Washington • President Donald Trump ordered his staff to freeze nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine a few days before a phone call in which he pressured the Eastern European nation’s leader to investigate the family of political rival Joe Biden, a revelation that comes as more Democrats move toward impeachment proceedings.
Trump, in remarks to reporters at the United Nations on Tuesday, said he held up the aid to fight corruption and urge European nations to share in helping out Ukraine.
"I'd withhold again," Trump said. "And I'll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine." He named Germany and France as among the countries that should "put up money."
The matter, which is now part of a whistleblower complaint, has sparked questions about whether the president improperly used his office to pressure a foreign country to help his own reelection prospects. Democrats are demanding more information about the whistleblower's allegations, and more than a dozen have for the first time raised the prospect of impeaching the president. They include a group of moderate House freshmen in competitive districts.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has resisted calls for impeachment proceedings for months, was huddling with her caucus in a closed-door meeting Tuesday afternoon. Pelosi and her leadership team on the various oversight committees are considering bringing forward a resolution that would put the House on the record on this matter, according to a Democratic leadership aide who was granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. That resolution could come as soon as Wednesday.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he would seek a vote Tuesday in the Republican-controlled Senate on a resolution calling for the Trump administration to provide Congress with the whistleblower's government complaint.
At issue is a summer phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy , in which Trump is said to have pushed for investigations into Biden and his son. In the days before that call, Trump ordered that aid to Ukraine be frozen, according to two people familiar with but not authorized to discuss private conversations. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong and has denied that any requests for help in procuring damaging information about the Bidens were tied to the aid freeze. Former Vice President Joe Biden is among the leading candidates in the Democratic presidential primary.
Trump has sought, without evidence, to implicate Biden and his son Hunter in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration's diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
The United States began providing military aid to the government of Ukraine shortly after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in 2014. With Ukraine's new president still grappling with separatist rebels in the east, the aid has long been viewed as a measure of Washington's determination to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Democrats, and some Republicans, have urged the White House to be open about Trump's actions. But with no new information from the administration forthcoming, more than a dozen Democrats, including some in House leadership, added their names to those calling for impeachment proceedings.
Seven House freshmen, who include a former Navy pilot, soldiers, officers and intelligence analysts, wrote in a joint op-ed that the allegations against Trump "are stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent."
If true, they represent an impeachable offense, the lawmakers said.
"These new allegations are a threat to all we have sworn to protect. We must preserve the checks and balances envisioned by the Founders and restore the trust of the American people in our government. And that is what we intend to do," the lawmakers wrote in The Washington Post. The lawmakers are Reps. Gil Cisneros of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
It's unclear whether Pelosi will endorse a new phase of impeachment proceedings. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler has declared that his committee is already conducting impeachment hearings, but the committee has been unable to get many key witnesses and documents from the Trump administration.
One idea that was being discussed among some Democrats was the possibility of a select committee that could handle impeachment hearings. Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA agent and one of the freshman Democrats who came out for impeachment proceedings on Monday, said "the notion of a select committee is likely a good one" as long as it remains bipartisan.
"We should all want to get to the bottom of these allegations and know without a shadow of a doubt that our president is either innocent or he's not," Spanberger said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The president has acknowledged the phone call with Ukraine's president, but denies using the aid package as leverage to get his assistance investigating Biden and his son.
Lawmakers are demanding details of the complaint, but the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has refused to share that information, citing presidential privilege. He is set to testify Thursday before the House.
"Let's see the transcript," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, about Trump's call with the Ukraine president.
Trump said Monday he may, or may not, release details or a transcript of the call but has stressed that foreign leaders should feel free to speak frankly with an American president without fear that the details of their conversations will later be disclosed.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Matthew Daly, Michael Balsamo, Laurie Kellman and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.