Trump denies investigation link to Ukraine aid amid new timeline revelations

The president used the visit to the must-win state of Florida — the first rally in a swing state in months — to defend himself on several fronts.

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By Shannon Pettypiece and Monica Alba

SUNRISE, Fla. — President Donald Trump continued to deny any connection between investigations and security funding to Ukraine as new details emerged about when the aid was frozen and when Trump knew about the whistleblower complaint.

“The Ukrainian foreign minister stated, and I quote, Ambassador Sondland did not tell us, and certainly did not tell me, about a connection between the assistance and the investigations. Never told him. I have never had a direct link between investigations and security assistance," Trump said at a rally Tuesday night. "OK, what that means, you know what it means, it means we did zero. We did nothing wrong.”

Documents released Tuesday by the House Budget Committee showed that the Office of Management and Budget made its first official move to withhold military aid to Ukraine the same day Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy by phone. A separate report in the New York Times said that Trump had already been briefed on a whistleblower complaint about his handling of Ukraine aid at the time the funds were released in September.

Trump used the visit to the must-win state of Florida — the first rally in a swing state in months — to defend himself on a number of fronts with impeachment front and center.

"The same maniacs are pushing the deranged impeachment. Think of this. Impeachment. Impeachment. A witch hunt. The same as before," he said referring to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. "And they're pushing that impeachment witch hunt. And a lot of bad things are happening to them. Because you see what's happening in the polls? Everybody said: that's really bullshit."

Not long before the rally got underway, closed-door transcripts were released showing two OMB staffers quit over frustrations about the hold on aid.

Trump touted his move earlier this month to intervene in three high-profile murder cases involving U.S. service members — dismissing charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoning a former Army officer who was serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men, and promoting a Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing with a dead body but acquitted of more serious charges — and accused military leaders of being part of the “deep state”

“Just last week, I stuck up for three great warriors against the Deep State,” Trump said.

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He went on an extended attack of media coverage of a surprise trip he made to the Walter Reed Medical Center on Nov. 16, to undergo what he called "phase one" of his annual physical.

“Let me tell you, if I didn't feel great, I wouldn't be ranting and raving to ... 22,000 people,” Trump said.

He also claimed that some people want to change the name of Thanksgiving, a controversy he appears to have created.

Florida is a must-win state for Trump with aides acknowledging it would be very unlikely Trump could win the presidency without Florida. If some of the Rust Belt states Trump won in 2016, like Michigan or Pennsylvania, start to turn toward the Democratic candidate, Florida will be Trump’s firewall.

Trump heads into 2020 in a relatively good position in Florida compared to other battleground states, and his advisers are optimistic about where he stands based on internal polling.

Trump is neck and neck with his top Democratic rivals in Florida, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. While Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by 2 percentage points, Trump is tied with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and he is beating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg by about 1 percentage point.

Trump took the opportunity Tuesday to take a dig at Biden, calling him corrupt for his son’s business connection to Ukraine, but he was the only candidate Trump singled out at the rally.

Trump's job approval in Florida has tended to run 2 to 4 points higher than his national approval, meaning it’s among his strongest standing in key swing states, said Bill McInturff, a partner polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.

Florida has appeared to be shifting from a tossup state to consistently leaning toward Republicans after Trump won here in 2016 and victories in the governor and senate races in 2018.

But the wins in 2018 were by razor-thin margins and campaign advisers still expect Florida will be on a knife’s edge until Election Day.

It’s a difficult state to predict, said one White House official. Florida’s population is constantly changing with about 1,000 people moving there every day, and because 20 percent of the population is over 65 years old, a significant slice of voters who supported Trump in 2016 won’t be around in 2020, the official said.

There has also been an influx since 2016 of Puerto Ricans, who aren’t generally supportive of Trump because of his response to Hurricane Maria and negative comments he made about the U.S. territory. Those Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida following the storm will be able to vote in the presidential election but need to be registered to vote in Florida first.

The campaign is hoping to counter the Puerto Rican vote, in part, by picking up support from the Cuban and Venezuelan populations, whom it believes will be receptive to Trump’s strong anti-socialism message.

Trump is trying to play up his links to the state and billed the event as a “homecoming rally” after making the state his primary residence last month. The Trumps have visited Florida more than any other state aside from Virginia where he golfs regularly, mostly to spend time at their Mar-a-Lago retreat.

Beyond that, the president has held political events and spoken to Floridians about statewide issues about a half dozen times this year and launched his re-election bid in Orlando.

Shannon Pettypiece reported from Sunrise, Florida, and Monica Alba reported from Washington D.C.