WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday urged another foreign government to probe former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, saying the Chinese government should look into Hunter Biden's involvement with an investment fund that raised money in the country.
"China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine," Trump told reporters outside the White House.
While Trump said he hasn't asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to investigate the Bidens, the public call mirrors the private behavior on which Democrats are partially basing their impeachment inquiry — using the office of the presidency to press a foreign leader to investigate a political rival.
It is "certainly something we can start thinking about, because I’m sure that President Xi does not like being on that kind of scrutiny, where billions of dollars is taken out of his country by a guy that just got kicked out of the Navy," Trump said Thursday of asking China to probe the Bidens. "He got kicked out of the Navy, all of the sudden he’s getting billions of dollars. You know what they call that? They call that a payoff."
The U.S. in the midst of a tense trade war with China. The president, discussing progress on negotiations with Beijing on a possible trade agreement just moments before his remarks about the Bidens, told reporters that "if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous power.”
Chinese officials will be in Washington next week in another attempt to revive talks, Trump said.
Trump, seeking to expand his corruption accusations against the Bidens beyond Ukraine, has in recent days repeatedly accused Hunter Biden of using a 2013 trip on Air Force Two with his father, then the vice president, to procure $1.5 billion from China for a private equity fund he had started.
Prior to Thursday, Trump had not called for an investigation into the matter. The White House declined to comment on Trump's remarks.
Despite Trump's accusations, there has been no evidence of corruption on the part of the former vice president or his son. In a statement, Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, Kate Bedingfield, said the president "is flailing and melting down on national television, desperately clutching for conspiracy theories that have been debunked and dismissed by independent, credible news organizations."
"As Joe Biden forcefully said last night, the defining characteristic of Donald Trump's presidency is the ongoing abuse of power," Bedingfield said. "What Donald Trump just said on the South Lawn of the White House was this election's equivalent of his infamous 'Russia, if you're listening' moment from 2016 — a grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country."
Trump, during a 2016 campaign rally, encouraged the country to meddle in the 2016 election by trying to access Hillary Clinton’s emails, saying, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
Special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation found that within hours of Trump's invitation, Russian military intelligence initiated a hack against Clinton's office. Trump and his allies have said he wasn't serious when he made the comment.
In pushing back on Trump, Biden's campaign previously pointed to a fact-check from The Washington Post that found Trump's claims false while tracing the origins of the $1.5 billion figure he has used to a 2018 book by conservative author Peter Schweizer.
In addition, Hunter Biden’s spokesman, George Mesires, told NBC News previously that Hunter Biden wasn’t initially an “owner” of the company and has never gotten paid for serving on the board. He said Hunter Biden didn’t acquire an equity interest in the fund until 2017, after his father had left office.
And when he did, he put in only about $420,000 — a 10 percent interest. That puts the total capitalization of the fund at the time at about $4.2 million — a far cry from the $1.5 billion that Trump has alleged.
Trump also said Thursday that he still wants Ukraine to conduct “a major investigation” into Joe and Hunter Biden.
"I would think that if they were honest about it, they would start a major investigation into the Bidens," he said, adding, "They should investigate the Bidens."
House Democrats have launched a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump centered on a July 25 phone call between him and the president of Ukraine during which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the family of the former vice president, Trump's possible 2020 opponent. The House is also looking into whether Giuliani's overtures were proper and whether the White House was using almost $400 million in frozen aid to Ukraine as leverage.
The White House has since released a detailed description of the July call, while the House Intelligence Committee made public a lightly redacted version of the intelligence community whistleblower complaint that brought to light the allegations against Trump. The complaint alleged that Trump, in the July phone call, used the power of his office “to solicit interference from a foreign country" in the 2020 election.
The impeachment inquiry has unleashed a torrent of activity in the House and key cabinet agencies.
House Democrats have so far issued subpoenas for Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Ukraine-related documents. They have also threatened the White House with subpoenas for Ukraine-related documents. And on Thursday, the Department of Defense said its general counsel had directed all agency offices and leadership to turn over any pertinent information dealing with military funding to Ukraine.
Democrats, meanwhile, immediately excoriated Trump's latest comments Thursday as "unacceptable" and "indefensible," suggesting that the president is only strengthening their case for impeachment.
"The president cannot use the power of his office to pressure foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents. His rant this morning reinforces the urgency of our work. America is a Republic, if we can keep it." House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a tweet.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., tweeted: “This is absolutely unacceptable. It's clear the president understands he's been caught red-handed and has now moved to normalize this kind of corrupt behavior."
"GOP must speak out," he added.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., also had a message for Republican lawmakers.
“To my Republican colleagues, I implore you to listen to the words that came out of Trumps’ mouth this morning. From the SOUTH LAWN OF THE WHITE HOUSE," he said on Twitter. "Think about the detrimental impact these actions will have on our democracy and our national security. This is indefensible."
The remarks also elicited the attention of the top elections official in the U.S., Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, who re-shared a tweet she had posted in June explaining that “it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”
Weintraub had initially posted the tweet in June, after Trump said he'd consider taking information on opponents from other countries.