By Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
UNITED NATIONS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he has authorized the release of a transcript of his phone call with Ukraine's president that is at the center of a growing controversy over whether he sought foreign help in smearing a political rival as support surged among Democrats to pursue impeachment.
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The Washington Post reported that House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi would announce a formal impeachment inquiry later in the day. Pelosi is scheduled to make a public statement at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT).
During an appearance at an event sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, Pelosi declined to say what action she planned, but told the audience, "It's absolutely, absolutely essential that the president be held accountable. No one is above the law."
A Republican, Trump on Tuesday confirmed he had withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine but denied he did so as leverage to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to initiate an investigation that would damage Joe Biden, the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
In Washington, Pelosi was meeting with fellow Democratic lawmakers to consider impeachment of the president, who has withstood repeated scandals since taking office in January 2017.
In a Twitter post, Trump said a "complete, fully declassified and unredacted" transcript of the July 25 call would be released on Wednesday.
Trump said the transcript would show the call was "totally appropriate," that he had not pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and that there had been no "quid pro quo" for U.S. aid in exchange for a probe. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning a favor that is exchanged for a favor.
Trump has produced no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
In remarks to reporters over the intensifying controversy, Trump indicated there was nothing sinister about withholding the aid but that he wanted Europe and not just the United States to step up and provide Ukraine assistance.
The money was later released by the Trump administration.
In a public statement set for later in the day, Biden will call on Congress to impeach Trump if the president does not comply with congressional requests for information on Ukraine and other matters, a spokesman for the former U.S. vice president said.
Trump is seeking re-election in November 2020.
Trump on Sunday acknowledged that he had discussed Biden and Biden's son Hunter, who had worked for a company drilling for gas in Ukraine, with Zelenskiy.
But Trump on Monday denied trying to coerce Zelenskiy in the phone call to launch a corruption investigation into Biden and his son in return for the U.S. military aid.
WANTED MONEY FROZEN
Arriving at the United Nations before his speech to the annual General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump confirmed that he had wanted the money for Ukraine frozen, saying European countries should provide assistance to Kiev, but changed his mind after "people called me."
The United States has been providing military aid to Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. The $391.5 million in aid at issue in the current controversy was approved by the U.S. Congress to assist Ukraine in dealing with an insurgency by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
Trump's explanation for withholding the aid differed from one he offered a day earlier when he said, referring to Ukraine, "We want to make sure that country is honest," and "Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"
About the call itself, Trump told reporters on Tuesday: "…when you see the readout of the call, which I assume you'll see at some point, you'll understand. That call was perfect. It couldn't have been nicer."
The controversy came to light after a whistleblower from within the U.S. intelligence community lodged a complaint with an internal watchdog about Trump's conversation with Zelenskiy, leading to calls from some Democrats that Trump be impeached for trying to enlist a foreign power to smear a domestic opponent.
U.S. intelligence agencies and a special counsel previously concluded that Russia boosted Trump's 2016 presidential election bid with a campaign of hacking and propaganda aimed at harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Congress had not been made aware of any substantive review of security assistance to Ukraine or any policy reason the funds should have been withheld.
In a letter to Mike Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Menendez said "it is becoming clear that" Trump put pressure on Ukrainian officials.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House has the power to impeach a president for "high crimes and misdemeanors" and the Senate then holds a trial on whether to remove the president from office. No president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Democrats currently control the House and Republicans control the Senate.
A House committee has already launched a formal impeachment probe of Trump in light of his actions in the Russia matter but the impeachment drive never won the support of key party figures including Pelosi.
Trump accused Democrats of considering impeachment for purely political reasons.
"I'm leading in the polls. They have no idea how they stop me. The only way they can try is through impeachment," Trump said at the United Nations, although opinion polls show Biden actually leading Trump.
Three House committees wrote to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone saying they wold issue a subpoena if documents related to Trump's dealings with Ukraine are not turned over by Thursday.
In his letter, Menendez noted that the U.S. State and Defense Departments recommended and prepared to distribute in late June $391.5 million in military and security assistance to boost Ukraine's armed forces as the country dealt with Russian aggression and sought to improve maritime security in the Black Sea.
However, weeks before Trump's call with Zelenskiy, OMB blocked the aid, Menendez said in the letter to Mulvaney.
Joseph Maguire, acting U.S. director of national intelligence, is defying a federal law mandating that the whistleblower report be shared with Congress. Maguire is due to testify at a public House intelligence committee hearing on Thursday.
House committees have called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to produce documents related to contacts between Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Ukrainian officials.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Steve Holland at the United Nations; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell and Howard Goller)