Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful Former Vice President Joe Biden visits students in Houston, Texas. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: President Donald Trump acknowledged on Sunday that he accused a leading political rival of corruption during a phone call with Ukraine’s president, as pressure intensified on reluctant Democrats to move quickly toward impeachment over allegations that Trump engaged in a brazen effort to enlist foreign help to aid his own reelection.

In public and in private, many Democrats suggested that evidence in recent days indicating that Trump pressed the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his administration’s stonewalling of attempts by Congress to learn more, were changing their calculations about whether to seek his removal from office.

The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the
corruption already in the Ukraine.

- Donald Trump, US President

The influential chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who has resisted such calls, said the House may now have “crossed the Rubicon” in light of the new disclosures, and the administration’s withholding of a related whistle-blower complaint. A group of moderate freshman lawmakers who had been opposed to an impeachment inquiry said they were considering changing course, while other Democrats who had reluctantly supported one amplified their calls. Progressives, meanwhile, sharpened their criticisms of the party’s leadership for failing to act.

The fast-moving developments prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to level a warning of her own to the White House: Turn over the secret whistle-blower complaint by Thursday, or face a serious escalation from Congress.

In a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi never mentioned the word “impeachment,” but her message appeared to hint at the possibility.

“If the administration persists in blocking this whistle-blower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation,” Pelosi wrote in the letter.

We can guarantee that during our term in office all investigations will be carried out transparently... These are the fundamental principles and basis of President Zelenskiy’s programme which we campaigned on.

- Andriy Yermak, Aide to Ukrainian President

The allegations centre on whether Trump pressured a vulnerable ally to take action to damage Biden at a critical moment, potentially using United States military aid as leverage. Ukraine has been fighting a war with Russia, and the Trump administration had temporarily been withholding a $250 million (Dh918.1 million) package of military funding. There have been no indications to this point, however, that Trump mentioned the aid money on the call.

Trump showed no sign of contrition on Sunday, telling aides that Democrats were overplaying their hand on a matter voters would discount. Publicly, he worked to focus attention not on his own actions, but on those of Biden.

Speaking to reporters, the president defended his July phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine as entirely appropriate, and stopped short of directly confirming news reports about what was discussed. But he acknowledged that he had discussed Biden during the call and accused the former vice-president of corruption tied to his son Hunter’s business activities in the former Soviet republic.

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters before leaving for a trip to Texas and Ohio.

It is still far from clear that the latest scandal surrounding Trump’s conduct will lead Pelosi or other top Democrats to bless following through with full impeachment proceedings and a vote. The House Judiciary Committee is already investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump over other matters, but Pelosi has consistently questioned the strength of the case.

Proponents of impeachment have repeatedly pointed to damaging revelations — including several instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump detailed by the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference with the 2016 election — that they believe warrant seeking Trump’s removal. But they have run into resistance or indifference from their colleagues and the general public. And given near-unanimous Republican opposition, any impeachment proceeding would likely be a wholly partisan exercise that would all but certainly result in an acquittal by the Senate.

On Sunday, the pattern appeared to be holding, with the vast majority of Republican lawmakers mum about the latest allegations against Trump. The exception was a couple of prominent lawmakers who suggested that the White House should release the contents of his call with Zelenskiy.

“I’m hoping the president can share, in an appropriate way, information to deal with the drama around the phone call,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I think it would be good for the country if we could deal with it.”

At the same time, interviews with more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers this weekend made clear that they believed the latest allegations had the potential to be singularly incriminating, with prospects to advance the impeachment drive just as it appeared to be losing steam. Not only do they suggest that Trump was using the power of his office to extract political gains from a foreign power, they argued, but his administration is actively trying once again to prevent Congress from finding out what happened.

“I don’t want to do any more to contribute to the divisiveness in the country, but my biggest responsibility as an elected official is to protect our national security and Constitution,” said Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, adding that it is “becoming more and more difficult” for Democrats to avoid an all-out impeachment inquiry.

Several first-term lawmakers who had opposed impeachment conferred privately over the weekend to discuss announcing support for an inquiry, potentially jointly, after a hearing scheduled for Thursday with the acting national intelligence director, according to Democratic officials familiar with the conversations. A handful of them declined to speak on the record over the weekend, with some still reluctant to go public and others looking for cues from Pelosi and their freshman colleagues.