Reporting suggests that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden multiple times in a phone call in July, a demand that apparently was part of a still-secret whistleblower complaint targeting Trump’s administration. There are additional questions about the timing of that call and if the administration’s decision to subsequently withhold aid to Ukraine was tied to Trump’s request.
While tacitly acknowledging that he had pressured Zelensky and that he had perhaps used aid as leverage, Trump insisted Monday that he had done nothing wrong. He then went on a brief, angry riff about the media and about Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Ukraine “want[s] to do the right thing,” Trump said. “And they know about corruption, and they probably know that Joe Biden and his son are corrupt. They probably know that. Joe Biden and his son are corrupt. All right? But the fake news doesn’t want to report it because they’re Democrats."
Trump’s assertion that Biden is corrupt stems from his misrepresentation or misunderstanding of a request Biden made publicly as vice president.
In late 2015, Ukraine was under pressure to take a firmer stand against corruption, and Biden joined other international actors in advocating change. He specifically pushed for the firing of the country’s prosecutor general. But, as the New York Times reported at the time, “the credibility of the vice president’s anticorruption message may have been undermined” by Hunter Biden’s relationship with a Ukrainian energy company. That company, Trump and his allies insist, was under investigation by the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, and they accuse Biden of advocating Shokin’s firing to protect Hunter Biden.
There’s no evidence that’s true. Trump is insistent on the point, though, and tries to blur the line between what Biden did and what Trump did. Trump is framing Biden’s pressure on Ukraine in a way that makes it appear to mirror what he himself is accused of.
Talking to reporters while sitting next to Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump escalated his attacks on Biden.
“If that ever happened — if a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now,” Trump claimed.
This is ridiculous, of course, both because of its stark hyperbole and because it’s simply untrue.
In fact, Trump has tried to claim that his conversation with Zelensky was an echo of exactly what Biden actually did.
“It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?” Trump said of that call during a separate conversation with reporters Monday.
This is actually what Biden’s focus was. He insisted Ukraine fire a prosecutor who was not addressing corruption at the risk of the United States holding back its aid. The prosecutor was fired and a new one put into place — who himself eventually investigated the company for which Hunter Biden had done work.
Trump claims that Biden made that demand to protect his son, an assertion of corruption for which there’s no evidence. Trump is making that claim, meanwhile, to paper over what’s been reported: that the demand Trump made in his phone call was less about “talking corruption” than trying to gin up some statement from Ukraine that what Biden did was actually corrupt.
Trump says Biden did what Trump is accused of doing; Trump claims innocence by saying he only did what the best available evidence suggests Biden had actually done.
The extent to which the reporting on his call with Ukraine frustrates Trump was made obvious as he went on to bash the media as hopelessly biased.
“Look at the double standards,” he said to the reporters in the room. “You people ought to be ashamed of yourself. And not all — we have some great journalists around. But you got a lot of crooked journalists. You’re crooked as hell.”
This claim is predicated on the idea that the reporting about his conversation with Zelensky is erroneous. The easy way to debunk that reporting is to make notes from that call public — ideally without Sharpie-drawn additions — or to release the whistleblower complaint to Congress.
One of the best distillations of the extent to which Trump appears to be increasingly unburdened in his presidency came Saturday from CNN’s Daniel Dale. Dale reported that Trump has been more active on Twitter, has been holding longer rallies and has spent more time talking to reporters at his impromptu gaggles by Marine One when he leaves the White House. Trump is a president who has always done what he wants to at least some extent. With fewer checks on his impulses than in the past and with the 2020 campaign driving much of his decision-making, Trump is saying what he wants to say more often.
How that makes him “invincible,” as the Drudge Report suggested in a headline Monday, isn’t clear. If anything, the lack of filter suggested by his more active communications may open him up to new problems, like the reports of his conversation with Zelensky.
Trump spent the first two years of his presidency under the cloud of a special counsel investigation that ended without conclusively clearing him of wrongdoing. With that in the rearview mirror, Trump then reportedly embarked on an effort to do something remarkably similar to one of the worst-case allegations in the Russia probe: seek electoral assistance from a foreign nation in the form of dirt on Biden, now a presidential candidate.
After furiously attacking the media, Trump wrapped up his remarks.
“Okay, thank you very much,” he said to reporters. “I hope you enjoyed it.”