Report: Trump told Russian FM the US also meddles in other countries’ elections

President said to have cited US behavior as reason he was unconcerned over 2016 interference by Moscow; US special envoy to Ukraine resigns amid whistleblower scandal

File: US special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker in Kiev, Ukraine, Sept. 15, 2018 (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
File: US special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker in Kiev, Ukraine, Sept. 15, 2018 (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

US President Donald Trump told Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the US he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US elections because Washington did the same in other countries, The Washington Post reported late Friday.

The paper cited three former officials who requested anonymity to discuss details of the May 2017 Oval Office meeting, during which he famously revealed highly classified information on the Islamic State group.

The comments reportedly alarmed White House officials who restricted access to a memorandum describing the meeting to those with only the highest security access.

Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders, as well as administration efforts to bury their contents, have come under increasing scrutiny amid spiraling accusations the US leader sought to pressure Ukraine to conduct an investigation into his potential 2020 Democratic rival Joe Biden, and a possible White House cover-up.

Also Friday, Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO caught in the middle of a whistleblower complaint over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, resigned from his post as special envoy to the Eastern European nation, according to a US official.

The official said Volker told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday of his decision to leave the job, following disclosures that he had connected Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani with Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family over allegedly corrupt business dealings.

Giuliani has said he was in frequent contact with Volker about his efforts. The State Department had no immediate comment on his resignation and has said only that Volker put Giuliani in touch with an aide to Ukraine’s president.

Pompeo said Thursday that as far as he knew, all State Department employees had acted appropriately in dealing with Ukraine.

Volker was brought into the Trump administration by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to serve as envoy for Ukraine. He worked in a volunteer capacity and had retained his job as head of the John McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. Arizona State’s student newspaper was the first to report his resignation.

A handout photo made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry on May 10, 2017 shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak during a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC. (HO / RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY / AFP)

Democrats charged aggressively into an impeachment investigation of Trump on Friday, ordering Pompeo to turn over Ukraine-related documents and scheduling testimony for witnesses to alleged abuse of power by the US leader.

Three House committees gave Pompeo one week to produce the documents, saying multiple State Department officials have direct knowledge of Trump’s efforts to enlist the Ukraine government’s help in his US campaign for reelection.

“The Committees are investigating the extent to which President Trump jeopardized national security by pressing Ukraine to interfere with our 2020 election and by withholding security assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression,” they said.

Public support is growing for impeachment after the release of an anonymous whistleblower’s complaint on Thursday, reportedly made by a CIA analyst who had worked in the White House.

It accused Trump of pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to supply dirt on Biden, the favorite to represent Democrats against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2019. (Timothy A. Clark/AFP)

The complaint also revealed that White House aides, alarmed at Trump’s implicit offer to release aid in exchange for Zelensky’s help, sought to hide the record of the call in a highly secure computer system normally used only for the country’s most top-secret intelligence.

Congressional investigators on Friday announced interviews starting next week with five State Department officials, including former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump reportedly forced out earlier this year for resisting his efforts to pressure Kiev to probe Biden.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that the impeachment investigation would move quickly, saying evidence from the whistleblower’s complaint against Trump of abuse of power and an attempted cover-up was unambiguous.

“The clarity of the president’s actions is compelling and gave us no choice but to move forward,” Pelosi said.

In a series of tweets Trump attacked Democrats — including Adam Schiff, the lawmaker named by Pelosi to lead the impeachment probe — calling them liars, while also taking aim at the “partisan” whistleblower and the “Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party.”

In a video leaked from a private gathering Trump held Thursday with US diplomats in New York, Trump made clear he was battling for his survival.

“We’re at war. These people are sick,” Trump says in the video obtained by Bloomberg.

House Intelligence Committee chairman, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, speaks before Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Schiff said Friday his committee will issue more subpoenas next week and conduct a closed-door briefing with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, the official who conducted a preliminary investigation into the whistleblower complaint and deemed it credible.

“We have to flesh out all of the facts for the American people. The seriousness of the matter and the danger to our country demands nothing less,” Schiff said.

More than 300 high-level professionals from the national security community have signed a letter backing the impeachment investigation.

“President Trump appears to have leveraged the authority and resources of the highest office in the land to invite additional foreign interference into our democratic processes. That would constitute an unconscionable abuse of power,” they said.

Meanwhile public support for impeachment jumped, according to two new polls. The Hill-HarrisX survey showed support up 12 percentage points to 47%, against 42% opposed, while Politico’s poll showed support up seven points to 43%, now equal to those opposed.

Democrats said articles of impeachment — formal charges — against Trump could be completed in as soon as a month and then swiftly debated and voted on in the House, where the party has a majority solid enough to ensure passage.

The case would then be handed to the Senate to try Trump — who, for the moment, appears able to count on a Republican majority in the chamber to prevent his conviction and removal.

“As a former prosecutor, I should tell you that cases are made much easier when the defendant cops to the act, and here the president is not denying what he said,” Democrat Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN.

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