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Trump Asked Ukrainian President For ‘A Favor’ On Biden; DOJ Says No Charges

President Trump speaks to the media at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City.
Image credit: Spencer Platt

Updated at 10:23 a.m. ET

President Trump told Ukraine’s president that “a lot of people want to find out” about former Vice President Joe Biden family’s activities in Ukraine — and asked him to be in touch with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General Bill Barr.

That’s according to a briefing for correspondents about the contents of the July 25th 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 against a potential election rival. 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 Zelensky, according to the official account released on Wednesday.

Continued Trump, according to the briefing:

“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.”

Zelensky, according the briefing, 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 “we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out.”

The 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.

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.

Concerns inside 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 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.

Justice Department officials 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 matter with Giuliani, either.

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

Former Vice President Biden said on Tuesday that neither he nor his son have done anything wrong and he declaimed 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.

House Democrats agree, and they’ve agreed to initiate a new phase of its 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. He 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,” 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 downhill 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 disputes that he’s done anything wrong and observes there was no ‘quid-pro-quo’ in his discussion with Zelensky — felt obliged to release the official White House records about his call.

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,” the IC 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 second-hand briefing about it and then trying to help Democrats, Graham and others argue.

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

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