AFP New York
Facing an impeachment probe in Congress, President Donald Trump was forced on Wednesday to release a call transcript showing he had urged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate rival Joe Biden — in what Democrats slammed as a "mafia-style shakedown". A defiant Trump insisted he had exerted "no pressure" on Kiev — a claim echoed by Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who appeared side-by-side with the US president at a long-planned meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
But the publication of the transcript — a day after Democrats launched an official impeachment inquiry — sent a new shockwave through Washington, including within the ranks of Trump's Republican Party, with Senator Mitt Romney calling it "deeply troubling."
Two competing narratives immediately took hold.
Trump and his allies claimed the call contained no evidence of a quid pro quo pressuring Zelensky to probe the president's top Democratic rival for the White House.
Democrats meanwhile held it up as a smoking gun, with senior lawmaker Adam Schiff describing "a classic mafia-type shakedown of a foreign leader."
"This is how a mafia boss talks: '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," Schiff charged.
"And what is that favour? Of course, the favour is to investigate his political rival, to investigate the Bidens."
The July 25 call summary — which is not a verbatim transcript — shows Trump saying 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.
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.
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."
"There was no pressure whatsoever," Trump told reporters, saying Democrats had built up the exchange as the "call from hell" but that "it turned out to be a nothing call."
Speaking later at Trump's side, Zelensky insisted he had not been "pushed" by Trump during the controversial call.
"We had — I think (a) good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things, and...
so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me," the Ukrainian leader told reporters.
In announcing the launch of impeachment proceedings on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump had betrayed his oath of office in seeking Ukraine's help to find dirt on Biden.
Faced with the possibility of becoming the third US president in history to be impeached, Trump has pushed back hard — branding the probe the "single greatest witch hunt in American history...a disgraceful thing."
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