WASHINGTON -- Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have launched an investigation into whether President Donald Trump is pressuring Ukraine to produce dirt on a potential presidential contender, including by withholding $250 million in military aid.
The House Committees on Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform – all controlled by Democrats -- sent a letter on September 9 to the president’s counsel, Pat Cipollone, demanding that the White House turn over documents, including a transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and any records related to the potential suspension of aid.
“If the President is trying to pressure Ukraine into choosing between defending itself from Russian aggression without U.S. assistance or leveraging its judicial system to serve the ends of the Trump campaign, this would represent a staggering abuse of power, a boon to Moscow and a betrayal of the public trust,” the letter said.
Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, accused the Democrats' inquiry of being politically motivated, saying it was a form of harassment.
"This is not legitimate. It is harassment -- a political operation by the Democratic National Committee, not by Congress," Giuliani said during a September 9 phone interview with The Hill. "They need three committees to do this, and there is only one of me."
Earlier this year, the United States approved another $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine as it battles Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces. The U.S. has given Ukraine a total of $1.5 billion in military assistance during the five-year war, which has claimed the lives of approximately 13,000 people.
Ukraine officials in August 2016 published documents showing Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, received $12.7 million in off-the-book payments for consulting work from the country’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, forcing him to step down and subsequently receive jail time for money laundering.
The news set off renewed speculation about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia less than three months before the presidential election, though he eventually won.
A Ukrainian lawmaker and former investigative journalist, Serhiy Leshchenko, was quoted by Financial Times in August 2016 as saying Trump was “a pro-Russian candidate who could change the pro-Ukrainian agenda in American foreign policy.”
Now Trump is trying to turn the tables and use Ukrainian officials to discredit Joe Biden, the current leading presidential contender for the democratic ticket, his opponents contend.
In 2014, Biden's son, Hunter Biden, the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas producer owned by Mykola Zlochevskiy, a former minister who served under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukrainian prosecutors investigated whether Burisma illegally received gas production licenses while Zlochevskiy was the ecology minister.
Biden – who served as vice president and was the White House's point man on Ukraine during Barack Obama’s presidency -- demanded Kyiv fire its prosecutor-general, who was considered corrupt.
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has traveled to Ukraine to inquire whether Biden halted the investigation into Burisma, an accusation the democratic contender has denied.
Hunter Biden stepped down from the board earlier this year as his father declared his intention to run for the presidency.
Ukraine’s presidential press service hinted that Trump may have raised the Biden case during his call with Zelenskiy in July.
Trump told Zelenskiy he hoped Ukraine would "complete the investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA," according to a transcript on the Ukrainian president’s website.
A meeting between the two leaders in Washington – initially expected in late July or early August – has yet to be announced.
Zelenskiy is expected to visit the U.S. to attend the UN General Assembly on September 23, Ukraine’s foreign minister said on September 9.
The Democrats have also asked the White House to turn over all records relating to Giuliani, Hunter Biden, Burisma, and Manafort as they pertain to those cases in Ukraine.