(Bloomberg) — President Donald Trump’s battle against an accelerating impeachment inquiry is growing tougher after a week of damaging revelations and self-inflicted wounds that emboldened Democrats and put the White House on defense.
The president added to the frenzy by publicly calling on Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, echoing the conduct that sparked the impeachment effort — that the president is leveraging his power to target a political enemy. On top of that, closed-door depositions and the release of a series of text messages bolstered the case further.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to begin a formal impeachment inquiry has paid off so far. And now, the House effort is poised to intensify further in coming days as investigators seek to meet with diplomats, including the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — who was reportedly removed by Trump because she failed to facilitate an investigation of Biden.
Trump even appeared resigned to the likelihood of his impeachment — which would be the third in American history — as he spoke to reporters on Friday.
“The Democrats, unfortunately, they have the votes,” Trump said. “They could vote very easily.”
The House opened its inquiry with a probe of Trump’s conduct in a July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. After freezing military aid to Ukraine, which is battling a Russia-backed insurgency, the American president asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, one of Trump’s top Democratic rivals in the 2020 presidential contest.
Trump claims that Biden improperly helped his son Hunter profit from business deals in Ukraine and China. The allegations related to Ukraine have been discredited, and those related to China aren’t supported by publicly known details. Joe Biden’s campaign has dismissed the allegations as without merit.
Trump suffered his biggest setback this week with the release of the text messages. Those included U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker telling a Ukrainian official he had “heard from the White House” that a Zelenskiy trip to Washington was conditioned on the Ukrainian leader convincing Trump he’d “get to the bottom” of a probe Trump sought into the 2016 election.
Other texts showed U.S. and Ukrainian officials brokering a proposed announcement of investigations into a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden, and alleged electoral interference aimed at undermining Trump. There were also internal exchanges between two Trump administration officials debating whether security assistance from the U.S. would be conditioned on investigations.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” U.S. Charges D’affaires in Ukraine Bill Taylor wrote in one message. The other official said there was no such quid pro quo but then urged an end to text exchanges on the matter.
Democratic lawmakers, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, said in a letter to colleagues that the communications were alarming.
“These text messages reflect serious concerns raised by a State Department official about the detrimental effects of withholding critical military assistance from Ukraine, and the importance of setting up a meeting without further delay,” they wrote.
The president on Friday reiterated his insistence that there hadn’t been any improper pressure, and said he was motivated by rooting out corruption, not winning an election. But when asked by a reporter if he’d ever pressed a world leader to investigate impropriety not related to one of his political enemies, Trump said he would need to check.
Also this week, congressional investigators unveiled documents showing Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, leaned on the State Department to investigate conspiracy theories related to Biden and Ukraine.
Aides to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cautioned against unfounded reports suggesting that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was a hotbed of Democratic support, according to the documents.
In early May, the State Department unexpectedly recalled Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, whom Giuliani falsely accused of helping bring to light secret payments made by the party of Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Trump said Thursday that he’d heard “very, very bad things about her.”
Yovanovitch is scheduled to testify to House investigators next week, although the White House has not said whether they will try to intervene to stop her testimony.
The White House is expected to send Pelosi a letter arguing the president and White House officials can ignore lawmaker demands for documents and testimony unless the House holds a vote formalizing the impeachment inquiry, according to a person familiar with the plans.
The president explained the move as a way to hold House Democrats in vulnerable districts accountable for the impeachment inquiry. He painted the House probe as the work of Pelosi and far-left elements of the party, that he said would be fatal to the re-election prospects of freshmen lawmakers who swept into power during last year’s midterm elections.
The discussion about withholding documents represented a substantial shift in strategy for an administration that initially claimed it had nothing to hide and released records of the Trump-Zelenskiy call as a show of transparency.
On Friday evening, House impeachment investigators subpoenaed the White House for documents on efforts by Trump and Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into launching a probe of the Bidens.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the subpoena “changes nothing – just more document requests, wasted time, and taxpayer dollars that will ultimately show the president did nothing wrong.”
The week’s revelations created anticipation that more damaging details could be revealed in coming weeks. That sense was amplified by a CNN report saying Trump discussed the political prospects of Biden and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping — and offered to stay quiet about pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in exchange for progress on his trade agenda.
Trump himself made matters worse by explicitly calling for China and Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, during a question-and-answer session with journalists. That prompted Democrats and at least one GOP senator to admonish Trump.
“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said in a tweet. “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Asked about his conversation with Xi about the Bidens, Trump said he didn’t remember, though he added that he always speaks “in the appropriate way.” Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said his country wouldn’t interfere in the internal affairs of the U.S.
Trump’s public statements came as he has signaled his frustration with the probes in streams of Twitter posts, as well as increasingly bellicose interactions with journalists.
At a joint news conference Wednesday with Finland’s leader, the president berated a reporter who questioned him about Ukraine. Trump ended the news conference without taking a second question from the Finnish press, as is customary during a foreign leader’s visit, and abruptly walked off the stage without shaking President Sauli Niinisto’s hand.
By Friday, the president indicated he was girding for political combat in the face of what he described as “the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.”
The president said recent Republican victories in special elections in North Carolina provided a “glimpse” of frustration among the electorate toward Democratic tactics, along with his own popularity. In recent days, the president has increasingly cast the impeachment inquiry as an attack on Republican voters.
“I really believe that they’re going to pay a tremendous price at the polls,” Trump said.
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