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Members Of Congress Question Trump's Discussion With Ukraine's President

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What did President Trump say to the Ukrainian president? And what did they agree to, if anything? Those are the big questions following a whistleblower complaint that the intelligence community inspector general has deemed, quote, "credible and urgent."

According to President Trump, his phone call with Ukraine's president was, quote, "absolutely perfect." At the same time, Trump acknowledges that, in that conversation, he brought up allegations of corruption against political rival Joe Biden and Biden's son, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company in the past.

We should note there is no evidence to support those allegations against the former vice president or his son. Here's how President Trump characterized his phone call with Ukraine's leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption - all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating - to the corruption already in the Ukraine.

MARTIN: Congress would like to see a transcript of that phone call. And Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is refusing to release the whistleblower complaint to Congress despite being subpoenaed to do so. He has agreed, though, to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Representative Joaquin Castro is a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: Yes. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Thank you for being here. So The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, in that one phone conversation between President Trump and Ukraine's president, President Trump brought up Joe Biden's son about eight times. Biden, vice - former Vice President Joe Biden called this an abuse of power. How do you characterize that?

CASTRO: Well, of course, I can't speak to what's been told to the committee so far, but President Trump has essentially admitted that he spoke to the Ukrainians about Vice President Biden and, likely, his son. And if, in fact, he was pressuring the Ukrainian president to open an investigation on the former vice president, Vice President Biden, that's an incredible abuse of power - a sitting president trying to basically force another president of another country to go after a political rival. That by itself - putting aside any other instances of obstruction of justice, any other things that may have led to an impeachment inquiry, that by itself is worthy of impeachment.

MARTIN: So the issue, though, is whether or not there was pressure applied. President Trump maintains that even if he had brought up - he admits that he did bring up - and asked Ukraine's leader to investigate these allegations, but that there is no evidence that any pressure was applied. Even if...

CASTRO: Oh, I would...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

CASTRO: Sure. And I would point out that raising the issue eight times personally is pressure by itself because for the Ukraine, the United States is a lifeblood for them. The United States is critical in their protection against Russia. And so a U.S. president eight times making this request about a political rival, that by itself is pressure.

MARTIN: We know U.S. military aid to Ukraine was delayed. And the concern here is that there could have been some kind of extortion. Have you or the committee pursued an explanation as to why that aid was delayed?

CASTRO: I'm hopeful that, in the end, we'll get all of this information. I would imagine that it may extend - that jurisdiction may extend beyond the intelligence committee. But we have to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. And as Speaker Pelosi sent out the message yesterday to the members of Congress, we expect to hear from the whistleblower and see that whistleblower report directly.

MARTIN: How do you know if that's going to happen? The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, will testify before your committee, but how do you know if he's going to give you the information that you need?

CASTRO: You're right. I mean, so far, we don't know what Mr. Maguire's response is going to be. You know, he has said that he believes that it's outside of the jurisdiction of the director of national intelligence or of the inspector general for that department. And so it may...

MARTIN: If he's not being forthcoming, what do you do? If he's not forthcoming, what's your recourse?

CASTRO: Well, she gave him a deadline of Thursday. If he's not forthcoming, I think we should start impeachment on Friday before we leave town.

MARTIN: Congressman Joaquin Castro, thank you so much for your time.

CASTRO: Thank you.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was listening in on that. So Mara, you heard the congressman there. He thinks if the committee doesn't get the whistleblower complaint by Thursday, he wants to start impeachment proceedings on Friday. This is something that the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has been loath to do.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yes, she has been loath to do it because she has said that the requirement for impeachment is there has to be bipartisan public support on it because you'd have to have the Senate, Republicans in the Senate, agree to move forward on removal if the president was impeached. That hasn't happened yet. She did say in her statement this is a grave new chapter of lawlessness.

And you just heard Congressman Castro say the kind of trip wire for this, if they - is if they won't turn over the whistleblower report. The law requires that those reports be given to Congress. So far, the administration has refused. So I think you are going to hear more and more calls for impeachment, especially if the administration continues to stonewall on that.

MARTIN: Where are Republicans? Is this moving anything for them? I mean, Mitt Romney at least tweeted out that this was of concern to him.

LIASSON: Right. The Republicans have been mostly silent. Romney's tweet said, if the president asked directly or indirectly Ukraine to investigate a political rival, it would be, quote, "troubling in the extreme." That's probably about as far as Republicans have gone right now. But so far, they have not broken with the president.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, what's he saying?

LIASSON: Joe Biden has been saying that the president did this to smear him, and he's afraid of being beat by Biden in the 2020 election.

MARTIN: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.