WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump repeatedly urged the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his chief political rivals, and offered to enlist the U.S. attorney general in that effort while dangling the possibility of inviting the foreign leader to the White House, according to a rough transcript of the call released Wednesday.
The July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raised alarms among some intelligence officials, leading in August to a secret whistleblower complaint and a Justice Department referral to determine whether the president's conduct amounted to a violation of a campaign finance law that bars foreign contributions to U.S. politicians.
Prosecutors reviewed the rough transcript and last week declined to investigate, concluding that the president had not violated campaign laws, senior Justice Department officials said Wednesday.
The document touched off a wide spectrum of reactions on Capitol Hill, where Democrats accused Trump of violating his oath of office by soliciting political payback from a foreign leader, having only a day earlier announced they have launched a formal impeachment inquiry of the president. Republicans defended the president and lobbed counteraccusations at Biden.
Trump continued to insist he did nothing wrong, and Zelensky, seated beside him during an awkward joint appearance at the United Nations in New York, described their July phone call as "normal," saying, "I'm sorry but I don't want to be involved to democratic open elections of U.S.A."
The drumbeat of revelations about the Trump-Zelensky call is likely to continue this week. After the White House allowed some lawmakers Wednesday to review the whistleblower's complaint, Democrats signaled they were increasingly convinced that the president's behavior justified their drive for impeachment.
"He copped to asking a foreign power to help him in his election," Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said. "That's impeachable."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.,chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the call "reads like a classic mob shakedown."
The phone call began with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his election victory, and Zelensky effusively praising Trump in return, according to the White House memo.
Trump said the United States "has been very, very good to Ukraine," and Zelensky replied by agreeing "1,000 percent." The Ukrainian president went on to suggest his country may soon buy more antitank missiles from the United States. "We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes," Zelensky said.
Trump replied: "I would like you to do us a favor because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it."
He then asked for help in finding the Democratic National Committee computer server that U.S. officials say was hacked by Russian intelligence in the run-up to the 2016 election. Trump also called special counsel Robert Mueller "incompetent" for his performance a day earlier while testifying to Congress about his investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.
"The server, they say Ukraine has it," Trump says according to the memo. "I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it."
Trump repeatedly said Zelensky should work with Attorney General William Barr or Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani had separately pressed Ukrainian officials for a Biden inquiry.
As the half-hour conversation went on, Trump's requests of Zelensky shifted to a different topic: investigating the Bidens.
"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, according to the memo. "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me."
Zelensky replied, according to the White House memo, that "my candidate" for the prosecutor job "will look into the situation."
After he noted that he stayed at Trump Tower on his last visit to New York City, Trump invited Zelensky for a White House meeting — something the Ukrainian leader had wanted.
"Whenever you would like to come to the White House, feel free to call," Trump said, according to the White House's rough transcript.
Since Zelensky's election in April, Ukraine had urgently sought a meeting for the new president at the White House, a sit-down to demonstrate Washington's backing as it fights a long-simmering war with Russian-backed separatists. U.S. officials and members of the Trump administration wanted the meeting to go ahead, but Trump personally rejected efforts to set it up.
The White House has not yet set a date for an Oval Office meeting.
While the Justice Department has concluded the call did not violate campaign finance law, Democrats say the president's conduct endangered national security. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said the call "reads like a classic mob shakedown."
At a news conference later in New York, Trump savaged Schiff, Democrats, and the media.
"It's all a hoax, folks, it's all a big hoax," the president said. "When you look at the information, it's a joke. Impeachment for that? When you have a wonderful meeting or a wonderful phone conversation."
Trump denied any wrongdoing and suggested the Biden family deserved to be investigated. He insisted his hands were clean.
"I didn't do it, I didn't threaten anyone," the president said. "No push, no pressure, no nothing."
Not all Republicans agreed. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the matter "remains troubling in the extreme. It's deeply troubling."
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, emerged from reading the whistleblower complaint and urged both parties not to rush to "partisan tribalism." His own party, he said, "ought not be rushing to circle the wagons and say there's no there there, when there's obviously a lot that is troubling there," while Democrats should not jump to conclusions on impeachment.
And even as the vast majority of Republicans said they believed Trump had done nothing wrong, all but two of them joined House Democrats in voting Wednesday in favor of a nonbinding resolution to condemn the Trump administration's handling of the whistleblower complaint.
The measure demanded that the complaint be given to Congress, that the whistleblower be instructed on how to contact the congressional intelligence committees and that Trump and his team "cease their public efforts to discredit the whistleblower."