President Donald Trump on Wednesday sought to spin the release of a damning summary of his summer phone call with Ukraine’s leader as a win — despite having handed Democrats evidence of the alleged offense that provoked them to launch an official impeachment inquiry a day earlier.
“It’s the single greatest witch hunt in American history. Probably in history, but in American history. It’s a disgraceful thing,” Trump told reporters at a hotel ahead of meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. “The letter was a great letter, meaning the letter revealing the call.”
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Less than an hour earlier, the White House had made public a five-page document detailing Trump’s 30-minute conversation on July 25 with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The readout, which was not a verbatim transcript, showed that the president pressured his foreign counterpart to work with Attorney General William Barr and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
“That was done at the insistence of myself and other people that read it,” Trump said, referring to the production of the summary by the White House.
“It was a friendly letter. There was no pressure,” he continued. “The way you had that built up, that call, it was going to be the call from hell. It turned out to be a nothing call, other than a lot of people said, ‘I never knew you could be so nice.'”
In a highly anticipated joint appearance by the two presidents Wednesday afternoon, Zelensky attempted to deflect a question about the escalating controversy, concluding that “nobody pushed me.” A seemingly emboldened Trump interjected, “In other words, no pressure,” before going on to assail House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her announcement Tuesday evening that she would throw her support behind an impeachment probe into his conduct.
Trump charged that the veteran Democratic leader had “lost her way” and had “been taken over by the radical left” wing of her party. “They’ve been taken over by a radical group of people, and Nancy Pelosi, as far as I’m concerned, unfortunately, she’s no longer the speaker of the House,” he told reporters.
In a news conference to close out his three-day trip to the United Nations in New York, a subdued Trump continued to downplay the call, writing it off as a ploy by Democrats to detract from the “tremendous achievements“ he‘d gone there to tout.
“The Democrats did this hoax during the United Nations week — it was perfect,“ he said. “So that was all planned, like everything else, it was all planned. And the witch hunt continues.“
He also appeared incredulous at what had tipped the scales for Democrats, claiming that “they‘re getting hit hard on this witch hunt. Because when they look at the information, it‘s a joke. Impeachment for that? When you have a wonderful meeting or you have a wonderful phone conversation?“
Trump also accused Democrats of “belittling“ the country, claiming that other world leaders had expressed shock at how he was being treated.
“So many leaders came up to me today and they said, ‘Sir, what you go through no president has ever gone through.‘ And it is so bad for your country. People laugh at this stupidity of what they’ve asked for,“ he said.
The president first began lashing out Wednesday morning, complaining online that none of his White House predecessors have “been treated so badly” during their time in office, and later predicting that Democratic lawmakers advocating for his ouster would be disappointed by the substance of the Zelensky call.
“Will the Democrats apologize after seeing what was said on the call with the Ukrainian President? They should, a perfect call – got them by surprise!” he wrote.
The president also fired off several posts emphasizing that the summary did not include an explicit warning from Trump to Zelensky that U.S. aid to the Eastern European nation was contingent upon a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens.
POLITICO reported in August that Trump was slow-walking hundreds of millions of dollars in military funds to Ukraine, and the The Washington Post reported Monday that Trump directed his acting White House chief of staff to hold back the financial assistance at least a week before his call with Zelensky.
Meanwhile, Trump has claimed, without evidence, that Biden’s efforts as vice president to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor internationally regarded as corrupt were intended to protect his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
The president’s allies on Wednesday trumpeted the apparent absence of a direct quid pro quo offer, and argued that Trump was justified — if not obligated — to bring up the unfounded accusations of wrongdoing by the Bidens during the call with Zelensky.
“I think it’s very appropriate for the president of the United States to suggest that you got a corruption problem, and this prosecutor that was fired maybe … because he was corrupt or maybe because he was looking at something close to America here,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“The question that got me going was: Did the president of the United States suggest to the Ukraine, ‘I will withhold money unless you go after my political rival,'” Graham said. “The answer is, ‘Absolutely not.’ That’s why I wanted the phone call to be released.”
Top Democrats in Congress have said a quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky is not necessary to begin the process of impeaching the president. But House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) pointed out Wednesday out that during the call, Trump broached the subject of a potential Biden investigation only after Zelensky referenced American support for Ukrainian defense efforts.
“There was only one message that that president of Ukraine got from that call, and that was, ‘This is what I need, I know what you need,'” Schiff told reporters during a news conference. “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,’ because that was clear from the conversation.”
Prior to the readout’s release Wednesday, Giuliani said that it would amount to “a big nothing-burger,” and asserted that the president would have been “derelict in his duty” to not discuss Joe and Hunter Biden with Zelensky.
“You’re going to say, ‘My God, why — how could he have not raised it?'” Giuliani told the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” adding: “Who could get allegations of a serious nature investigated about a vice president? Is a president of a country going to listen to, I don’t know, an FBI agent?”
Hogan Gidley, principal deputy White House press secretary, said earlier Wednesday morning that the memo memorializing the call would vindicate Trump, and “the world will get to see that the president has done nothing wrong in this instance.” He also hammered the speaker for what he characterized as a rush to judgment.
“Nancy Pelosi got time on television to come forward and say she had the facts now to move for an impeachment,” Gidley told Fox News. “However, she didn’t even see the document yet.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, similarly criticized Pelosi on Wednesday for backing an impeachment inquiry prior to the release of the call summary, remarking that “hearsay, rumor [and] innuendo” were motivating his Democratic colleagues.
“The president has been very cooperative in saying, ‘OK, fine, you want to see it? We’ll do that,'” Collins told “Fox & Friends.”
Trump’s statements during the call are also believed to be a component of the complaint an anonymous whistleblower filed in early August to the intelligence community’s inspector general, who deemed the allegations credible and “urgent.”
Trump on Tuesday afternoon announced he had authorized the release sometime Wednesday of “the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of his call with Zelensky. A senior administration official confirmed Tuesday evening that the White House is also preparing to release both the whistleblower complaint and the inspector general’s report to Congress by the end of the week.
Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.