Washington – When Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., visited President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this month in Kiev, they said they were surprised the Ukrainian leader began the meeting without the normal pleasantries, immediately raising concerns about the delay of $250 million in U.S. military aid.
Murphy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee as well the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised he’d do what he could to get the money. Zelensky also complained to the senators about U.S. pressure to investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Murphy was unaware at the time that President Donald Trump had already called Zelensky about Hunter Biden and other matters, and learning it last weekend has changed the political calculus for the Connecticut senator. He said Monday he is rethinking his stance on impeachment.
At the time he spoke with Zelensky in September, Murphy said, the Ukrainians were resisting the pressure from Washington.
“They said they have no inclination in getting involved in an American election,” Murphy said at a joint press conference in the U.S. Capitol with Johnson earlier this month.
Since then, a whistleblower has said Trump made an “inappropriate’ phone call to Zelensky on July 25, weeks before the senators’ meeting, a complaint that has exploded into a white-hot political scandal here, touched off Democratic calls for an investigation of the matter and fueled new calls for an impeachment of the president.
Murphy said he has been opposed to impeaching the president, in part because he says he’s uncomfortable with a member of the Senate telling the U.S House what to do “although some of my colleagues have.” The House is the chamber responsible for determining whether there are grounds for impeachment and sending charges to the U.S. Senate.
But at a press conference in Hartford on Monday, Murphy said “this weekend’s disclosures make the gravity of the situation” more clear and have caused him to rethink his position on an appropriate response from Congress.
“I just think the president is daring this country to keep him in check,” Murphy said. “He acts with impunity.”
Murphy also said “the president is openly admitting to asking a foreign government to interfere in an election.”
“This is unacceptable in a democracy,” he said.
Trump denies any wrongdoing and says all focus should be on “corruption” in Ukraine and on Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
“Now the Fake News Media says I ‘pressured the Ukrainian President at least 8 times during my telephone call with him.’ This supposedly comes from a so-called ‘whistleblower’ who they say doesn’t even have a first hand account of what was said,” Trump tweeted Sunday.
House Democrats on Monday morning said they were nearing a a “tipping point” on impeachment in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to block the whistleblower complaint from being released to Congress and the president’s admission that he discussed the Bidens in his phone call with Zelensky.
Democrats who have so far resisted calls for impeachment are telling colleagues privately they are prepared to announce their support for impeachment proceedings.
While Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th Distric, like Murphy has said she’s rethinking her position, only one Connecticut lawmaker, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, has publicly supported an impeachment inquiry.
Members of the House Intelligence Committee, of which Himes is a member, received a briefing last week from the intelligence community’s inspector general but did not receive information about the contents of the whistleblower’s complaint. Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to provide the information.
Murphy said that during his visit to Ukraine, he was unaware the president had directly raised the issue with Zelensky of an investigation into the Bidens.
He said he had spoken to officials in the U.S. Embassy in Kiev who told him they knew nothing about the holding back of military aid to Ukraine – aid that was released shortly after the whistleblower made his allegations– or about pressing for an investigation into the Bidens.
But Murphy said he now thinks “it’s possible the State Department is involved in the conspiracy.”
Murphy also said there doesn’t need to be a quid pro quo, that Trump did not have to use the $250 million in military aid, as leverage to pressure Ukraine to act on his wishes for the conversation to be troubling.
“There is an implicit threat in every demand that a president makes of another country, especially one so dependent on us as Ukraine,” Murphy said.
Other than press the House to act, there is little Murphy can do to investigate the Ukrainian scandal. The GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to delve into the president’s conduct, although the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to interview Maguire behind closed doors this week.
The Democratic-led U.S. House has begun three investigations. On Thursday, there will be a public hearing in the House Intelligence Committee to question Maguire and press him on the disclosure of the whistleblower’s complaint.