US President Donald Trump on Friday told reporters a whistle-blower complaint that has roiled Washington relates to a “totally appropriate conversation” he had.
“It’s a partisan whistle-blower,” Trump said, even though he said he did not know the identity of the whistle-blower or the precise allegations but that all of his conversations with foreign leaders were always appropriate.
“It’s just another political hack job. That’s all it is,” the Republican president told reporters in the White House.
The Trump administration is in a standoff with leaders of the Democrat-controlled United States House of Representatives over the August 12 complaint from a whistle-blower within the intelligence community, reported to involve Trump’s communications with a foreign leader.
An intelligence community watchdog determined that the complaint was credible, related to an urgent matter, and should be shared with congressional leaders through a process laid out by US law.
That determination was overridden by acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire after consulting with the Justice Department.
“It was a totally appropriate conversation,” Trump said, of the conversation at the heart of the whistle-blower complaint. “It was actually a beautiful conversation.”
The Washington Post and The New York Times, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, reported on Thursday that at least part of the complaint involved Ukraine.
Trump, who sat in the Oval Office with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistle-blower’s complaint centred on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The president responded “I really don’t know,” but continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was “perfectly fine and respectful”.
He berated reporters for asking about the whistle-blower complaint.
The standoff raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump’s allies are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether Maguire is working with the Justice Department to shield the president from the reach of Congress.
It also plunged the Trump administration into an extraordinary showdown with Congress over access to the whistle-blower’s complaint as politicians press their oversight of the executive branch.
The administration has kept Congress from even learning what exactly the whistle-blower is alleging, but the intelligence community’s inspector general said the matter involves the “most significant” responsibilities of intelligence leadership. A politician said the complaint was “based on a series of events”.
The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.
Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was prepared to go to court to try to force the Trump administration to open up about the complaint.
“The inspector general has said this cannot wait,” said Schiff, a Democrat, describing the administration’s blockade as an unprecedented departure from law. “There’s an urgency here that I think the courts will recognise.”
House Democrats are fighting the administration separately for access to witnesses and documents in impeachment probes.
Democrats are also looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani travelled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president’s reelection effort by investigating the activities of potential rival Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump was asked Friday if be brought up Biden in the call with Zelensky, and he answered, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.” But then he used the moment to urge the media “to look into” Biden’s background with Ukraine.
During a rambling interview Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was asked whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. Giuliani initially said, “No, actually I didn’t,” but seconds later he said, “Of course, I did.”
Giuliani has spent months trying to drum up potentially damaging evidence about Biden’s ties to Ukraine. He told CNN that Trump was unaware of his actions.
“I did what I did on my own,” Giuliani said. “I told him about it afterwards.
Later, Giuliani tweeted, “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.” Giuliani’s efforts have sparked anger among Democrats who have claimed that Trump, in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, may have asked for foreign assistance in his upcoming reelection bid.
Among the materials Democrats have sought is a transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky.
Schiff said he, too, could not confirm whether newspaper reports were accurate because the administration was claiming executive privilege in withholding the complaint.
Because the administration is claiming the information is privileged, Schiff said he believes the whistle-blower’s complaint “likely involves the president or people around him”.