(Bloomberg) — Revelations about Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president are shaping up to be the most serious threat to his presidency so far, surpassing even the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference that dogged the first two years of his administration.
A whistle-blower complaint released Thursday alleging that Trump abused his power when he asked Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden in a July 25 call compounded the damage from a rough transcript of the conversation the White House released a day earlier.
The complaint emboldened Democrats pursuing Trump’s removal from office, while Republicans — many of whom had criticized the House’s move toward impeaching the president — largely refrained from comment.
Trump hurt himself further after telling U.S. diplomats in a private meeting on Thursday that “we’re at war” and the whistle-blower was “almost a spy,” according to video obtained by Bloomberg News.
“That is a gross mischaracterization of whistle-blowers,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told reporters.
Trump evaded consequences after Robert Mueller’s investigation because the special counsel couldn’t tie the president directly to Russian interference in the 2016 election and didn’t clearly accuse him of obstructing the probe. But in the Ukraine affair, the most damaging facts are rooted in the president’s own words, recorded in a five-page memorandum that largely corroborates the whistle-blower’s complaint.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham on Thursday issued a statement calling the whistle-blower complaint “nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper.”
Trump, she said, “has nothing to hide.”
Late Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said his panel would also conduct an investigation of Trump’s Ukraine actions. He said he is “committed to make sure that we get to the bottom of what questions need answers.”
It’s illegal for foreigners to contribute to U.S. political campaigns or for American politicians to solicit their contributions. The memorandum shows Trump asking Zelenskiy for an investigation into Biden, who was at the time the front-runner to challenge the president’s re-election in 2020 — a request that could be construed as the president seeking a non-monetary contribution to his campaign.
The Department of Justice conducted a preliminary review of the whistle-blower complaint and determined a criminal investigation wasn’t warranted. But Congress could decide otherwise. For purposes of impeachment, the Constitution leaves it to lawmakers to decide whether the president’s actions amount to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The whistle-blower also implicated Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr in the president’s efforts to seek a Ukraine investigation of Biden. “Anyone who’s involved with this episode should be facing questions of criminal campaign finance violations,” said Jed Shugerman, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.
In a statement Wednesday, the department attempted to distance Barr from the events. He didn’t learn of the July 25 phone call until “several weeks” afterward, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
“The president has not spoken with the attorney general about having Ukraine investigate anything relating to former Vice President Biden or his son,” Kupec said. “The president has not asked the Attorney General to contact Ukraine — on this or any other matter. The attorney general has not communicated with Ukraine — on this or any other subject. Nor has the attorney general discussed this matter, or anything relating to Ukraine, with Rudy Giuliani.”
Shugerman called Barr “a witness” to Trump’s actions. Giuliani may face more liability.
“It’s simply illegal to solicit information or something of value from a foreign national to benefit a campaign and this looks like a months-long effort by the president and his private attorney to do just that,” New York University law professor Ryan Goodman said in an interview.
Edifice of Loyalty
The public release of the whistle-blower complaint also revealed cracks in the edifice of loyalty Trump has attempted to construct around himself, both in the West Wing and on Capitol Hill.
In addition to Collins’s criticism, Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, said in a public hearing on the complaint Thursday that Trump’s call was “not okay.”
While some of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill rushed to his defense, the vast majority of Senate Republicans were silent on the complaint. Many claimed they hadn’t had a chance to read it. Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, said that because he might be a juror in Trump’s impeachment trial, he shouldn’t comment.
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said some Republicans privately told him they’re concerned about the latest development. But he said he doesn’t expect them to break with Trump “yet.”
White House officials have expressed concern that the impeachment investigation — focused on the president’s foreign policy — comes at a time of vulnerability for Trump. Several high-profile national security officials who could have direct knowledge of his actions toward Ukraine have recently departed.
They include the former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, who announced his resignation three days after Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, and his deputy, Sue Gordon, who was forced out of her position in August. Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton left earlier this month after a dramatic split between the two men.
Unprepared for Impeachment
The White House appears unprepared for an in-depth impeachment inquiry. Many offices across the West Wing are already depleted, and Trump has been slow to fill jobs despite record-setting attrition. The White House has not yet retained the help of outside legal counsel to help with the potential burden.
Meanwhile, aides have been consumed by this week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Trump met with a string of foreign leaders including Zelenskiy, leaving them flat-footed to respond to ground-shaking developments. Staff members began to formally plan strategy for an impeachment response upon returning to the White House on Thursday — two days after the inquiry was announced.
Still, there’s reason for the White House to remain confident. Republican control of the Senate means he is unlikely to be convicted and removed from office, even if the House votes to recommend articles of impeachment. While a handful of congressional Republicans have expressed some concern about Trump’s behavior, none have yet said it warrants impeachment.
Moreover, while public opinion is swinging in favor of impeachment, many voters still believe Congress should not pursue proceedings to remove Trump from office. In an NPR News/Marist poll released Thursday, 49% of Americans said they approved of Democrats’ impeachment push while 46% did not.
The president’s re-election campaign says the impeachment effort is galvanizing voters against Democrats while firing up Trump’s base.
“Democrats are trying to block the inevitable re-election of President Trump because they know they can’t beat him fair and square at the ballot box,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday.
–With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs, Jordan Fabian, Steven T. Dennis, Chris Strohm and Nick Wadhams.
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