Calls for impeachment grew louder than ever on Tuesday after reports surfaced that U.S. President Donald Trump withheld almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine a week before his phone call with the Ukrainian President.
The allegations, reported first by the Washington Post and subsequently confirmed by outlets like the New York Times and CNN, will pour more fuel on the fire of a scandal that is rapidly engulfing Trump’s presidency.
Trump has already been accused of repeatedly pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate unsubstantiated corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Trump denies he did anything wrong. But Monday’s reports will give fresh credence to allegations that Trump used the power of the presidency to pressure a foreign country to investigate and undermine one of his main political rivals.
More Democrats who had resisted calls for an impeachment inquiry changed their minds Monday, saying that if the fresh allegations prove accurate they “represent an impeachable offense.”
“These allegations are stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent,” a group of seven freshman Democrats, who previously resisted calling for Trump’s impeachment, said in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday evening.
The latest allegations
According to senior officials speaking to the Washington Post, Trump directed his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, a week before his July 25 phone call with Zelensky.
Officials at the Office of Management and Budget then relayed Trump’s order to the State Department and the Pentagon during an interagency meeting in mid-July. Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers the delay was the result of an “interagency process,” but to give no more information.
The money was eventually released to Ukraine on Sept. 11.
One official told CNN that Trump’s decision to withhold the money was related to concerns the president had about “corruption” in Ukraine, and about Europe shouldering more of the financial burden for supporting Ukraine's defense. Ukraine has been locked in a bloody war with Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
Ukrainian leaders see U.S. diplomatic and material support as crucial in their standoff with Russia, making it hard for the country to resist a request seen as coming directly from the White House, said Olga Oliker, Europe Program Director for the International Crisis Group.
“Ukraine is really dependent on American aid and support, and that makes it an easy country to influence, because of that, at least on paper,” Oliker said. “If you’ve got somebody over a barrel, they’re likely to do what you ask.”
How is Trump responding?
Trump and the White House didn’t immediately respond to the latest allegations.
In a series of comments during his time at the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, Trump made a series of contradictory statements about the scandal, while insisting he’d done nothing wrong.
Trump initially appeared to agree to release the transcript of his call with Ukraine’s president, saying: “I hope you get to see it soon.” But moments later, Trump claimed releasing the transcripts would set a dangerous precedent.
“I can do it very easily, but I'd rather not do it from the standpoint of all of the other conversations I have. I may do it, 'cause it was a very innocent call,” Trump told reporters.
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to push unsubstantiated allegations that Biden and his son were involved in corrupt activity in Ukraine.
On Monday, Biden responded to Trump’s denials of wrongdoing, tweeting: “So release the transcript of the call then.”
What are the Democrats saying?
While there is a growing chorus of voices calling for an impeachment inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still holding off.
However, that may soon change.
Pelosi has summoned the leaders of six House committees involved in investigations of the president to meet on Tuesday, according to the New York Times, warning lawmakers to come alone, without their aides.
Pelosi plans to convene a special meeting of the Democratic caucus to discuss impeachment afterward.
What are Republicans saying?
The GOP remains solidly behind Trump, although on Monday, some senior Republicans added their voices to calls for the transcript to be released.
“I believe the most helpful report would be a transcript of the president’s conversation with President Zelensky,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters. “That, I think, would be the most instructive. But I certainly believe that the whistle-blower report should also be available to Congress.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken) criticized the Democrats for politicizing a serious allegation but said he had confidence that the Senate Intelligence Committee would fully investigate the whistleblower complaint.
Others feel more comfortable dodging the question. In interviews with more than half of Senate Republicans, many took the position of having no position at all.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), for example, refused to engage on the subject.
“You’re welcome to talk to James in my office,” Sasse told VICE News. But press secretary James Wegmann never responded to a request for comment.
Cover: President Donald Trump meets with Korean President Moon Jae-in at the InterContinental Barclay hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)