ROCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden called for the impeachment of his potential 2020 election foe Donald Trump for the first time on Wednesday, in a deepening partisan fight over a congressional investigation of the Republican president.
Biden, who is at the center of a controversy over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that led congressional Democrats to open an impeachment inquiry, had so far refrained from making an outright plea for impeachment.
Trump continued to paint the probe as a partisan smear, and accused the U.S. intelligence officer who filed the whistleblower complaint that sparked the furor of having political motives.
During a campaign stop in New Hampshire, the Democratic front-runner to face Trump in the November 2020 presidential election, took the gloves off.
“With his words and his actions, President Trump has indicted himself. By obstructing justice, refusing to reply with a congressional inquiry, he’s already convicted himself,” Biden said. “In full view of the world and the American people, Donald Trump has violated his oath of office, betrayed this nation and committed impeachable acts.”
“To preserve our Constitution, our democracy, our basic integrity, he should be impeached.”
Biden’s comment set off a duel with Trump on Twitter, one of the president’s preferred rhetorical battlegrounds.
“So pathetic to see Sleepy Joe Biden, who with his son, Hunter, and to the detriment of the American Taxpayer, has ripped off at least two countries for millions of dollars, calling for my impeachment – and I did nothing wrong,” Trump wrote.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against Trump last month over his attempts to have Ukraine’s president investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Despite Trump’s allegations, which he made without evidence, that Biden engaged in improper dealings in Ukraine, there are few signs the controversy has damaged the Democratic former vice president’s 2020 prospects.
Public opinion polls, including those taken by Reuters/Ipsos, have shown Biden’s support remaining relatively stable.
WHISTLEBLOWER’S LAWYERS RESPOND
Trump on Wednesday again described the inquiry as a partisan attack.
“It turns out that the whistleblower is a Democrat, strong Democrat, and is working with one of my opponents as a Democrat,” Trump told reporters.
Lawyers for the whistleblower responded in a statement, denying that political factors had influenced the complaint.
“Our client has never worked for or advised a political candidate, campaign or party,” they said in a statement. “Our client has spent their entire government career in apolitical, civil servant positions.”
The day after the White House declared its refusal to cooperate with the impeachment probe, Trump added that he would respond if House Democrats “give us our rights.”
The three congressional committees leading the inquiry were working on final arrangements on Wednesday to interview the whistleblower.
The State Department this week abruptly blocked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who had been in touch with Ukrainian officials on Trump’s behalf from speaking to the inquiry.
The investigation is focused on whether Trump used almost $400 million in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to begin an investigation of the Bidens.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and defended a July 25 phone call to Zelenskiy.
Trump is expected to boost his legal team, having approached former Republican U.S. Representative Trey Gowdy to serve as counsel amid the impeachment fight, a source told Reuters.
Most Democrats want to impeach Trump, even if that means weakening their party’s chances of winning back the White House in 2020, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.
The poll, conducted on Monday and Tuesday, found that 55% of Democrats said their party leaders should press ahead with impeachment even “if it means a lengthy and expensive process that could weaken their chances of winning the presidency in 2020.”
An even higher number – 66% of Democrats – agreed that Congress should pursue impeachment, “even if that means they will need to postpone efforts to pass laws that could benefit me.”
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Richard Cowan, Mark Hosenball, Karen Freifeld, Susan Heavey and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell and Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney