AFP New York, United States
Sep 26, 2019, 07.39 AM
Donald Trump, the United States President on Wednesday dismissed the impeachment enquiry against him as a "joke", while Democrats stood firm in accusing him of a "mafia-style shakedown" of his Ukrainian counterpart.
Trump denied claims that he abused his office by repeatedly urging President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe his rival Joe Biden - as confirmed in a call transcript released by the White House.
The next episode in the impeachment debacle is set for Thursday when Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph McGuire will testify at Capitol Hill.
"They are getting hit hard on this witch hunt because when they look at the information, it's a joke," said the President, at his first news conference since Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry.
"Impeachment for that? When you have a wonderful meeting or you have a wonderful phone conversation?", he asked.
Trump had earlier insisted that he exerted "no pressure" on Zelensky, who appeared side-by-side with the US leader at a long-planned meeting at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
As two competing narratives took hold, Republican Party's Senator Mitt Romney referred to the escalation as "deeply troubling."
Trump and his allies claimed that the July 25 call contained no evidence of a quid pro quo, pressuring Zelensky to probe the President's top Democratic rival for the White House.
"This is how a mafia boss talks," charged senior Democratic lawmaker Adam Schiff.
"'What have you done for us? We've done so much for you but there's not much reciprocity. I have a favour to ask you. And what is that favour? Of course, the favour is to investigate his political rival, to investigate the Bidens", he added.
The call summary - which is not a verbatim transcript - has Trump saying that the US Attorney General Bill Barr and the President's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani would be in touch about probing the Ukraine-related activities of Biden and his son.
In announcing the impeachment probe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump's actions amounted to a betrayal of his oath of office and of national security.
Watch Video: Trump-Zelensky call row escalates
'A nothing call'
As Barack Obama's Vice President, Biden and other Western leaders pressured Ukraine to get rid of the country's top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, because he was seen as not tough enough on corruption.
"There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great," Trump told Zelensky in the call.
"Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me", he added.
The transcript did not show Trump explicitly tying aid to Ukraine to Zelensky probing Biden, which has fed the calls to impeach him.
But the two did discuss a major aid package, which had been frozen by Trump at the time and was only released in recent weeks.
The memo also shows Trump asking Zelensky for a "favour" on an issue unconnected to Biden - just after noting that the US had been "very, very good to Ukraine."
Analysts noted that the transcript uses ellipses - denoting words or entire passages are missing - on three occasions, all when Trump is making requests of Zelensky.
Others pointed out that it was supposed to summarize a 30-minute call, yet the transcript runs to around just 12 minutes.
"There was no pressure whatsoever," Trump told reporters earlier Wednesday, saying Democrats had built up the exchange as the "call from hell" but that "it turned out to be a nothing call."
Zelensky insisted meanwhile that he had not been "pushed" by Trump during the controversial call.
Faced with the possibility of being impeached, Trump has pushed back hard - branding the probe the "single greatest witch hunt in American history... a disgraceful thing."
Pelosi had for months resisted pressure from the party rank-and-file for impeachment, preferring to focus on next year's election fight.
But on Tuesday, she relented, 11 days after news that an anonymous US intelligence official had filed a whistleblower complaint on Trump's alleged double-dealing with Ukraine.
Democrats made clear the White House's release of the call record would not satisfy their investigation into whether the US leader broke the law, and the complaint has now been reviewed by lawmakers.
Top Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters after reading the whistleblower complaint that "it's very troubling" -- an assessment echoed by Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who said that "there's obviously lots that is very troubling there."
Schumer later called in a statement for the contents of the complaint to be made public, saying: "The public has a right to read the whistleblower's complaint for themselves."
Trump denied claims that he abused his office by repeatedly urging President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe his rival Joe Biden.