

(Bloomberg) -
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U.S. President Donald Trump, Tuesday, (L) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Wednesday, at the U.N. General Assembly. (AP Photo/Richard Drew/Craig Ruttle)

President Donald Trump asked the president of Ukraine to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the U.S. attorney general, William Barr, to “look into” his political rival, Joe Biden, according to a rough transcript of a call between the two leaders released Wednesday.

Trump also asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate whether his country could locate a hacked Democratic National Committee computer server that became an issue in Trump’s 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, according to notes from the call.

Trump mentioned Biden several times during the call as he described allegations that, as vice president, Biden had pushed to oust Ukraine’s top prosecutor to help a company his son was working for — claims that have been discredited.

“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. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump said, referring to Barr.

Zelenskiy suggested that he wanted to accommodate Trump, replying that after he appoints a new chief prosecutor, “he or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”

What Trump said during the July 25 exchange with Zelenskiy has become central to an impeachment inquiry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday. Lawmakers are probing whether Trump pressured Ukraine to re-open a criminal inquiry linked to Biden’s family in exchange for restoring U.S. military aid that Trump halted prior to the call, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Trump agreed to release details about the phone call in the face of mounting pressure from Democrats, as well as some Republicans.

But the president doesn’t explicitly say that future Ukrainian assistance from the U.S. would be conditioned on the investigation into Biden, and only raised the issue of investigating Biden after Zelenskiy first mentioned wanting to meet with Giuliani — two points the White House is certain to argue are exculpatory.

And while the president says the U.S. “does a lot for Ukraine,” that comment was in the context of complaining about a lack of military assistance to Ukraine from Germany and he never specifically mentions a military aid package he froze in the days before his call with the Ukrainian leader.

It’s not clear if Zelenskiy was aware that the U.S. aid had been frozen at the time of the call. Early in the call, Zelenskiy thanked Trump for previous U.S. support and said he was “almost ready” to buy additional Javelin anti-tank missiles. Trump responded by asking Zelenskiy for “a favor” — to look into the disposition of a Democratic National Committee server.

“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told him, according to the White House document.

Trump spent more time talking about Biden. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it … it sounds horrible to me,” he said later in the call. Zelenskiy agreed to re-open an investigation. He asked for a favor “because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”

Trump also disparaged Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill as “an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started in Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”

The White House document, labeled a “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation,” contains a note that it is “not a verbatim transcript.”

“The text of this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversations in written form as the conversation takes place,” the note said.

Conversations between U.S. presidents and their foreign counterparts are generally confidential, and the memos documenting them are closely held secrets. This one was originally labeled “Secret” and “Eyes Only.” Trump expressed reticence about releasing the Zelenskiy transcript out of concern about setting a precedent. Mounting pressure from Democrats as well as some Republicans led him to order the document declassified.

A whistle-blower complaint filed by an intelligence official over a sequence of events including the call led the inspector general for the intelligence community to suggest Trump may have violated campaign finance law and refer the matter to the Justice Department and FBI for an investigation into potential violations.

The Justice Department conducted an investigation and concluded last week that Trump didn’t violate campaign finance laws in the course of the call, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement. But the Justice Department didn’t take into consideration that Trump was withholding military aid to Ukraine at the time of the call, one official said. The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The intelligence whistle-blower didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the call, and the intelligence community’s inspector general said there was some indication the person has a “political bias” in favor of one of Trump’s political rivals, the Justice Department’s legal opinion states.

The department’s Office of Legal Counsel also determined that the complaint from the intelligence official didn’t fall under a law requiring it to be provided to Congress.

Although Trump talked about involving Barr in an investigation into Biden, Barr has not recused himself from the matter, the official said. Kupec said Barr never discussed the matter with Trump or Giuliani and hasn’t been in contact with Ukraine.

Lawmakers are still seeking additional information about Trump’s actions, including the whistle-blower complaint.

But Republicans quickly said the transcript should exonerate Trump.

“There was no quid pro quo and nothing to justify the clamor House Democrats caused yesterday,” House Judiciary top Republican Doug Collins of Georgia said of the transcript. “The real danger here is that Democrats keep using baseless accusations in hopes of crippling a successful presidency.”

The president said Tuesday that he had withheld the military aid to Ukraine over a previously unknown dispute with Europe.

By releasing the transcript, Trump appears to be trying to defuse a ballooning controversy over allegations he sought foreign help to smear a political rival.