Donald Trump privately urged the Ukrainian president to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, according to an explosive transcript of a phone call released on Wednesday.
The US president suggested that Volodymyr Zelensky “look into” Mr Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who once worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
Mr Zelensky, who became Ukraine’s leader in May, appeared open to the request, responding that a new prosecutor general who would be “100% my person” was going to be appointed.
During the call Mr Trump also suggested that Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and William Barr, the US attorney general, would get in touch to discuss any inquiries.
The comments appear to confirm that Mr Trump tried to get a foreign leader to investigate Mr Biden, the front-runner to win the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 election.
Read more | Donald Trump impeachment inquiry
Democrats seized on the revelations as further justification for their decision to start impeachment proceedings on Tuesday, likening Mr Trump’s behaviour to that of a “mafia boss”.
However Mr Trump brushed away the controversy, insisting the transcript did not show that he had applied “pressure” and that the conversation had been “friendly”.
“The way you built it up, it was going to be a call from hell. It turned out to be a nothing call,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Zelensky, who had a long-scheduled meeting with Mr Trump at the United Nations on Wednesday, also played down the call. “Nobody pushed me,” he said.
Later in the day, Mr Trump dismissed as a "joke" the grounds laid out for the impeachment inquiry into him.
"They are getting hit hard on this witch hunt because when they look at the information, it’s a joke," said the president, who struck an uncharacteristically subdued tone at his first news conference since Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry.
"Impeachment for that? When you have a wonderful meeting or you have a wonderful phone conversation?"
The five-page “memorandum” declassified and released under Mr Trump’s orders detailed a call with Mr Zelensky on July 25 which lasted 30 minutes. It was not a verbatim transcript but compiled from notes taken at the time.
Process of impeachment
The conversation begins with Mr Trump congratulating Mr Zelensky on his election victory and is followed by a discussion about US support for Ukraine. Mr Trump then asks for a “favour”.
At first Mr Trump mentions a number of issues linked to Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the subsequent investigation, suggesting the Ukrainian president should try to “find out what happened”. Mr Zelensky responds by saying those issues are “very important”.
Then Mr Trump brings up another topic: “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.
“Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
Mr Zelensky responds by saying that a new prosecutor general loyal to him will soon be established, adding: “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.”
The incident Mr Trump was referring to was Mr Biden’s calls while he was US vice president for Ukraine’s prosecutor to be sacked. The demand was echoed by other Western countries and centred on perceived failure by the prosecutor to crack down on corruption at the time.
Mr Trump and his allies have raised questions over the behaviour given Mr Biden’s son Hunter Biden was then working for a Ukrainian gas company. The Ukrainian prosecutor in question had at one point been looking into that company. Mr Biden has always denied any wrongdoing.
Former officials in Barack Obama’s administration have said previously that Hunter Biden’s business dealings had no effect on Mr Biden’s actions over Ukraine. Mr Trump’s “attorney general” comment appears to reference his own appointee, Mr Barr.
On Wednesday the US Justice Department said Mr Barr never spoke to Mr Trump about working with Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, according to US media reports.
The transcript appears less clear on whether Mr Trump held back hundreds of millions of pounds worth of military aid to Ukraine to strong-arm its country’s leader into investigating the Bidens, as has been alleged.
At no point does Mr Trump make the connection explicitly. That was leaped on by Republicans, who said the transcript proved there was no “quid pro quo”.
However the transcript also shows that the two leaders had discussed at length the support America was giving to Ukraine before Mr Trump made his suggestions on investigations.
At one point Mr Zelensky says: "I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defence.” It is only then that Mr Trump responds “I would like you to do us a favour…”
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, argued the threat was implicit, saying: "Like any mafia boss, the president didn’t need to say ‘that’s a nice country you have, it’d be a shame if something happened to it’."
It also emerged on Wednesday that the intelligence community’s inspector general, a form of internal watchdog who had been tipped off over Mr Trump’s behaviour, asked whether a criminal investigation was needed.
Campaign finance laws do not allow anyone to solicit from a foreign national a contribution, donation or thing of value. The Justice Department decided a criminal investigation was not needed.
Mr Zelensky, sitting alongside Mr Trump, played down the significance of the call: “We had I think a good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things.”
Earlier in the day he said: “The only one person by the way who can put pressure on me … is my son, who is six years old.”
Mr Giuliani tweeted: “No quid pro quo, just an agreement on both sides to fully investigate very serious allegations regarding corruption at the highest levels of both countries. Now, are we ever going to investigate Biden?”
Mr Trump on Wednesday afternoon offered to release details of an earlier call with Mr Zelensky as well as conversations Mike Pence, the US vice president, had with the Ukrainian president. "They were perfect, they were all perfect," Mr Trump said.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees were finally given access to the complaint from a whistleblower which helped bring the Ukrainian scandal to light.
One congressman who read the contents of the complaint called it "deeply disturbing". The details have not yet been made public.
Mr Schiff said it "exposed serious wrongdoing" and "certainly provides information for the committee to follow up with others."
California Congressman Eric Swalwell told CNN that the whistleblower "laid out a lot of other documents and witnesses who were subjects in this matter."
Most Republicans were quiet or defended the president. But at least one Republican said he was concerned by what he had read.
"Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons and say there’s no ‘there there’ when there’s obviously a lot that’s very troubling there," said Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a GOP member of the Senate intelligence panel who has been an occasional critic of Trump. He added that "Democrats ought not be using words like ‘impeach’ before they knew anything about the actual substance."
Mr Trump said on Wednesday afternoon that "I fully support transparency on the so-called whistleblower information" and that he had communicated that position to House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
The full declassified transcript released by the White House can be found here: