NEW YORK (AP) - Democrats on Friday denounced a plan by President Donald Trump's personal attorney to push Ukraine to open investigations that he hopes could benefit Trump politically, decrying it as an overt attempt to recruit foreign help to influence a U.S. election.
Rudy Giuliani said he would to travel to Kiev in the coming days to urge the Ukrainian government to conduct a pair of investigations: one on the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller's recently concluded investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the other on the involvement of former Vice President Joe Biden's son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
Giuliani's plan seemed poised to create an unprecedented moment, that of the lawyer of the president of the United States seeking foreign assistance in damaging his political rivals. To Democrats, it was a blatant evocation of Russia's meddling on behalf of Trump when he defeated Hillary Clinton.
"It's stunning that the Trump administration is going down the same tragic path they did in 2016 seeking help from a foreign government again to influence an American presidential election. It's appalling," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who chairs the House intelligence committee. He said Trump allies were indicating, "'We're going to do everything short of what's downright criminal. Ethics don't matter. Patriotism doesn't matter.'"
Giuliani, a former New York City mayor who often acted as a smokescreen for Trump during the Mueller probe, pushed back against the criticism.
"Explain to me why Biden shouldn't be investigated if his son got millions from a Russian loving crooked Ukrainian oligarch while He was VP and point man for Ukraine," Giuliani tweeted at Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who criticized him. "Ukrainians are investigating and your fellow Dems are interfering. Election is 17 months away. Let's answer it now."
Giuliani's trip, which was first reported by The New York Times, will be the most high-profile effort yet by Republicans to call attention to growing talking points in conservative circles. They are trying to undermine the special counsel's investigation, call into question the case against Paul Manafort, Trump's imprisoned former campaign chairman, and wound Biden, the early Democratic front-runner in the 2020 presidential race.
Trump and Giuliani have urged scrutiny of Hunter Biden and have raised questions about whether the former vice president helped oust a Ukrainian prosecutor whose office was investigating the oligarch whose company paid his son. Some Trump allies have suggested they can tarnish Biden with questions about corruption, founded or not, much like they did to Clinton in 2016.
Giuliani has said he updated the president about his findings on Ukraine, a nation deeply reliant on the Trump administration for U.S. military and financial aid.
"I'm hearing it's a major scandal, major problem," Trump said on Fox News recently. "I hope for (Biden) it is fake news. I don't think it is."
The Biden campaign has denied that the candidate or his son did anything improper.
The president has also tried to push claims that Ukrainian officials tried to help Clinton by focusing attention on Manafort's business in Ukraine. That attention forced Manafort to resign from the campaign, and he was later convicted of financial crimes and sentenced to prison. Ukrainian officials have denied involvement, but Trump has latched onto the idea that Kiev "colluded" with Democrats and that the origins of Mueller's probe were fraudulent.
Meanwhile, the president's re-election campaign distanced itself from Giuliani's efforts, saying it had nothing to do with the lawyer's inquiry. Giuliani himself downplayed, sort of, questions about whether what he was doing was inappropriate.
"We're not meddling in an election, we're meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do," Giuliani told The Times. "There's nothing illegal about it. Somebody could say it's improper."
But it could trigger uncomfortable questions about foreign entanglements for the White House, which is still grappling with the aftermath of the special counsel probe.
"We've come to a very sorry state when it is considered OK for an American politician, never mind an attorney for the president, to go and seek foreign intervention in American politics," Rep. Jerrod Nadler, D-N.Y., the head of the House Judiciary Committee, said to CNN on Friday.
Mueller did not conclude that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and did not determine whether or not Trump obstructed justice.
But House Democrats are pushing the inquiry further on a number of fronts, including issuing subpoenas for the probe's witnesses and documents. Trump this week announced that he would invoke executive privilege to shield the material, certain to prompt a lengthy legal fight.
Throughout the investigation, Giuliani attacked Mueller's credibility and often tried to change the public discourse by advancing conspiracy theories about the special counsel or Democratic investigators. In the probe's final days, he began to zero in on the possible Ukraine connection.
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Padmananda Rama contributed reporting from Washington.