U.S. President Donald Trump told his staff to withhold about $400 million in aid to Ukraine days before a phone call with the country's leader that is at the center of a debate between Congress and the White House over a whistleblower complaint.
Reports late Wednesday from the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times all cited multiple senior administration officials saying Trump froze the funding, and that the order was communicated to the State Department and Pentagon with the explanation that he was looking into whether the money needed to be spent.
Earlier Wednesday, the leaders of three House of Representatives committees demanded Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turn over all documents related to the call Trump made to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The Democratic chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight committees — Elliot Engel, Adam Schiff, and Elijah Cummings — set a Thursday deadline, the same day the intelligence committee is set to hear testimony from acting director national intelligence Joseph Maguire about the whistleblower complaint linked to the call.
Trump is said to have pushed for an investigation into leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who served for years on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
The three House members said in their letter the State Department has admitted that a senior Pompeo staffer directly helped set up meetings between Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Ukrainian officials days after the call.
"By withholding these documents and refusing to engage with the committees, the Trump Administration is obstructing Congress' oversight duty under the Constitution to protect our nation's democratic process," they wrote.
Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters Monday that he met several weeks ago with Zelenskiy, and that the Ukranian administration worried the aid cutoff "was a consequence for their unwillingness, at the time, to investigate the Bidens."
"They were unwilling to conduct this investigation because there was no merit to it," Murphy said.
Also Monday, a group of first-term Democratic members of the House of Representatives with backgrounds in national security wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying if the allegations of Trump's actions are true, the lawmakers believe they "represent an impeachable offense."
"The president of the United States may have used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it," they wrote. "He allegedly sought to use the very security assistance dollars appropriated by Congress to create stability in the world, to help root out corruption and to protect our national security interests, for his own personal gain."
The group includes Reps. Gil Cisneros, Jason Crow, Chrissy Houlahan, Elaine Luria, Mikie Sherrill, Elissa Slotkin and Abigail Spanberger.
Trump on Monday dismissed the Democratic drumbeat for impeachment, saying he does not take such threats "at all seriously." He insisted his call with Zelenskiy was a "very nice call," congratulating him on becoming Ukrainian president.
Trump said he could very easily release a transcript of the call, and the press would be disappointed. But he refused to commit to doing so, saying it would be a bad precedent.
The controversy began last week when reports emerged that an unidentified whistleblower in the national intelligence community became alarmed about a series of actions inside the Trump administration. They include what is now known to be Trump's telephone call with Zelenskiy.
This person contacted the intelligence inspector general, who called the complaint "serious" and "urgent."
Maguire has refused to turn over the inspector's report to Congress, which the law requires him to do.
As vice president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden went to Ukraine in 2016 and threatened to withhold billions of dollars in U.S. loan guarantees unless the government cracked down on corruption. Biden also demanded that Ukraine's chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin be fired.
Shokin had previously investigated the gas company on which Hunter Biden served on the board. But the probe had been inactive for a year before Joe Biden's visit. Hunter Biden has said he was not the target of any investigation and no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens has surfaced.
An angry Biden said "there is truly no bottom to President Trump's willingness to abuse his power and abase our country."