Trump Continues To Answer Questions About Conversation With Ukraine's President

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on September 23, 2019 4:09 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump is being dogged by questions about whether he pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate a political opponent - namely, Vice President Joe Biden. Speaking at the United Nations in New York today, President Trump said his July phone call with Ukraine's leader was perfect.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Perfect phone call with the president of Ukraine. Everybody knows it. It's just a Democrat witch hunt. Here we go again. They failed with Russia. They failed with recession. They failed with everything. And now they're bringing this up. The one who's got the problem is Biden.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Even though Trump insists he did nothing wrong, the phone call is the subject of a whistleblower complaint. The House intelligence committee is trying to get that complaint. The Trump administration is resisting. All of this is adding to pressure on Democrats to pursue impeachment. To dig in to this complex story, we're joined by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR political reporter Tim Mak.

Hi, guys.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Tam, let's start with you. Explain how the president's response to this accusation has evolved over the last week or so.

KEITH: Well, the president has now been asked about this a lot, and he has given a lot of slightly different explanations that, at times, seem to contradict. So on Sunday morning, he insisted that this was largely a congratulatory call, a call about corruption.

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TRUMP: It was 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. Ukraine's got a lot of problems.

KEITH: So with regard to Biden, we have to be clear that what the president is claiming to be corruption isn't that and that the president is taking the germ of something and magnifying it and trying to make it sound shady. And there is even a larger issue here, which is that the president of the United States, if this is proven to be true, is appearing to have exerted pressure on a foreign leader to investigate one of his political opponents and potentially linking that to financial support for that country, Ukraine. President Trump earlier today said, no, no, no, no, that's not what I did.

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TRUMP: I did not make a statement that you have to do this or I'm not going to give you A. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do that. With that being said, what I want is I want - you know, we're giving a lot of money away to Ukraine and other places. You want to see a country that's going to be not corrupt. The president is a good man.

KEITH: So in the very next breath, President Trump then seems to draw a line from financial and military support to Ukraine to investigating Biden.

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TRUMP: So he gets elected on the basis of ending corruption in Ukraine. Well, I think that's good, and that's what I want to see. But when Biden does a thing like that, then there's still corruption. And that's not good.

SHAPIRO: That then brings us to Congress, where pressure is growing to impeach the president. Tim, what are you hearing from Democrats?

MAK: You know, here's the landscape. Even before these latest revelations, a majority of Democrats in the House already viewed the Mueller investigation and the results of that probe as sufficient to spark an impeachment process. But the resistance to impeaching the president has largely been from the top of the Democratic leadership.

Those leaders in the House have resisted it, viewing it as both politically unpopular and pointing out that the 2020 elections are just over a year away. But this latest scandal may be changing the calculations there. Even leaders who have been pushing back against impeachment are now contemplating it seriously. Take example - take, for example, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff. He said this in an interview with CNN over the weekend.

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ADAM SCHIFF: I spoke with a number of my colleagues over the last week. And this seemed different in kind, and we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.

MAK: Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, hasn't yet changed her mind about whether or not to go forward on impeachment. But she did say that if the Trump administration blocks this whistleblower report from Congress, quote, "they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation."

SHAPIRO: Now, Pelosi's line has always been, we have to gather the facts. And in this case, part of the facts include the transcript of the call. And so the question is, are we going to see that? Tamara Keith, do you think the White House will let that happen?

KEITH: It doesn't seem particularly likely. So on Sunday, President Trump says he would love to release the transcript of that call with the Ukrainian president. But he said there are considerations. Today, he told reporters that he hopes that they see the transcript because it will prove that he did nothing wrong on that call. But then moments later, he seemed to reverse himself.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: On the whistleblower, you say you want the transcript of the call released. You also want the...

TRUMP: I didn't say that at all. I didn't say that at all. It may get released. I didn't say that at all. I don't think it's a great precedent to be releasing calls with foreign countries - heads of foreign countries. I don't think it's a great precedent. So I didn't say I was going to release it at all. I will tell you it's a great call. It's a very honorable call. It's a nice call.

KEITH: This is not unlike what he said about his tax returns; that he wants to release them but they're being audited. You know, there are a lot of sensitivities around calls with leaders of other countries in that if transcripts were released to the public afterward, they might be less likely to want to talk or to be fully forthcoming.

MAK: Well, and the discussions over the transcripts are part of an effort by the administration to kind of head off developments likely to take place later this week. On Thursday, there will be a hearing with Joseph McGuire, who's the acting director of National Intelligence. He'll be asked about why the whistleblower complaint has not been released to Congress, and that's in apparent violation of the law. This is going to be a critical moment for leaders to figure out where they're going to go moving forward on the issue of impeachment.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tim Mak and Tamara Keith.

Thanks to both of you.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.