WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is publicly encouraging China to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden, snubbing his nose at an impeachment inquiry into whether a similar, private appeal to another foreign government violated his oath of office.
Trump declared Thursday at the White House, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.” He said he hadn’t previously asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to investigate the former vice president and his son Hunter, but it’s "certainly something we could start thinking about.”
By publicly egging on China, Trump was amplifying the message he’d delivered in private to the president of Ukraine. That message, revealed by a government whistleblower, has spawned the impeachment investigation by the House. Trump, who has defended his contact with Ukraine as “perfect,” went further in expanding his request to China, a communist world power that has much at stake in its relationship with the United States in an ongoing trade war.
The boldness of Trump’s call Thursday also suggests he will continue to act as though requests for other countries to investigate potential opponents in the 2020 election are normal, even in the face of broad condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans. It’s a tactic Trump has used successfully before, pushing questionable secret conversations into the open, helping to inoculate him against charges that he is engaged in nefarious action, cover-ups or obstruction of justice.
Trump doubled down on his comments later Thursday, saying in a tweet: “As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!”
Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to defend Trump earlier in the day, saying Americans have a right to know about the wrongdoing the president alleges, despite no evidence to support wrongdoing by Biden, a top contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Biden’s campaign chairman said Trump’s assertions merely show he’s afraid of facing Biden in next year’s election. House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, who has a leading role in Congress’ impeachment inquiry, said Trump’s comments suggest “he feels he can do anything with impunity.”
Trump’s appeal to China evoked his public call in 2016 for Russia to track down his then-rival Hillary Clinton’s emails - a move that was seen as an unprecedented appeal for foreign election interference. It is a violation of federal campaign finance law to solicit anything of value from a foreign government to help a campaign.
In the case of both Ukraine and China, Trump has made his allegations against Biden without evidence of any wrongdoing.
The president and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have for days been raising suspicions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, leaning heavily on the writings of conservative author Peter Schweizer. On Monday, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the allegation that Chinese government business gave Biden’s son $1.5 billion “totally groundless.”
Trump’s unprompted reference to China on Thursday came moments after he was asked about trade negotiations with the country.
“I have a lot of options on China, but if they don't do what we want, we have tremendous, tremendous power,” Trump said.
He later alleged without evidence that China had a “sweetheart deal” on trade with the U.S. because of the Bidens.
“You know what they call that,” Trump said. “They call that a payoff."
Speaking to reporters in Arizona, Pence, whose aides had previously tried to distance from the impeachment drama, echoed Trump’s call for investigation of the Bidens.
“The American people have a right to know if the vice president of the United States or his family profited from his position as vice president during the last administration,” he said.
Trump’s requests for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, as well as Giuliani’s conduct, are at the center of an intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint that sparked the House Democratic impeachment inquiry last week.
Biden campaign chairman Cedric Richmond dismissed Trump's assertions as a reflection of the president’s concerns about facing Biden in a general election. “This president is scared, and he’s acting out,” the Louisiana congressman said.
Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub responded to Trump’s remarks, tweeting a reminder that it is a violation of campaign finance law for anyone to “solicit accept or receive” anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. The agency polices campaign finance laws. But after a recent resignation, its board does not have enough commissioners to legally meet and take enforcement action.
Trump himself has faced multiple allegations that he and his children have enriched themselves through his presidential candidacy and time in office, including spending by the U.S. and foreign governments at his properties. Trump has contended that his political life actually has cost him money, though he is the first major presidential candidate in modern history to refuse to release tax returns that would provide more detail.
Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, at the same time that his father was leading the Obama administration's diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Trump encouraged Zelenskiy to work with Giuliani, and also volunteered the assistance of Attorney General William Barr to investigate the Bidens.
On Thursday, House lawmakers heard testimony from the former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, whose conversations with Trump officials and Giuliani have made him a central figure in the Ukraine inquiry.
Ahead of the 2016 election, Trump publicly called on Russia to release Hillary Clinton’s emails if they had obtained them by hacking _ which U.S. intelligence agencies later determined to be the case.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said during a July 2016 press conference. He later claimed in written answers to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller that he made the appeal to Russia “in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.”