WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump told a then-top aide in August he wanted to freeze security aid to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, the New York Times reported on Sunday (Jan 26).
Trump's statement was described in an unpublished manuscript by former White House national security adviser John Bolton, the New York Times reported in an article that did not quote the document but cited multiple people as having described Bolton’s account.
The newspaper said the reported statement could undercut a key element of Trump's impeachment defence: That the aid delay was separate from his requests that Ukraine announce probes into his perceived enemies, including Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy firm. The elder Biden is a leading 2020 Democratic presidential contender.
Bolton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report drew immediate demands from Democrats that the Republican-controlled Senate, which is conducting a trial on whether to remove Trump from office following his Dec 18 impeachment by the Democratic-led House of Representatives, should call Bolton as a witness.
"There can be no doubt now that Mr Bolton directly contradicts the heart of the President’s defence and therefore must be called as a witness at the impeachment trial of President Trump," the seven House "managers" prosecuting the case against Trump in the Senate said in a statement.
"There is no defensible reason to wait until his book is published, when the information he has to offer is critical to the most important decision Senators must now make — whether to convict the President of impeachable offences," the statement added.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and calls the impeachment process a sham. The White House, which with Senate leaders has resisted calling witnesses, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the New York Times report, nor did Jay Sekulow, who is helping lead the Republican president's defence.
Democrats have said they are eager to hear testimony by Bolton, who was involved, as his own lawyer has previously said, in "many relevant meetings and conversations" involving issues at the heart of Trump’s impeachment.
Bolton left his post in September after disagreements with the president. Trump said he fired him. Bolton said he quit.
The House impeached Trump on charges of abusing the powers of his office by asking Ukraine to investigate Biden and of obstructing a congressional inquiry into his conduct.
Trump's defence argued neither impeachment charge constituted a crime or impeachable offence, that he was within his rights as president to make decisions about foreign policy and what information to give Congress, and that the House pursued a flawed and one-sided process before impeaching him.
While the Senate is highly unlikely to remove Trump from office, he is seeking to limit political damage to his bid for a second term in the Nov 3 election.
According to the New York Times, Bolton spoke to Trump in August and raised the US$391 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine for its war in the country’s east against Russian-backed separatists.
Officials had frozen the aid, and a deadline was looming to begin sending it, Bolton noted, according to the newspaper.
Trump had previously rebuffed senior US officials who had called for the aid to be restored, the newspaper said, airing his long-standing grievances about Ukraine, which mixed legitimate efforts by some Ukrainians to back his Democratic 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, with unsupported accusations and outright conspiracy theories about the country.
The paper said that the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had also spent months stoking the president’s paranoia about the US ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, alleging that she was openly anti-Trump and should be dismissed.
In his August 2019 discussion with Bolton, the newspaper said Trump appeared focused on the theories Giuliani had shared with him and had replied to Bolton’s question that he preferred sending no assistance to Ukraine until officials had turned over all materials they had about the investigation that related to Biden and supporters of Clinton in Ukraine.