Republican U.S. Susan Collins and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King offered measured responses to more explosive allegations that President Donald Trump abused his office for political gain and that White House officials attempted to hide it.
The controversy, now the subject of a looming impeachment inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives, centers on events surrounding a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. In a reconstruction of the call released by the White House Wednesday, the president asked the newly elected Ukrainian president to look into dealings by Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is hoping to unseat Trump in 2020.
An unnamed whistleblower sounded an alarm about the call in an official complaint that was released for the first time Thursday. It had previously been the subject of press reports that focused on whether the president requested a foreign government to assist his reelection bid in exchange for releasing $391 million in aid to Ukraine, a key trans-Atlantic ally threatened by aggression from Russia.
The whistleblower’s 7-page complaint alleges that the president pushed Zelensky to investigate his political rival and his son, while withholding the aid.
The whistleblower, citing accounts from several White House officials, also alleged that the president’s aides were so concerned by the July 25 phone call that they took steps to hide the full transcript of the exchange.
The complaint also alleges that U.S. Attorney General William Barr was involed in the misconduct.
“After reading the abridged summary of the Ukraine phone call released by the White House and the whistleblower complaint, it is clear to me that this is a matter of serious concern,” King said in a statement.
“That is why the House must conduct a thorough and transparent inquiry to collect all evidence, free of interference from any of the Administration officials who may have been involved – including Attorney General Bill Barr, who should recuse himself from this process.”
Collins, who sits with King on the Senate Intelligence Committee, focused on comments Trump made during a private gathering at the United Nations in which he said that the whistleblower is a spy and a traitor.
“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” he said, according to a recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Collins, responding to reporters at the Capitol Thursday, said the president’s remarks were a “gross mischaracterization of whistleblowers.”
“Whistleblowers have been essential in bringing to the public’s attention wrongdoings, fraud, waste, abuse, law breaking, and I very much disagree with the president’s mischaracterization,” she said.
Collins, who is facing reelection in 2020, has not commented directly about the House decision this week to launch an impeachment inquiry, while King previously announced that he supports the inquiry. She has attributed her reluctance to address the steady stream of new developments to the fact that the Senate is responsible for voting to remove the president if the House inquiry recommends impeachment.
She has compared her role to that of a potential juror.
Senate Republicans have taken different tacks to the allegations. Some have defended the president, while others have said they need more information before commenting on his alleged conduct.
As members of the intelligence committee, Collins and King both heard closed testimony from acting intelligence chief Joseph Macguire. Macguire was grilled in open session by the House Intelligence Committee Thursday about his delay in turning over the whistleblower complaint to Congress.
Neither Collins nor King could address specifics of the closed session, but Collins said in a statement that she believes that the intelligence community’s inspector general has the legal authority to investigate the whistleblower’s complaint.
Thursday’s developments came as a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds Americans are split 49%-46% over the impeachment inquiry.
The poll was taken before Thursday’s release of the whistleblower complaint and on the evening that the White House reconstruction of the July 25 telephone call was made public.
The poll results contrast to a survey commissioned by NPR and PBS NewsHour in April suggesting that impeachment could backfire on Democrats.
Originally published 8:56 p.m. Sept. 26, 2019