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Whistleblower inquiry may have been sparked by Trump asking Ukrainians for dirt on Biden

Ben Riley-Smith
Joe Biden with his son Hunter in 2010 - AP

Donald Trump declined to say whether he talked to Ukraine's leader about his political rival Joe Biden on Friday as he sought to downplay a potentially explosive whistleblower's complaint.

The US president was responding to reports that the complaint, details of which are not yet public, centred on a “promise” he made to another foreign leader and the country of Ukraine. 

Mr Trump’s allies have been calling for Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden, the front-runner in the Democrat race to take on Mr Trump in the 2020 election, and his son Hunter Biden, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company. 

The complaint came from a US intelligence figure and was judged “urgent” enough to be handed to Congress by an internal watchdog, but America’s top intelligence official has refused to do so.

It has raised the question of whether the US president asked another foreign leader to carry out investigations that help him politically - something that would be seen as an abusive of power by critics. 

Trump declined to say what he discussed with the Ukrainian president Credit: Reuters

Addressing questions for the first time on the row which has dominated headlines in recent days, Mr Trump sought to frame the complaint and the attention it has garnered as a politically-motivated attack. 

“It's a partisan whistleblower,” Mr Trump said in the Oval Office, though he admitted he did not know the identity of the individual involved. 

"I've had conversations with many leaders, they're always appropriate,” Mr Trump said, adding: “Anything I do, I fight for this country.” He called the issue a “political hack job”. 

Asked explicitly if he talked to Ukraine’s leader about Mr Biden, his son or his family, Mr Trump responded: “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.”

Mr Trump said that some people in the White House had seen details of the whistleblower’s complaint, though he personally had not. 

One issue Mr Trump’s allies want Ukraine to look into is whether Mr Biden tried to stop a probe into the company that employed his son while he was US vice president. He held the post from January 2009 to January 2017.  

Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for Mr Trump, appeared to confirm in a contradictory interview with CNN that he had urged Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden. 

Mr Giuliani first denied he had done so, but then said he had urged Ukraine to “get to the bottom” of how the case linked to Mr Biden’s son got dismissed. 

Mr Giuliani also tweeted about the row: “A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.”

The row has thrust Mr Trump’s use of presidential powers and his determination to win the November 2020 presidential election into the spotlight. 

The whistleblower made the complaint on August 12. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that it involved Mr Trump’s conversations with a foreign leader and Ukraine. 

Mr Trump talked to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukranian president and former actor, on July 25. Mr Trump yesterday said he “didn’t know” whether the complaint was about this call. 

In recent weeks congressmen have been raising concerns about whether the Trump administration was holding back military funding for Ukraine for political benefit. 

Last week it was announced that $250 million would be released, in part to train and equip Ukrainian forces defending against Russian incursion.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the US intelligence community, ruled that the whistleblower’s complaint was of “urgent” concern - meaning it would normally be shared with the relevant oversight committees in Congress. 

However Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, has blocked its released, triggering a clash with Democratic congressman that has played out all month. 

The whistleblower’s name, position and the details of the claim remain unknown, with only US media reports and the comments from politicians offering an indication on the matter. 

A number of former officials from Barack Obama's administration and the State Department have insisted that Hunter’s business dealings had no effect on his father’s policies in Ukraine while he served as vice president.

In July, Hunter told the Washington Post: “The narrative that has been suggested and developed by the right-wing political apparatus [is] demonstrably false,” in response to a piece on his role in the Ukrainian gas company.