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Trump continues to defend his communications with Ukraine leader

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel during the United Nations General Assembly on Monday in Manhattan. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump kicked off three days of meetings with world leaders at the United Nations on Monday by continuing to defend his communications with the president of Ukraine, amid reports that Trump pressed Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.

Trump, in tweets dispatched shortly after arriving at the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan for the annual UN General Assembly, and in remarks to reporters, said there was nothing improper about his July 25 phone call with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The president told reporters he did not threaten to withhold foreign aid to Ukraine if Zelensky did not comply with his reported requests to investigate the Bidens, but added it would “possibly have been OK if I did.”

"I did not make a statement that you have to do this or I’m not going to give you aid," Trump told reporters ahead of a series of one-on-one meetings with world leaders, when asked about the call.

Trump’s call with Zelensky is reportedly the source of a whistleblower complaint filed by a U.S. intelligence official last month that has set off a fight between congressional Democrats and Trump administration officials over access to the complaint and transcripts of the call.

Trump, in a pair of tweets questioned “who is this so-called ‘whistleblower.’”

Asked about reports in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal that indicate Trump pressed Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, Trump said he was seeking “honesty” from Zelensky. The call came as the White House was withholding $250 million in foreign aid previously promised to Ukraine.

"We’re supporting a country. We want to make sure that country’s honest," Trump said. "It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country you think is corrupt?"

Trump has sought to cast a cloud over Hunter Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father served as vice president, but Ukraine’s current prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, has said there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

Biden, the front-runner among Democrats looking to challenge Trump in 2020, has argued that Trump is using “every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me.” Biden has said he and his son never discussed his business dealings.

On Monday, responding to one of Trump's tweets denying wrongdoing, Biden tweeted: "So release the transcript of the call then."

On Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats intensified their calls for an investigation into the whistleblower complaint, arguing it would be unlawful if the president was found to have used his office to press a foreign power for political dirt on an opponent.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), called on Senate Republicans to open a hearing, and demanded the White House release transcripts of the call. The chairmen of the House intelligence, foreign affairs and oversight committees in a joint statement threatened to subpoena the Trump administration to force the release of documents related to Trump's communications with Ukraine.

Congressional Democrats have said that by law the complaint should have been released to the House and Senate Intelligence committees weeks ago, but acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has withheld the complaint and all corresponding information, citing concerns about sensitive information contained within the complaint. Maguire is scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

Schumer in a letter sent Monday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wrote: “In the face of this dire warning and the Trump Administration’s effort to cover it up, the Republican-led Senate has remained silent and submissive, shying away from this institution’s constitutional obligation to conduct oversight.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest allies, called on Trump “to continue to be as transparent as possible and tell us as much as he can without compromising executive privilege, so that we can understand what happened.”

Graham, appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s conservative radio talk show on Monday said he believed Trump “is going to blow you away with his willingness to disclose and be transparent about this phone call, because I think he did nothing wrong, and he has nothing to hide.”

Trump, on Sunday said he would consider releasing the transcript, before raising concerns that it would prevent future leaders from being candid in their discussions with him.

The uproar over Trump’s call came as he prepared to discuss a number of his top foreign policy concerns with other world leaders, including tensions with Iran and his effort to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

On Monday, Trump attended the UN’s Climate Action Summit, a gathering of heads of state that he was initially expected to skip. Trump, sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence and new UN Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft, listened briefly as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a call to action.

The president remained at the gathering for about 15 minutes, before leaving to headline a forum on religious freedom he scheduled for the same time as the climate meeting.

Reading from prepared remarks, Trump called for “the world to end religious persecution.”

“Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution, to stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience, repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief, protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed,” Trump said. “America stands with believers in every country.”

Trump said the United States will commit $25 million in federal funding "to protect religious freedom, sites and relics.”

Trump on Monday was also met one-on-one with the leaders of Pakistan, Poland, New Zealand, Egypt, South Korea and Singapore.

Speaking at the top of a meeting with Pakistani President Imran Khan, Trump offered to serve as a mediator between Pakistan and India as the two nations continue to fight over their claims to Kashmir.

Khan told Trump: ““We look to the U.S. to put out flames in the world.”

Trump is scheduled to address the General Assembly on Tuesday morning. He told reporters on Monday the speech would focus heavily on Iran, which the U.S. blames for recent strikes on Saudi oil facilities. Iran has denied any involvement.

“We have a lot of pressure on them now,” Trump said.

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