Revelations about Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine’s president are shaping up to be the most serious threat to his presidency so far, surpassing even the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference that dogged the first two years of his administration.
A whistleblower complaint released alleging that Mr Trump abused his power when he asked Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden in a July telephone call compounded the damage from a rough transcript of the conversation the White House released earlier this week.
Yesterday, markets continued to analyse the impeachment moves but the US-China trade dispute, in particular, for signs of potential damage to the US economy.
And figures showed US consumer spending barely rose in August and business investment remained weak, suggesting the US economy was losing momentum as trade tensions linger.
Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, edged up by only 0.1%. In another report, the US commerce department said orders for non-defence capital goods excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, dropped 0.2% last month amid weak demand for electrical equipment, appliances and components, and computers and electronic products.
The whistleblower Ukraine complaint emboldened Democrats pursuing Mr Trump’s removal from office, while Republicans — many of whom had criticised the house’s move toward impeaching the president — largely refrained from comment.
Mr Trump hurt himself further after telling US diplomats in a private meeting on Thursday that “we’re at war” and the whistleblower was “almost a spy,” according to video obtained by Bloomberg News.
“That is a gross mischaracterisation of whistle-blowers,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, told reporters.
Mr Trump evaded consequences after Robert Mueller’s investigation because the special counsel could not tie the president directly to Russian interference in the 2016 election and did not clearly accuse him of obstructing the probe.
But in the Ukraine affair, the most damaging facts are rooted in the president’s own words, recorded in a five-page memorandum that largely corroborates the whistleblower’s complaint.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham earlier this week issued a statement calling the whistleblower complaint “nothing more than a collection of third-hand accounts of events and cobbled-together press clippings — all of which shows nothing improper.” Mr Trump, she said, “has nothing to hide.”
Late on Thursday, senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said his panel would also conduct an investigation of Mr Trump’s Ukraine actions. He said he is “committed to make sure that we get to the bottom of what questions need answers”.
It is illegal for foreigners to contribute to US political campaigns or for American politicians to solicit their contributions. The memorandum shows Mr Trump asking Mr Zelenskiy for an investigation into Mr Biden, who was at the time the frontrunner to challenge the president’s re-election in 2020 — a request that could be construed as the president seeking a non-monetary contribution to his campaign.
The department of justice conducted a preliminary review of the whistleblower complaint and determined a criminal investigation was not warranted. But congress could decide otherwise.
For purposes of impeachment, the constitution leaves it to lawmakers to decide whether the president’s actions amount to “high crimes and misdemeanours”.
- Bloomberg. Additional reporting Reuters