ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In July, President Trump reportedly pressured Ukraine's president to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has weighed in on the story. He resurfaced some old unproven allegations against Biden, who hopes to run against Trump for the presidency. All of this is raising questions. Did President Trump act illegally or improperly? Did his lawyer overstep any legal red lines?
NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been looking into that, and he's in the studio to sort through this with us. Hi.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: So let's start with the president's narrative about Biden. What can you tell us about this?
LUCAS: So what Trump and Giuliani have been alleging is that when Biden was vice president, he threatened to withhold loan guarantees from Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government fired a top prosecutor. Now, that prosecutor was investigating an energy company that Biden's son Hunter sat on the board of. Biden was point person for the Obama administration on Ukraine. It was U.S. government policy, though, that the prosecutor should go. Many other Western governments were pushing for his removal as well. That's important to say. No evidence has emerged to support these allegations at this point that Biden acted improperly or abused his position.
SHAPIRO: And explain what Rudy Giuliani's role in this is now.
LUCAS: So he's been the point person on this. I spoke with Giuliani this weekend. He says that he planned a trip to Ukraine this summer to meet with the new president and tell him that it would be good to get what he called the Biden investigation done.
SHAPIRO: As though there was such an investigation existing already.
LUCAS: There was, and then it had been called off. Now, Giuliani called off this meeting after word of it leaked. He instead met with a top adviser to the Ukrainian president in Spain this August. That meeting took place about a week after Trump spoke by phone with Ukraine's new president and allegedly pressured him to investigate Biden.
Giuliani says he gave the adviser information that he had gathered about Biden and told him he thought that it should be fully investigated. He said he didn't tell him what conclusion to come to. He says he didn't pressure him. And importantly, he says he did all of this not at the direction of the president of the United States but on his own initiative.
SHAPIRO: Why is that important that Giuliani claims not to have been directed by the president to do this? Would that somehow absolve the president of wrongdoing?
LUCAS: Well, legal experts that I spoke with today said that there is nothing illegal about a private attorney seeking an investigation into an opposing party or candidate. It does get a little bit muddier, though, if Trump directed him to meet with Ukrainians and pressure them to open an investigation. It's muddier, but it's not necessarily illegal.
SHAPIRO: Now, pressuring the Ukrainian leader to open an investigation is one thing. There are also reports that President Trump in that conversation somehow tied $250 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine to Ukraine opening an investigation into the Bidens. Would that kind of quid pro quo be illegal?
LUCAS: This is a very different thing, yes. Legal folks say that the president is towing right up to the line here. What might count as stepping over the line would be, yes, a quid pro quo with Ukraine. If the president said, do A, and in return I will do B, that could constitute self-dealing and a violation of corruption statutes.
There is an argument, though, that the president - American presidents pressure other countries all the time, sometimes to get them to investigate folks; sometimes that could be tied to U.S. aid. The difference here would be if Trump tied it to his own personal political needs. But determining that would likely depend on the specific language of whatever was said in his conversation with Ukraine's president. And, of course, we don't know what that is at this point.
SHAPIRO: Which is one reason Democrats are pressing for this phone call. So it sounds like part of the question here is norms versus laws, illegal versus improper. What is the role of Congress here in examining this?
LUCAS: Well, Democrats certainly think that there's something that Congress should examine. The legal experts that I spoke with said that all of this behavior - Giuliani's meeting with Ukrainian officials, Trump allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival - all of that is improper. It may not be illegal, but it's bad judgment. It's unethical, they said. It's improper because the U.S. has business on the table with Ukraine. This is part of why Democrats are pursuing this so forcefully. This is behavior that they feel could fall into the zone of impeachable conduct.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thank you.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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