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Trump Asked Ukrainian President To Investigate Biden; DOJ Says No Charges

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 3:03 am

Updated at 5:25 p.m. ET

President Trump told Ukraine's president that "a lot of people want to find out" about the activities of former Vice President Joe Biden's family in Ukraine and asked its leader to be in touch with lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr.

That's according to a briefing for correspondents about the contents of the July 25 phone call, on Wednesday at the Justice Department.

Read the partial White House transcript about the conversation here.

The conversation raised concerns by a whistleblower that Trump may have broken the law by asking for foreign help in the presidential campaign. But the Justice Department concluded that based on the evidence that's available, prosecutors "did not and could not make out a criminal campaign finance violation."

Under the law, a "thing of value" under discussion has to be in some way quantifiable, and the Justice Department couldn't find that here, officials said.

Even so, the official account of the phone conversation confirms the kernel of the story that has brought Washington to a fever pitch over an impeachment inquiry into Trump: The American president asked the Ukrainian president for help with political ammunition against his potential 2020 election rival.

"I would like you to do us a favor," Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to the official account released on Wednesday.

Later in the conversation, according to the memo, Trump said:

"I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation in Ukraine ... 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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... it sounds horrible to me."

Zelenskiy told Trump that he would appoint the next top prosecutor who might be responsible for prosecuting corruption and that "he or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue."

Trump then told the Ukrainian president that he would have Giuliani and Barr make contact with him and that "we will get to the bottom of it. I'm sure you will figure it out."

Trump, on his visit to the United Nations on Wednesday, scoffed that the Ukraine affair is a "witch hunt" and that Democrats are worried about being defeated in the 2020 election.

Trump pointed to what he called the successes of his first term, saying, "We've got the strongest economy we've ever had."

Flow of assistance was cut off

The president's July conversation followed moves by the White House to stanch the flow of military assistance for Ukraine that Washington had been providing since the armed incursion by Russian forces in 2014.

Zelenskiy raised the military assistance in the call with Trump, according to the White House account. He thanked the American president and said "specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes."

That's a reference to the American guided anti-tank missile Javelin, built by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. The U.S. began delivering them to Ukraine's military in 2018.

Trump responded to Zelenskiy with his request for a "favor," mentioning the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and a "server" — likely an allusion to the cyberattack against the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

The president also alluded to the testimony of former Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who had appeared in Congress the day before.

Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials were "blindsided" by the interruption in American assistance, according to The New York Times.

Other agencies in Washington were not briefed about any reason for the pause in the assistance, nor was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. After the matter came to the attention of more members of Congress, the assistance was restored earlier this month.

Worries inside the spy world

The whistleblower within the intelligence community brought the matter to the attention of its official watchdog, raising the prospect that Trump's conversation might have violated U.S. law.

The inspector general concluded that it rose to the level of an "urgent concern" because the intelligence community is responsible for safeguarding elections.

Then the matter was referred to the Justice Department, officials said, which reached its conclusion about the paucity of evidence that a campaign finance law had been broken.

Justice Department officials also say Barr, the attorney general, learned about the conversation several weeks after it took place but has not spoken about it with Trump and was never asked by Trump to contact anyone in Ukraine.

The DOJ officials said Barr has not spoken about the Ukraine affair with Giuliani, either.

Giuliani, meanwhile, has acknowledged that he has been closely involved with talks with Ukrainians about launching or reviving some kind of investigation into Hunter Biden's time doing in business in Ukraine.

Former Vice President Biden said Tuesday that neither he nor his son have done anything wrong and he decried what he called the smears and conspiracy theories that were being propounded by the White House.

Trump is guilty of abusing his office, Biden said, and if he continues what Biden called his "stonewalling" of Congress, the former vice president said he'd support impeachment.

"It is a tragedy for this country that our president put personal politics above his sacred oath," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday. "This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It is a national security issue. It is a test of our democratic values. Congress must pursue the facts and quickly take prompt action to hold Donald Trump accountable."

House Democrats say they've agreed to initiate a new phase of their impeachment inquiry, although it isn't clear how soon that might result in new action in the Congress or against Trump.

Backstory

The dispute over the whistleblower's complaint began when House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., learned that it had been filed but not what it contained.

Schiff and other members of Congress argued the administration had no right under the law to withhold the matter from the committees of oversight.

Notwithstanding the intelligence community watchdog's conclusion that the complaint was an "urgent concern," the Justice Department opined that the complaint didn't arise "in connection with intelligence activity," DOJ officials said on Wednesday.

That is the standard under the law that governs the relationship with Congress, the officials said, and that is why the Justice Department took the position that the administration did not have to give the document to lawmakers.

Schiff's complaints about the administration's positions started a snowball that resulted in growing attention to the whistleblower case and then press reports that helped shape public understanding about the Ukraine affair.

The temperature rose in Washington to such a point that Trump — who says that he has not done anything wrong and there was no "quid pro quo" in his discussion with Zelenskiy — felt obliged to release the official White House records about his call.

What still isn't clear is whether the whistleblower complaint itself might become public. The congressional intelligence committees were expected to be able to review it on Wednesday afternoon and then get copies of their own on Thursday.

Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is scheduled to appear before the House and Senate intelligence committees on Thursday.

The morning session, before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is expected to be open. The afternoon session before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is expected to be closed.

Complaint called "partisan"

Trump and White House officials have said they don't know the identity of the whistleblower, but the president nonetheless dismissed the person's actions as "partisan."

And officials at the Justice Department on Wednesday affirmed that the intelligence community's inspector general found "some indicia of an arguable political bias on the part of the complainant in favor of a rival political candidate."

At the same time, the IG concluded that the complaint's allegations nonetheless appeared "credible."

Trump's allies, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have argued that the "partisan" nature of the complaint must be taken into account in understanding the full story.

This is the result of someone who wasn't personally involved with Trump's call getting a secondhand briefing about it and then trying to help Democrats, Graham and others argue.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In that July phone call, President Trump did indeed ask his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. That's what we learned today from a memo of the call released by the White House. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been covering this story.

Welcome back to the studio.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Let's start with this essentially rough transcript. Can you walk us through what's in there?

LUCAS: Right. This is a - it's a five-page memo, documents roughly a 30-minute conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in July. It's not a verbatim transcript. It is important to say that it's based on notes and recollections of National Security Council staff who listened in and memorialize. The call starts with the usual courtesies. Trump then tells Zelenskiy that the U.S. does a lot for Ukraine, both in terms of money, time, effort, and he says that the U.S. has been very good to the country. The Ukrainian president then says, quote, "we are almost ready to buy more javelins from the United States for defense purposes." Javelins are anti-tank missiles. Remember; there is a conflict in Ukraine right now. The next words out of Trump's mouth were these - quote, "I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot."

CORNISH: So it's a change of topic there.

LUCAS: Change of topic - Trump then talks about a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton's email server being in Ukraine and the need for Zelenskiy to investigate that. And a bit later, he brings up his allegations about Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

CORNISH: This is at the center of this political crisis, essentially. What does Trump say allegedly in this call about Biden?

LUCAS: Well, he tells the Ukrainian president that there are a lot of questions about the Bidens in Ukraine. Trump has alleged that when Biden was vice president, he improperly pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who had investigated a company that Biden's son sat on the board of. Now, it's important to say that there is no evidence to suggest that the Bidens did anything illegal. In this call, Trump urges Zelenskiy to look into it. And he tells him to work on it with Attorney General William Barr and Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. He says he'll have both of them give Zelenskiy a call.

CORNISH: And I said alleged earlier, but we do know the president has confirmed that he made some of the comments in this call. How unusual is it to have the president instructing a foreign leader to work with the U.S. attorney general - and his private attorney - on investigating what is going to be a political rival?

LUCAS: It is highly unusual. Some would even say that it's improper. The Justice Department does say that the attorney general didn't know of this phone call with Zelenskiy. It says that Barr has not spoken with President Trump about anything related to Biden or his son. And it also says that Barr has not communicated with Ukraine about Biden or anything else. But we do know that Giuliani has been talking to the Ukrainians about this exact matter. Giuliani told me that he met with a close adviser to the Ukrainian president in early August in Spain. Giuliani says that he gave him information that he had collected on the Bidens. He told the Ukrainian that he thought it should be fully investigated. Giuliani says he didn't dictate what the conclusion of this investigation should be, but he did indeed urge Ukraine to dig into this very Biden matter.

CORNISH: This all started with a whistleblower report to the intelligence community inspector general. And I understand the Justice Department has weighed in, right? They released a document related to this today. What did we learn?

LUCAS: Well, we learned that the inspector general referred this complaint to the Justice Department about this call as a possible campaign finance violation. Senior Justice Department officials today said that career prosecutors looked into it. They got a copy of the transcript that we saw today. They determined that there was not evidence to open a criminal investigation. In part, officials say that in order to qualify as a campaign finance violation, it has to be something of value. And a foreign power investigating a political rival is not something you can quantify the value of.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas.

Thanks for your reporting.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.