U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed he spoke with Ukraine’s president about former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a July call that is now at the center of a political scandal threatening to hamper relations between the two countries.
Trump said September 22 that he told Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the July 25 call that "we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son" contributing to corruption already happening in Ukraine.
Biden is one of the leading Democratic contenders seeking to oppose Trump, a Republican, in 2020.
The Wall Street Journal reported September 20 that Trump asked Zelenskiy eight times during the call to look into Biden's activities in Ukraine, raising questions among Congressional Democrats whether Trump's behavior was tantamount to coercion.
U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, said September 20 that if a probe shows that Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden, then impeachment would be the only option.
"If the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time that he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader to do something illicit, to provide dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign, then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that conduct represents," Schiff, a Democrat, told CNN's "State of the Union.”
The scandal's roots go back to 2014 when Biden's son Hunter joined the board of Burisma Holding, a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation.
Biden, who was overseeing Ukraine at the time as vice president, demanded Kyiv sack Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin for failing to fight corruption.
Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is now accusing Biden of firing Shokin to halt the Burisma probe and is trying to get Ukraine to launch a probe into Biden.
Ukraine media have reported that Shokin did not have an open investigation into Burisma at the time of his firing.
Biden on September 21 demanded that Trump "immediately" release the transcript of the call "so that the American people can judge for themselves."
Trump, who described the call as "largely congratulatory," said on September 22 that he is considering doing that.
"I would love to do it but you have to be a little bit shy about doing it," he told reporters.
House committees are investigating media reports alleging that Trump threatened to withhold about $250 million of U.S. military support to Ukraine unless Zelenskiy’s administration looked into the actions of Biden and his son.
The aid had been suspended just weeks prior to the July call but the White House announced last week it would release it.
The aid is largely meant to train and equip Ukrainian forces as they fight against Russia-backed separatists in a war that has lasted more than five years, killed more than 13,000 people, and torn apart a large swath of eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko on September 21 denied suggestions that Trump had pressured Zelenskiy during the phone call.
"I know what the conversation was about, and I think there was no pressure," Prystaiko said in an interview with media outlet Hromadske. "This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on many questions, sometimes requiring serious answers.
Zelenskiy’s office has not yet commented.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, said in a TV interview with MSNBC that Trump's behavior, regardless of its legality, "sends a very bad signal" to Ukraine at a critical time in its history.
"This is not the way to conduct foreign policy."