Trump confirms he discussed Biden with Ukrainian president

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s acknowledgment Sunday that he used a phone call with Ukraine’s president to accuse his chief political rival of corruption intensified pressure on Democrats to quickly move toward impeaching him, fueling pleas from a growing chorus of lawmakers for more aggressive action in the face of what they called Trump’s most brazen misconduct so far.

On Sunday alone, the influential chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who has thus far resisted calls for impeachment, said the House may now have “crossed the Rubicon” in light of new reports that Trump pressed the Ukrainian government to target former Vice President Joe Biden, and is refusing to share with Congress a whistleblower complaint said to be related to it. A group of moderate freshman lawmakers who had been opposed to an impeachment inquiry considered changing course. And progressives already supportive of the move sharpened their criticisms of the party’s leadership for not acting more decisively.

The fast-moving developments prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to level a warning of her own to the White House: turn over the secret whistleblower complaint by Thursday, or face a serious escalation from Congress.

In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi never mentioned the word “impeachment,” but her message appeared to hint at the possibility that the new revelations might be enough to prompt her and other leading Democrats to drop their resistance to moving forward with official charges against the president.

“If the administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote in the letter.

Trump showed no sign of contrition Sunday as he reveled privately in a tempest of his own making, telling aides that Democrats were overplaying their hand on a matter voters would discount. Publicly, he worked to focus attention not on his own actions, but on those of Biden.

The president defended his July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine as entirely appropriate, and stopped short of directly confirming news reports about what was discussed. But he did acknowledge that he had discussed Biden during the call and accused the former vice president of corruption tied to his son Hunter’s business activities in the former Soviet republic.

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters before leaving for a trip to Texas and Ohio.

It is far from clear that the latest scandal surrounding Trump’s conduct will prompt Pelosi or other leading Democrats to do what they have so far stubbornly avoided in the face of damning allegations. The House Judiciary Committee is already investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump over other matters, but Pelosi has consistently questioned the strength of their case.

Proponents of impeachment have repeatedly pointed to damaging revelations that they believe warrant Trump’s removal, only to watch as the public shrugs and many of their colleagues remain unwilling to try to remove him. This time, Democrats would have the added difficulty of trying to explain to voters who hear Trump’s attacks on Biden that they are not acting simply out of partisan spite.

Still, interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers this weekend made clear that they view the latest allegations as singularly incriminating, with the potential to shift the ground under the impeachment drive just as it appeared to be losing steam. Not only does it appear that Trump was using the power of his office to extract political gains from a foreign power, they argue, but his administration is actively trying once again to prevent Congress from finding out what happened.

They also want to know whether Trump’s government’s decision this summer to withhold $250 million in security aid to Ukraine was related to his reported request.

“I don’t want to do any more to contribute to the divisiveness in the country, but my biggest responsibility as an elected official is to protect our national security and Constitution,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., adding that it is “becoming more and more difficult” for Democrats to avoid an impeachment inquiry.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey freshman who has supported an inquiry but opposed a July vote that would have moved to immediately impeach the president, was even blunter.

“There are lines being crossed right now that I fear will be erased if the House does not take strong action to assert them, to defend them,” Malinowski said in an interview. “If all we do is leave it up to the American people to get rid of him, we have not upheld the rule of law, we have not set a precedent that this behavior is utterly out of bounds.”

What may push Democrats to action is Trump’s refusal to turn over the secret whistleblower complaint that was made in connection to his discussions with the Ukranians.

Pelosi’s comments came as key allies who have been advocating restraint on impeachment appeared to be pivoting more decisively toward supporting it. She spoke over the weekend with Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, to coordinate their responses, according to two people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private call.

Schiff said Sunday morning that the accumulating evidence not only of wrongdoing but of a presidential cover-up unfolding in real time left the House with few other options.

“I have been very reluctant to go down the path of impeachment,” Schiff said on CNN. “But if the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit, providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that that conduct represents.”

As Intelligence chairman, Schiff first brought the existence of the whistleblower complaint to light a little more than a week ago, and has been the party’s lead negotiator with the intelligence director over gaining access to it. Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, has argued that he is not legally required to hand over the complaint. Democrats demanded that he do so by Thursday, when he is to appear before Schiff’s committee for an open hearing.

Progressives have watched the mounting stonewalling with seething frustration, and in recent days have begun to openly second-guess whether the House has been doing enough to try to check Trump.

“At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior — it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who commands considerable influence among progressives, wrote on Twitter late Saturday night.

Strikingly, though, even some traditionally cautious veteran Democrats said that the party may have no other choice but to move toward impeachment. They believe that Senate Republicans, who are clinging to a 53-seat majority, would pay a political price for protecting Trump if they vote to exonerate him in the face of damning evidence of malfeasance and a House vote to impeach.

“They’ve got to take a second look” at impeachment, Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and national party chair who is an ally of Pelosi’s, said of fellow Democrats. He predicted that the latest revelations will “push some of our folks over.”

James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, said he had opposed impeachment, but now thinks the House should move “quick and clean” once they obtain a transcript of Trump’s call. “Let the Senate Republicans stew,” he said.

Trump, for his part, was said to be reveling in his latest self-created contretemps, devouring coverage of the matter on television and telling aides that the Democrats were overplaying their hand about a matter he believes voters care little about.

The president was buoyed by an almost entirely pliant Republican Party. But even as Republican lawmakers largely averted their gaze from the latest allegations against Trump, a couple of prominent GOP officials suggested that he should release the contents of his call with Zelenskiy to clarify the matter.

“I’m hoping the president can share, in an appropriate way, information to deal with the drama around the phone call,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “I think it would be good for the country if we could deal with it.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was more critical, deeming it “critical for the facts to come out” and stating that “if the president asked or pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme.”

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