White House

Trump unable to explain why ask of Ukraine leader was legal

President appeared to shy away from additional questions about requesting 'favor' from Zelenskiy

President Donald Trump speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, hours before House Democrats launched a formal impeachment inquiry. (JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump on Wednesday was unable to explain why it is acceptable and legal for a sitting U.S. president to ask a foreign leader to investigate one of his domestic political foes.

Instead, during a meandering answer at a press conference, the president tried to deflect attention to what he says was misconduct by then-Vice President Joe Biden. He also tried to downplay his own words as spelled out in a partial transcript of a call with Ukraine’s new leader released earlier in the day that sent shockwaves through Washington.

Rather than telling a CNBC reporter why his July conversation with Volodymyr Zelenskiy was indeed legal, Trump fired off a number of allegations and insults about his Democratic opponents.

“Impeachment for that?” Trump said at one point, his voice rising. “When you have a wonderful meeting … or call? … It was beautiful conversation.”

Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates, however, disagree. They see a potential criminal act because Trump appears to be asking a foreign government to give him a personal political benefit — that’s a federal offense.

[Trump walked fine line on quid-pro-quo threat during call with Ukraine leader]

Trump tried to divert attention from an impeachment inquiry centered on his request of a foreign leader to investigate the Bidens. During his opening remarks, he read from a letter a group of Senate Democrats sent to U.N. officials warning Congress might withhold assistance unless corruption in Ukraine was addressed.

But those lawmakers were not specifically pointing to anything related to a Biden. What’s more, Ukrainian officials say Joe and Hunter Biden committed no wrongdoing. No U.S. law enforcement entity has charged either man.

Notably, the president — even as the release of the July 25 transcript appeared to increase the risks he will become the third U.S. president to be impeached by the House — offered to hand over other White House records of previous conversations with Zelenskiy.

He even implored journalists in New York to ask him questions about the summit, not the “witch hunt,” which is how he refers to the impeachment inquiry.

It’s the same moniker he gave to former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s Russia election meddling probe. After getting one question from CNBC’s Eamon Javers and a follow-up, both about his call with Zelenskiy, Trump retreated. He turned the lectern over to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who spoke about Iran.

It was a striking scene, with the usually defiant and confident Trump appearing unsure about how to describe his own actions.

Asked if he’s gearing up for a long impeachment drama, the president said he thought his problems “were dead” after Mueller’s report failed to prompt an impeachment inquiry.

Notably, his call with the new Ukraine leader came the day after Mueller’s measured testimony about his report, which failed to hand House Democrats anything close to a smoking gun.

The president’s press conference ended a U.N. General Assembly session that was overshadowed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to launch an impeachment inquiry over his call with Ukraine’s new leader.  The partial summary of the call released Wednesday showed Trump asking Volodymyr Zelenskiy to look into the Bidens in July, when Joe Biden had a wide lead in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Trump spent his three days in New York defiantly denying any wrongdoing, and about an hour before his news conference, even lobbing new allegations of wrongdoing at Hunter Biden, whom he says was “corrupt” in his business dealings in Ukraine and China.

The president also contends Joe Biden, as vice president, tried using his influence to chase the Ukrainian government off an investigation of a firm that employed his son — multiple media outlets have reported that probe was of a side company, however.

Before Trump spoke, a stream of House Democrats reacted to the White House’s partial transcript by calling it proof of presidential wrongdoing.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said in a statement that the call “should alarm every American — especially those in Congress who have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” adding Trump’s ask of Zelenskiy to “investigate a political opponent before the upcoming 2020 election reeks of potential extortion and it is illegal.”

[Transcript: Trump pressed Zelenskiy to coordinate Biden investigation with Barr]

Biden, who has not shied away from Trump’s attempts to damage him politically as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts closes ground in the 2020 Democratic primary, blasted Trump after reading the White House-prepared call summary.

“He implored the president of Ukraine to work with his personal attorney to manufacture a smear against a domestic political opponent, using a malicious conspiracy theory that has been universally debunked by every independent outlet that has looked at it,” Biden said in a statement, urging Congress to hold Trump “accountable.”

“It is a tragedy for this country that our president put personal politics above his sacred oath,” Biden said. “He has put his own political interests over our national security interest, which is bolstering Ukraine against Russian pressure. It is an affront to every single American and the founding values of our country.”

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime Democratic Massachusetts senator, wrote on Twitter that House Democrats’ impeachment probe “will flush more rats from the sewers (Rudy!) — but don't get lost in the weeds of quid pro quo: the president abused his power to bully an ally into becoming his campaign's opposition research arm. If it wasn't already a constitutional crisis, it is now.”

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