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Amid whistleblower reports, what’s the state of U.S.-Ukraine relations?

Reports of a whistleblower complaint that might involve President Trump, potentially related to his conversations with the president of Ukraine, have raised myriad questions. Yamiche Alcindor has the latest details, and for a look at the geopolitical angle of the story, Judy Woodruff speaks to Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center, an independent, non-partisan research institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The explosive reports of a whistle-blower complaint against President Trump is raising more questions than answers.

    Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage of this fast-moving story.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A mysterious whistle-blower, and a president on defense. Today, President Trump was insistent, any communications between him and foreign leaders are strictly above-aboard.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have conversations with many leaders. They're always appropriate, always appropriate, at the highest level, always appropriate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sitting next to Australia's prime minister in the Oval Office, he dismissed a complaint by an intelligence community whistle-blower reportedly aimed at him.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's just another political hack job. That's all it is.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The Washington Post and New York Times have reported the complaint involves the president's communications with an unspecified foreign leader and other actions, and centers on Ukraine.

    It is public record that, on July 25, the president spoke on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That was two weeks before the whistle-blower complaint was filed.

    Today, new reports surfaced that President Trump repeatedly pressed Zelensky to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. The president wanted Hunter Biden's dealings with a Ukrainian gas firm investigated, in a bid to aid the Trump reelection campaign.

    Biden's father, former Vice President Joe Biden, is a potential 2020 challenger to President Trump.

    On CNN last night, Giuliani first denied it, then admitted it.

  • Chris Cuomo:

    Did you to ask the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

  • Rudy Giuliani:

    No. Actually, I didn't.

  • Chris Cuomo:

    So, you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?

  • Rudy Giuliani:

    Of course I did.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Giuliani eventually said the president had no knowledge of his actions.

    But the administration has blocked access to the whistle-blower's complaint, setting up a standoff with Congress. In letters released Thursday, the intelligence community inspector general called it an urgent concern related to serious or flagrant abuse that he said should be given to lawmakers.

    Michael Atkinson also testified behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee, but he said he was barred from revealing the substance of the whistle-blower's complaint.

    Committee chair, Democrat Adam Schiff, said he may sue to access it.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Given the inspector general said this is urgent, it can't wait.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In a statement today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said all of this raises — quote — "grave, urgent concerns for our national security."

    Those concerns will get an airing next week. On Wednesday, President Trump is scheduled to meet with President Zelensky. The next day, Acting Director of National intelligence Joseph Maguire is set to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To provide insight on how the Ukrainian government is factoring into all of this, I'm joined by Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center, an independent nonpartisan research institute.

    Nina Jankowicz, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So now we have this new information, The Wall Street Journal reporting that President Trump repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son.

    What is the Ukrainian government saying?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    The Ukrainian government has been very deft in their avoidance of this issue, which I think is intentional. They're trying to kind of walk a thin line of not really upsetting anyone in the Trump administration or a potential next president.

    And in a readout of a call — the call from July 25, they said that President Trump discussed anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine that have been stalling U.S.-Ukrainian relations, perhaps a nod to this scandal that has come up recently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could be seen as a reference to that.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Mm-hmm.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what are — so, if the government is not commenting officially, what are people around his administration saying?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, I think anti-corruption activists in Ukraine, which represent a very strong and vibrant portion of civil society, are saying, you know — they are pretty bemused that Viktor Shokin, this prosecutor general who was involved in this scandal, is being championed by Rudy Giuliani and the Trump administration as some sort of anti-corruption crusader.

    Actually, he was an obstacle to anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, and the fact that the Trump administration is trying to paint this as a sacking for Hunter Biden's own protection is just not really ringing true with the Ukrainians who are closest to the material.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's what I wanted to ask you about, because the president, President Trump, keeps saying the news media needs to investigate what this prosecutor — what happened with regard to this prosecutor.

    And you're saying people there don't see there is anything to that.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right. Right. They say that claim doesn't hold water, that Joe Biden asked former President Poroshenko to fire Viktor Shokin in order to protect his son.

    Actually, these anti-corruption activists are saying, by firing Viktor Shokin, Biden was almost certainly inviting more investigation into his son, because this former prosecutor had been stonewalling anti-corruption investigations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So the plot thickens.

    And, meantime, Nina Jankowicz, there's this question of the fact that these conversations between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine were taking place around the same time the administration was about to say it was going to deliver foreign aid to Ukraine.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How does that factor into all this?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, the delivery of military assistance to Ukraine was one of the Ukrainian government's top diplomatic priorities over the past five years.

    As a reminder, there is a hot war on in Europe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Ukraine has been resisting Russian aggression for the past five years. And this military assistance is very much needed and very important to Ukraine.

    The fact that, over the past couple of weeks, it was frozen, for reasons unknown to the Ukrainian government, not related to any reform efforts, seemingly out of the blue, was really seen as a shock in Kiev.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So does this — what we're learning today and yesterday, is that — are people now putting some puzzle pieces together, and to suggest that there's a connection?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, absolutely.

    It seems like maybe the Trump administration was considering withholding this aid in order to pressure the Zelensky administration into opening or reopening this investigation into Biden and the company, the gas company, that he was working with.

    And that's extremely troubling to me, because Ukraine is a democratic beacon for millions of people in the former Soviet space. They just had a very historic election in the spring, in which Russians were saying, when are we going to have an election like that? And we should be supporting this new administration, building bridges with them, not burning it down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, what is the overall impression of President Trump among Ukrainians at the high levels there?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    I think it's confusion. It's one of confusion.

    On the one hand, he has delivered this military assistance package that for a long time the Ukrainian administration could not get under President Obama. But, on the other hand, they have these crazy mixed signals coming from the president's personal lawyer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's quite a story, and we're going to continue to follow it. And I know you're going to continue to as well.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nina Jankowicz, thank you so much.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Thanks for having me.

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