U.S. President Donald Trump openly called on both Ukraine and China to investigate the family of his rival, Joe Biden, even as he is facing an impeachment inquiry over his private push to have Kiev look into the former vice president.
The president made the public remarks to reporters outside the White House just as Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, was in Washington to testify in a closed-door session to lawmakers, making him the first diplomat to be deposed in the inquiry.
Mr Trump’s July 25 call with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the heart of the impeachment investigations by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
A reconstructed transcript of the call, released last week by the White House, showed the Republican president asking for a “favour” of Ukraine in investigating Mr Biden, a frontrunner in the Democratic Party’s primary for next year’s presidential election.
“I would think that if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens,” Mr Trump told reporters outside the White House on Thursday.
“I would say, President Zelensky, if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens,” the president said.
“Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens,” he said.
Mr Trump also made comments about the trade talks with China due to resume next week. While he did not explicitly link the issues, the remarks are likely to fuel concerns about his behaviour in office.
“The President cannot use the power of his office to pressure foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents. His rant this morning reinforces the urgency of our work,” said Adam Schiff, the Democratic head of the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading investigations.
Volker resigned at the end of last week. The former special envoy appears to have had contact with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was running back-door diplomacy on Ukraine.
Mr Trump, in the phone call, asked Ukraine to potentially investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in that country. He asked officials there to be in contact with Giuliani, among others.
The lawyer’s involvement was also noted with concern in a whistleblower report.
Democratic lawmakers are further looking at whether the White House withheld military aid in order to pressure the country.
There is still no word on whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will comply with a subpoena against him from the three committees, which has a deadline of Friday. Similarly, the White House is due to face a subpoena on Friday if it does not hand over documents to lawmakers.
Hunter Biden received a job on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, at the time his father was the vice president and key administration point-person on Ukraine.
There has been no direct evidence of a crime by the Bidens but the family is facing scrutiny over the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest.
“You’re not going to destroy me. And you’re not going to destroy my family,” Mr Biden said on Wednesday.
He insisted that all his work in Ukraine was in his official capacity as vice president and was done in coordination with Washington’s European allies.
Specifically, the push to get rid of a Ukrainian prosecutor was seen at the time as a joint effort by Washington and Brussels to oust a corrupt person, though Mr Trump is now claiming this was designed to protect the younger Biden.
The Republican leadership in Congress is largely backing the president, calling on the Democrats to cancel the impeachment investigations.
In addition to their concerns about the president’s alleged pressure on Ukraine, Democrats have also voiced alarm over Mr Trump’s description of the inquiry as a “coup” and his opponents as traitors, while he is also insinuating that impeachment could spark a civil war.