Trump suggests he tied Ukraine funding to corruption, cites Biden allegations

"Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?" the president asked Monday, when asked what he had spoken about during his summer call with Ukraine's leader.
Image: U.S. President Trump attends the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S.
"I put no pressure on [Ukraine] whatsoever. I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been ok if I did. But I didn't. I didn't put any pressure on them whatsoever," Trump said Monday.Carlo Allegri / Reuters

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By Shannon Pettypiece and Allan Smith

President Donald Trump on Monday said he had tied vital funding for Ukraine to that country's handling of corruption — which he has alleged Vice President Joe Biden's family was engaged in there — before denying just hours later he'd made any such demand.

"We want to make sure that country is honest. 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 told reporters Monday morning in New York, when asked what he had spoken about with Ukraine's new president in a July phone call.

“It’s very important that, on occasion, you speak to somebody about corruption,” he said, moments after telling journalists: "Let me just tell you — let me just tell you. What Biden did was wrong."

But later in the day, during a meeting with the Polish president, Trump denied that he told Zelensky that Ukraine could only have the military aid they were seeking if they investigated the Biden family.

"I put no pressure on them whatsoever. I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been ok if I did. But I didn't. I didn't put any pressure on them whatsoever," Trump said.

"I did not make a statement that 'you have to do this or I'm not going to give you aid. I wouldn't do that. I wouldn't do that," he also said. "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."

He then accused the media of having a double standard on coverage of corruption claims. "If a Republican did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they would be getting the electric chair by right now," he said. "Look at the double standards. You people ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Trump said he hoped reporters would get to see a transcript of the call, before appearing to back away from a willingness to release it. The president has the authority to release that information.

"I hope you are going to be able to see a call, because I didn't do it," he said — but added that he didn't "think it is a great precedent to be releasing calls with foreign countries, heads of foreign countries. So I don't think it is a great precedent. So I didn't say that I was going to release it at all."

Trump's conversation with Zelensky has come under sharp scrutiny following a whistleblower complaint by a member of the U.S. intelligence community that multiple outlets reported was tied to the summer call between the two leaders.

The Wall Street Journal and others have reported that Trump pressed the new Ukrainian leader to investigate the business dealings of Biden's son Hunter in Ukraine, and whether they affected the former vice president's diplomatic efforts. For months, Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani have sought to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, one of the president's leading challengers in 2020.

Giuliani told Fox Business on Monday that he couldn't be "100 percent" certain the president didn't threaten to cut off military aid to Ukraine during the July phone with Zelensky.

"Did the president threaten to cut off aid to the Ukraine?" Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo asked Giuliani.

"No, no, that was a false story," he responded.

"One hundred percent?" she replied.

"Well, I can’t tell you if it’s 100 percent," Giuliani said.

Because the phone call occurred while Ukraine was awaiting military aid from the U.S., critics have raised the possibility Trump was attempting a quid pro quo arrangement.

In the weeks before the whistleblower complaint became public, the Trump administration froze $250 million in military aid to Ukraine for unclear reasons. Then, just before Democrats revealed the existence of the whistleblower complaint, the administration released the hold on Ukrainian military aid and pitched in an additional $140 million.

The controversy has sparked a new round of calls for impeachment by Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday assailed the Trump administration's efforts to block a whistleblower complaint involving Trump's apparent effort to have Ukraine investigate Biden and Hunter Biden's role at a Ukrainian energy company. family.

In a letter to colleagues, Pelosi said the administration "will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation" if acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire fails to provide the complaint when he testifies in front of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. The complaint reportedly centers around Trump's July conversation with Zelensky.

“It's just a Democrat witch hunt," Trump said on Monday. "Here we go again.”

Speaking to reporters Sunday morning, Trump denied anything improper but said he did discuss Biden with Zelensky in the July 25 phone call.

"No quid pro quo, there was nothing," Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn. "It was a perfect conversation."

"The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don't want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating the corruption already in the Ukraine, and Ukraine has got a lot of problems," he added.

Speaking to reporters later on Sunday in Texas, Trump said, "I know when I give pressure."

On Saturday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said he didn't think Trump pressured Zelensky during the phone call. Trump and Zelensky are set to meet face to face on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.

Trump and Giuliani's monthslong effort to get Ukraine to further investigate Biden and his son — an effort aided by the State Department — centers on Biden's 2016 call, widely backed by the international community, for Ukraine to crack down on corruption. That included a call to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was seen as ineffective and was later removed by the country's Parliament. One of the cases that Shokin was investigating involved Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company, whose board at the time included Biden's son.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg News, citing documents and an interview with a former Ukrainian official, reported the Burisma investigation had been dormant for more than a year by the time Biden called for the crackdown on corruption. The then-Ukrainian prosecutor general told the news agency he found no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden and his son. PolitiFact, meanwhile, reported it found no evidence to "support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son's interests in mind."