WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump urged the new leader of Ukraine this summer to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a person familiar with the matter said Friday. Democrats condemned what they saw as a clear effort to damage a political rival, now at the heart of an explosive whistleblower complaint against Trump.
It was the latest revelation in an escalating controversy that has created a showdown between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration, which has refused to turn over the formal complaint by a national security official or even describe its contents.
Trump defended himself Friday against the intelligence official's complaint, angrily declaring it came from a "partisan whistleblower," though he also said he didn't know who had made it. The complaint was based on a series of events, one of which was a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, according to a two people familiar with the matter. The people were not authorized to discuss the issue by name and were granted anonymity.
Trump, in that call, urged Zelenskiy to probe the activities of potential Democratic rival Biden's son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian gas company, according to one of the people, who was briefed on the call. Trump did not raise the issue of U.S. aid to Ukraine, indicating there was not an explicit quid pro quo, according to the person.
Biden reacted strongly late Friday, saying that if the reports are true, "then there is truly no bottom to President Trump's willingness to abuse his power and abase our country." He said Trump should release the transcript of his July phone conversation with Zelenskiy "so that the American people can judge for themselves."
The government's intelligence inspector general has described the whistleblower's Aug. 12 complaint as "serious" and "urgent." But Trump dismissed it all Friday, insisting "it's nothing." He scolded reporters for asking about it and said it was "just another political hack job."
"I have conversations with many leaders. It's always appropriate. Always appropriate," Trump said. "At the highest level always appropriate. And anything I do, I fight for this country."
Trump, who took questions in the Oval Office alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he was hosting for a state visit, was asked if he knew if the whistleblower's complaint centered on his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy. The president responded, "I really don't know," but he continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was "perfectly fine and respectful."
Trump was asked Friday if he brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy, and he answered, "It doesn't matter what I discussed." But then he used the moment to urge the media "to look into" Biden's background with Ukraine.
Trump and Zelenskiy are to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations next week. The Wall Street Journal first reported that Trump pressed Zelenskiy about Biden.
The standoff with Congress raises fresh questions about the extent to which Trump's appointees are protecting the Republican president from oversight and, specifically, whether his new acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is working with the Justice Department to shield the president.
Democrats say the administration is legally required to give Congress access to the whistleblower's complaint, and Rep. Adam Schiff of California has said he will go to court in an effort to get it if necessary.
The intelligence community's inspector general said the matter involves the "most significant" responsibilities of intelligence leadership.
House Democrats also are fighting the administration for access to witnesses and documents in impeachment probes.
In the whistleblower case, lawmakers are looking into whether Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure the government to aid the president's reelection effort by investigating the activities of Biden's son.
During a rambling interview Thursday on CNN, Giuliani was asked whether he had asked Ukraine to look into Biden. He initially said, "No, actually I didn't," but seconds later he said, "Of course I did."
Giuliani has spent months trying to drum up potentially damaging evidence about Biden's ties to Ukraine. He told CNN that Trump was unaware of his actions.
"I did what I did on my own," he said. "I told him about it afterward.
Still later, Giuliani tweeted, "A President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job." Democrats have contended that Trump, in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, may have asked for foreign assistance in his upcoming reelection bid.
Trump further stoked those concerns earlier this year in an interview when he suggested he would be open to receiving foreign help.
The inspector general appeared before the House intelligence committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal to members the substance of the complaint.
Schiff, a California Democrat, said Trump's attack on the whistleblower was disturbing and raised concerns that it would have a chilling effect on other potential exposers of wrongdoing. He also said it was "deeply disturbing" that the White House appeared to know more about the complaint than its intended recipient -- Congress.
The information "deserves a thorough investigation," Schiff said. "Come hell or high water, that's what we're going to do."
Among the materials Democrats have sought is a transcript of Trump's July 25 call with Zelenskiy. The call took place one day after Mueller's faltering testimony to Congress effectively ended the threat his probe posed to the White House. A readout of the call released from the Ukrainian government said Trump believed Kyiv could complete corruptions investigations that have hampered relations between the two nations but did not get into specifics.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who in May called for a probe of Giuliani's effort in Ukraine, said in an interview on Friday it's "outrageous" the president has been sending his political operative to talk to Ukraine's new president. Murphy tweeted that during his own visit it was clear to him that Ukraine officials were "worried about the consequences of ignoring Giuliani's demands."
The senator tweeted that he told Zelenskiy during their August visit it was "best to ignore requests from Trump's campaign operatives. He agreed."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump faces "serious repercussions" if reports about the complaint are accurate. She said it raises "grave, urgent concerns for our national security."
Letters to Congress from the inspector general make clear that Maguire consulted with the Justice Department in deciding not to transmit the complaint to Congress in a further departure from standard procedure. It's unclear whether the White House was also involved, Schiff said.
Maguire has refused to discuss details of the whistleblower complaint, but he has been subpoenaed by the House panel and is expected to testify publicly next Thursday. Maguire and the inspector general, Michael Atkinson, also are expected next week at the Senate intelligence committee.
Atkinson wrote in letters that Schiff released that he and Maguire had hit an "impasse" over the acting director's decision not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson said he was told by the legal counsel for the intelligence director that the complaint did not actually meet the definition of an "urgent concern." And he said the Justice Department said it did not fall under the director's jurisdiction because it did not involve an intelligence professional.
Atkinson said he disagreed with that Justice Department view. The complaint "not only falls under DNI's jurisdiction," Atkinson wrote, "but relates to one of the most significant and important of DNI's responsibilities to the American people."
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann, Eric Tucker, Alan Fram and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.
The biggest threat to children in the pews used to be boredom.
But some now say it might be the prospect of a gunman.
That’s why St. Columbkille Catholic Church in Papillion is arming volunteers for its weekly all-school worship hour, and will have off-duty law enforcement officers on watch.
They won’t be in uniform, so it’s not like children will pass through a gauntlet on their way to worship. Still, these volunteers will be carrying guns. Principal Brandi Redburn acknowledged the threat of a mass shooting at Mass was unlikely. But she said in a recent World-Herald story that it was real enough because of “the climate and culture that we’re in right now.”
It’s gotten so normal. The prospect of a gunman. The way we hunker down. Though mass shootings account for a fraction of gun deaths — most are attributed to suicide — they happen often enough and in the most everyday places that society flails.
We have stalemated over debate on the role played by the estimated 393 million guns in circulation. We have talked about mental health without really doing more to investigate the role illness might play or how best to deal with it, beyond “red flag” laws that take guns from dangerous people. We speculate about other potential factors, like video games or a community breakdown.
Meanwhile, we adapt to a macabre new normal. Bulletproof backpacks are now a thing. So are active shooter drills in schools. So is public training in basic battleground medicine. So are new school designs intended to make schools safer from gunmen.
Guards at church would seem to be another extension as houses of worship have been targeted: 11 killed at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year; 26 killed in First Baptist in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017; nine killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.
Churches are supposed to be places of refuge and hope, love and peace. To what degree is society willing to make them also fortresses? And what does it say about a free society if its symbols of solace, peace and help are under guard?
Besides those philosophical questions, what about the brass tacks of this added security, starting with who is going to be the so-called “good guy” with a gun?
The St. Columbkille program is using off-duty law enforcement officers. But some other local churches have used specially trained volunteers from the congregation.
Certainly law enforcement officers receive more training: 80 hours of firearms, 80 hours of legal classes that cover use of force, 40 hours on defensive tactics. Concealed-carry permit holders get “what amounts to an eight-hour class” on the basics, said Bill Keeling, who runs the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island.
Law enforcement officers have more responsibilities and are obligated to intervene. State law generally prohibits civilians from bringing firearms into church, but there are some exceptions that include advance permission.
Keeling is no stranger to the issue. His own church, Peace Lutheran in Grand Island, is using plainclothes armed guards at its services, and he sees the value in that.
“When I grew up,” he said, “the church doors were never locked. That’s not the case anymore. You really do have to worry about security plans and security teams. It’s unfortunate it’s coming to that.”
Bill Muldoon, a retired Omaha police officer who was head of that Nebraska law enforcement academy in Grand Island and now runs Sarpy County’s 911 center, cautioned that church security should be broader than someone with a gun. Security involves greeters being vigilant about someone or something out of place and having a plan “if the unspeakable happens.” And whoever is keeping watch with a weapon must know there’s a lot more to it than carrying a gun.
“There’s a lot that goes into the decision process,” said Muldoon, who used to bring his gun when attending Mass at his Catholic parish because he saw it as part of his responsibility to protect society, even when off the clock. “Once you pull the trigger, there’s no revoking that and changing your mind.”
He said the idea of just anyone bringing a gun into a public place makes him “real nervous.”
There are only so many off-duty cops to go around, and not everyone believes a person needs a law enforcement background to be a church guard.
Bellevue Police Lt. Jay Kirwan, who started the program that St. Columbkille has adapted for its purposes, said he couldn’t say officers are preferable given individual training backgrounds, personality differences and situations.
“It’s 99% mentality, mindset, decision-making and 1% what you’re going to do with a gun. Almost a human-being-versus-human-being characteristic that you can’t really predict,” he said.
Kirwan said knowing that a place has armed defenders can be a deterrent. And if they are in plainclothes, like the off-duty officers he trains for an in-school program he started called BADGE, then their presence is subtle and not distracting. The BADGE program, short for Brave Armed Defenders Guarding Education, allows off-duty officers to be armed in plainclothes in their children’s schools with permission.
The sight of armed guards outside church doors can be unsettling. Yaniv Azriel, 25 and now living in Chicago, said his Omaha synagogue added uniformed officers to worship service when he was in middle school. He called the armed presence “a double-edged sword.”
“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re with your family, with people of your own faith,” said Azriel, whose father, Aryeh, was rabbi at Temple Israel for 33 years, retiring in 2016. “It’s a jarring reminder that you could be fish in a barrel. I don’t know if it’s the right approach, but I think at this point it might be necessary.”
Azriel said Jews are especially targeted in hate crimes, and with what he sees as lax gun laws, “I don’t know how else you would feel totally safe without a police officer outside a synagogue. I don’t want it. But I feel like we need it.”
Kirwan said society doesn’t think twice about guarding jewelry stores and banks.
He said churches are soft targets and noted that his Catholic church in western Iowa now has “triage bags” in the event of a shooting. He said there was such interest in a tourniquet training program offered there that several dozen people showed up.
Sarpy County Sheriff Lt. Greg Monico, who is coordinating security at St. Columbkille, said the armed guards are part of a larger, layered security plan at the church that includes being vigilant. He said Kirwan’s program enables volunteers to be subtle and “keep things business as usual.”
“You don’t want to be so overt in your presence that you’re disrupting the main purpose of why the people came in the first place,” he said.
Not everyone wants to see a church guard. One secretary at a local Catholic parish spoke on the condition that she not be identified because the issue, she said, is so divisive. She said she’s totally against the idea of an armed presence at Mass.
A director of one house of worship asked me not to do the story at all, saying that it would only give a would-be shooter the idea. Parents at a recent girls volleyball game involving parochial school students said they felt that putting guards at Mass either invited trouble, or showed that society was succumbing to fear.
I attended a school Mass last week on 9/11. The anniversary hung heavy in the liturgy as the children prayed for first responders and national leaders and as they sang a poignant hymn, “Lord, make me a channel of your peace.”
Sitting in the pew these many years after that terrible day, I thought of how the bogeyman has changed. He’s not a hijacker or a terrorist from another country. Today, the person we fear is, most often, among us.
With few exceptions, he is some troubled young American man with ill intent. And a gun.
Mary Jochim says she grew up in a time when people went to downtown Papillion, not just through the downtown.
In March, Jochim, 68, started thinking about how Papillion could transform its downtown area into a space with the vibrancy of Omaha’s Old Market.
Then 10-year-old Abby Whitford died in August after being struck by a car in the suburban downtown, and suddenly, Jochim’s plan — to close off Washington Street (84th) and make it a pedestrian-only district — felt as urgent as ever.
“We’ve got to make people more important than cars,” said Jochim, a registered investment adviser in Omaha who grew up in Papillion.
She isn’t the only local with thoughts on how Papillion can make Washington Street safer for pedestrians.
After Abby’s death, 15 people called the Mayor’s Hotline with suggestions and concerns about the crosswalk. Dozens more posted their ideas on Facebook. The city collected those responses and summarized them in a document, a copy of which officials provided to The World-Herald.
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Papillion officials are reviewing the crosswalk and the speed of traffic to determine if changes are warranted. Trent Albers, Papillion’s spokesman, said all options are being considered.
“Obviously, the main goal is: We’ve got to do something to slow down traffic on 84th Street through downtown Papillion,” Albers said. “We’ve got to do what we can to make it safer for pedestrians.”
Some of the suggestions from the public are simple:
Install speed bumps, flashing red lights or a three-light signal at the intersection.
Put a pedestrian crossing sign in the middle of the road.
Make the intersection a roundabout.
One person offered an idea from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, where pedestrians are asked to take bright yellow flags from containers at crosswalks, wave the flags to catch drivers’ attention, carry them across the street and deposit them back in a container.
Jochim’s idea is much more than an offhand Facebook comment: She has a binder of documents, maps detailing alternate traffic routes and crude renderings showing how downtown Papillion can retain its charm while protecting its citizens.
Her plan essentially diverts traffic on 84th Street around downtown, creating a pedestrian-only district from First to Second Streets.
The crosswalk where Abby was struck is at Second and Washington.
In Jochim’s vision, that section of road is repaved with brick, as are the alleyways and areas behind downtown businesses. The whole area then becomes a town square in which pedestrians are free to walk, shop and dine without cars speeding by.
“(People) feel like we’re losing that downtown (vibe),” Jochim said. “Well, if it’s just the traffic, I thought, ‘Why not block off that one street, give it back to the people?’ ”
Jochim would call the new pedestrian space "Monarch Plaza." She also would change the name of First Street Plaza — the small area near First Street with shaded tables and a water feature — to "Abigail's Place."
Albers didn’t discuss the feasibility of specific ideas, including Jochim’s. He said the city will consider all public input, as well as ideas generated internally, as the city moves forward.
Jochim acknowledges that any change to Papillion’s downtown area will face challenges: Funding mechanisms, legal hurdles, competing political interests and the pace of how governments make decisions all will come into play.
Papillion, too, is at the mercy of red tape: 84th Street is a state-controlled road known as Highway 85.
The Nebraska Department of Transportation is working with the cities through which the highway runs — Ralston, La Vista and Papillion — to relinquish control to those municipalities. Until that happens, each must get state approval to make most changes to the road, including speed adjustments.
The Department of Transportation hopes to relinquish control in the first few months of 2020, said Drew Parks, a project delivery engineer for the Transportation Department’s district that includes Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
Relinquishment, Parks said, “gives them the ability to kind of manage and alter the signalization, the crosswalks — they can make those decisions independently.”
Jochim has no specific plan for how to get the city and the community on board with “Abigail’s Plaza.” She submitted documents to Mayor David Black’s office and has had conversations with law enforcement officers and others in the community.
Even if her specific plan for Papillion is never realized, Jochim said, she still wants to see change come to the intersection where Abby was killed; “see where some of the ripples go.”
The process won’t be easy, but that won’t deter her.
“I do not believe in impossibilities,” she said.