The whistle-blower complaint at the center of a dispute between the White House and Congress concerns a phone call President Trump had with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to reports published a minute apart in the Washington Post and New York Times. At the time of the phone call, there were reports that the White House was considering blocking $250 million in aid to Ukraine.
Those stories built on reporting from earlier this week that suggested President Trump had made a “promise” to an unnamed foreign leader, and that an intelligence official who’d heard that promise found it troubling enough to file a whistle-blower complaint. Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who received the complaint, deemed the situation an “urgent matter.”
Typically, such a report would, at that point, automatically be sent to Congress, where the committees charged with oversight of the intelligence community would investigate it. But that didn’t happen in this case. Instead, Congress’ efforts to secure the complaint have been blocked by Trump’s Department of Justice — a move so breathtakingly antithetical to the purpose of the whistle-blower statute it wasn’t even contemplated by legislators who wrote it.
Congress and the Trump White House are still at loggerheads over the issue. In the meantime, more details about the call in question are beginning to trickle out, and those details are prompting further questions.
Did Trump Pressure the President-Elect of Ukraine to Dig Up Dirt on Joe Biden?
That is certainly the implication of the reports Thursday, which confirmed it was President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine that triggered the complaint, not with Russia or the Netherlands, whose leaders also spoke to the president around the same time.
Important context about Ukraine: Zelenskyy, the newly elected president of Ukraine, is a comedian and star of a TV show about a high school history teacher who is suddenly elected president. Ukraine is at odds with its much larger and more powerful neighbor, Russia, over the Russian federation’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Congress previously approved $250 million to help Ukraine fight pro-Russian separatists backed by the Kremlin.
Neither the Post nor the Times was able to confirm what, exactly, the president promised or hoped to extract by promising, but there are several possibilities that seem obvious. Earlier this month, congressional Democrats dispatched letters to the White House and State Department requesting records related to any efforts that the president or his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had taken to “coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity.”
An official readout of the phone call, published by the Ukrainian government, read, “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”
According to new details surfaced by the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Trump pressed Zelenskyy no less than eight times to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on the investigation, adding that “people in Washington wanted to know.”
Vice President Mike Pence later met with Zelenskyy in Poland, where the pair reportedly discussed “the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty . . . [and his] efforts to introduce bold reform legislation to combat corruption and improve the business climate to encourage foreign investment.” Pence also spoke to Zelenskyy on Wednesday, the day reports of the whistle-blower complaint were first made public.
Speaking to the press pool on Friday morning, Trump insisted that “it doesn’t matter what I discussed” with the president of Ukraine. He called it a “ridiculous story,” adding that his conversations with world leaders are “always appropriate.” The whistle-blower, he said, was a “partisan whistle-blower.” Trump added, “I do not know the identity of the whistle-blower.”
Did Giuliani Travel to Ukraine to Dig Up Dirt on Joe Biden?
On CNN Thursday night, Giuliani insisted that he never asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden — a matter of seconds before he reversed course and admitted, “Of course I did.” Beside a split-screen of Chris Cuomo gaping in disbelief, Giuliani appeared to confirm the reports that he traveled to Ukraine to pressure officials to pursue investigations into the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his family.
If all this sounds familiar to you, well, it does to Hillary Clinton too.
The president asked a foreign power to help him win an election.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 20, 2019
What, Exactly, Is Joe Biden’s Alleged Connection to Ukraine?
Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, from 2014 to 2019. A meme that circulated online in right-wing circles earlier this year alleges Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine if the country did not fire a prosecutor who was investigating the company.
While Joe Biden did threaten that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if the country didn’t fire its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, he was far from alone in calling for Shokin’s ouster. Shokin was widely faulted for ignoring corruption among the country’s richest and most connected individuals. Under pressure from the U.S., E.U. countries, and the International Monetary Fund, the Ukrainian Parliament did, eventually, vote to fire Shokin.
So, Uh … Is Ukraine Going to Do What Trump Is Reportedly Demanding?
Apparently, Ukraine is indeed ready to begin an investigation of Biden. Anton Geraschenko, who is a senior adviser to the country’s interior minister and would oversee the inquiry, confirmed that much to the Daily Beast on Friday. No investigation has started at this point, Geraschenko said, but one could “as soon as there is an official request.
“Clearly,” Geraschenko added, “Trump is now looking for kompromat to discredit his opponent Biden, to take revenge for his friend Paul Manafort, who is serving seven years in prison.”