WASHINGTON — A whistleblower’s complaint over President Donald Trump’s interactions with a foreign leader is testing the political and practical power Democrats can use against a Republican in the White House who regularly ignores protocol and presidential norms.
Democrats were unanimous in their condemnation of Trump for asking the new leader of Ukraine to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. But the controversy could just as easily revive interest in the business activities of Biden’s son, which would do little to further his campaign.
The president on Saturday denied any wrongdoing, and political operatives in both parties suggested that for many increasingly numb to a constant sense of crisis, the fresh explosion of political drama might not seem so alarming.
Trump said the latest allegations from a government whistleblower are “just as ridiculous as the others,” branding it “the Ukraine Witch Hunt” — a nod to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which he mocked as a “witch hunt.”
“Will fail again!” Trump tweeted.
The complaint from the intelligence community whistleblower is based on a series of events, including what sources now say is Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. According to a person who was briefed on the call, Trump urged Zelenskiy to probe the activities of Biden’s son Hunter, who had worked for a Ukrainian gas company.
For legal scholars and ethics watchdogs, the interaction between Trump and the foreign leader is seen as nothing less than a pressure campaign that cuts to the core of the nation’s public corruption and bribery laws. It came as the White House was holding up $250 million in military aid for Ukraine. Even if there was no quid-pro-quo from the president, the conversation could be seen by legal experts as improper.
“It appears that the president might have used his official powers — in particular, perhaps the threat of withholding a quarter-billion dollars in military aid — to leverage a foreign government into helping him defeat a potential political opponent in the United States,” wrote lawyer George T. Conway III (who is married to a top Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway) and Neal Katayal, a Georgetown University law professor and former acting solicitor general, in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “If Trump did that, it would be the ultimate impeachable act.”
Campaigning in Iowa on Saturday, Joe Biden said the president “deserves to be investigated,” but he stopped short of calling for impeachment.
“He’s using the abuse of power and every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me,” Biden told reporters.
It’s less clear whether the situation might ultimately hurt Biden.
“The longer we talk about what the Bidens did in Ukraine, the better,” said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser.
The questions about Hunter Biden have circulated for years. He was hired in 2014 by Burisma Holdings. At the time, questions were raised about whether the Ukrainian firm was seeking to gain influence with the Obama administration through its employment of Joe Biden’s son.
Joe Biden said he’s never spoken to his son about his overseas business dealings. Hunter Biden has denied the claims that he used his influence with his father to aid Burisma.
Democratic strategist Jefrey Pollock suggested that the latest allegations against Trump would have little impact.
“To date, no scandal has seemed to impact Donald Trump on its own,” Pollock said. “And the fact that this one involves a political rival I suspect is no different.”