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US President Donald Trump and former US Vice President Joe Biden.
US President Donald Trump and former US Vice President Joe Biden.
Image: PA Images

Here's why a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president has led to impeachment proceedings

An impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump has been launched by Democrats.
Sep 24th 2019, 3:28 PM 40,522 46

Updated Sep 25th 2019, 8:55 AM

This article was originally published on 24 September. It has been updated and republished following last night’s impeachment announcement.

A PHONE CALL between US President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky has been making headlines in recent days.

During this conversation Trump and Zelensky discussed Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic US presidential nomination and considered one of Trump’s biggest rivals.

Trump allegedly asked Ukraine to look into the business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, who previously served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma Holdings.

Trump asked for this to happen no less than eight times over the course of the phone call, according to the Wall Street Journal. Trump’s private lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also publicly urged Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens.

In the days before the phone call, Trump ordered his chief of staff to withhold almost $400 million (about €360 million) in military aid earmarked for Ukraine, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi last night announced that a formal impeachment inquiry of Trump would be launched. Pelosi said the president “must be held accountable and no one is above the law”.

This week, the president has admitted to asking the President of Ukraine to take actions that would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonourable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of our elections.

“Therefore today, I’m announcing that the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry. I’m directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” Pelosi said in a live address.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and described the situation as the latest “witch hunt” against him.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, he said of Ukraine: “We’re supporting a country, we want to make sure that country is honest … Why would you give money to a country you think is corrupt?”

Let’s take a look at what we know so far.

Whistleblower

The situation made headlines last week when it emerged that a whistleblower filed a complaint with the inspector general of the intelligence community over about a number of issues including a conversation Trump had with a foreign leader. It later emerged that the complaint related to Ukraine and the Bidens.

The Trump administration has blocked the US Congress from knowing details of the complaint, which the government’s intelligence watchdog described as “serious” and “urgent”. 

Trump yesterday said he has authorised the release of a transcript of the phone call, but this has not yet happened.

Lawmakers have demanded details of the complaint, but acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share that information, citing presidential privilege. He is due to appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

However, the whistleblower now wants to testify before the same committee, Chairman Adam Schiff tweeted yesterday.

“We have been informed by the whistleblower’s counsel that their client would like to speak to our committee and has requested guidance from the Acting DNI as to how to do so. We’re in touch with counsel and look forward to the whistleblower’s testimony as soon as this week,” Schiff wrote.

What has Joe Biden’s son got to do with this?

Hunter Biden was named a board member of Burisma Holdings in April 2014. The company’s founder was a political ally of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president who was driven out in February 2014 by mass protests.

Yanukovych’s ousting prompted the Obama administration to deepen ties with Ukraine’s new government, something Joe Biden played a leading role in, travelling to Ukraine and speaking frequently with its new Western-friendly president, Petro Poroshenko.

The US began providing military aid to the government of Ukraine shortly after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. The aid has been used by Ukraine to grapple with separatist rebels in the east, and has long been viewed as a measure of Washington’s determination to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The younger Biden’s business role raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates that Burisma was seeking to gain influence with the Obama administration. At the time, the company ran a natural gas extraction operation in Crimea.

stock-bidens Hunter Biden pictured at the White House in 2012. Source: CNP/SIPA USA/PA Images

Hunter Biden has denied using his influence with his father to aid Burisma. He remained on the board until early 2019, often appearing at energy-related conferences abroad representing Burisma’s interests.

On Saturday, the former US vice president said he never speaks to his son about his overseas business dealings.

The matter, however, has continued to be questioned by Trump and his allies. They’ve pointed in particular to Joe Biden’s move in March 2016 to pressure the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had previously led an investigation into Burisma’s owner.

Biden was representing the official position of the US government, a position that was also supported by other Western governments and many in Ukraine, who accused Shokin of being soft on corruption.

Corruption has continued to fester in Ukraine. In May Zelensky,came into office with no political experience but with promises to put an end to the corrupt practices. Around this time, Giuliani began contacting Zelensky and his aides, calling for a government investigation into Burisma and Hunter Biden’s role with the company.

In a Fox News interview on 19 May, Trump claimed the former Ukrainian prosecutor “was after” Joe Biden’s son and that was why the former vice president demanded he be fired. However, there is no evidence of this.

Ukraine’s current prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, was quoted by Bloomberg News in May as saying he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son. Bloomberg also reported that the investigation into Burisma was dormant at the time Biden pressed for Shokhin to be ousted. 

Echoes of investigation into Russian interference

Many people have pointed to the similarities between the current controversy and Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Russian officials contacted members of Trump’s campaign team at the time, saying they had information that could damage his then rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton.

Special counsel Robert Mueller in March concluded his investigation into links between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign. His report, published in April, outlined numerous contacts between Russian officials and Trump’s campaign, but found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy.

It also gave several examples of incidents in which Trump sought to hinder the investigation, but it did not draw any conclusions on whether Trump obstructed justice.

The Ukraine situation is different in a number of ways including that in this instance Trump contacted a foreign leader, rather than the other way around, and did so while in office, rather than as a presidential candidate.

ukraine-kiev-high-anti-corruption-court President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky pictured in Kiev earlier this month. Source: Sergiy Starostenko/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Some Democrats believe the current controversy carries more weight and, as such, could lead to him being impeached.  

Impeachment 

Democrats previously considered initiating impeachment proceedings over Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia but did not do so. 

Pelosi announced the formal impeachment inquiry after more than 150 of the 235 Democratic members of the 435-seat House came out in support of impeachment.

No House Republicans have come out in favour of impeachment and Republicans currently control the Senate, making Trump’s ultimate conviction unlikely.

For a US president to be successfully impeached and removed from office, the article or articles of impeachment must be passed by a simple majority in the House of Representatives and then a charge must be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Pelosi has been reluctant to proceed until she was confident there was evidence she felt Republicans could not ignore.

Impeachment proceedings can be initiated when lawmakers believe a president is guilty of what the US Constitution calls “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. 

Any member can introduce an impeachment resolution, which like any other bill would be sent to a committee – most likely the House Judiciary Committee. The committee can review the evidence it receives, or carry out an investigation itself.

If the evidence is strong enough, the committee crafts articles of impeachment — criminal charges — and sends them to the full House for a vote.

No US president has been ousted from office by impeachment, but even the threat can bring one down — Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 to avoid certain removal amid the Watergate scandal.

Two presidents beat the process: the House formally impeached Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, but in both cases they were acquitted in the Senate.

Contains reporting from Associated Press and © AFP 2019 

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Órla Ryan

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