Trump resurfaces debunked theory Ukraine interfered in 2016 election

By Adam Gabbatt in New York and agencies

Donald Trump has continued to promote a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, a day after the former top Russia expert in the White House called it a “fictional narrative” in dramatic impeachment testimony.

In her testimony on Thursday, British-born Fiona Hill said Republicans loyal to Trump must stop pushing the idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election because it plays into Vladimir Putin’s hands.

Hill attacked the debunked conspiracy theory used by Republicans to defend the US president against allegations that he sought to bribe Ukraine for his own political gain.

But in a scattershot call into the Fox & Friends TV show on Friday, the president continued to push the theory and made a series of eyebrow-raising claims, suggested he wanted to be impeached, and described Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer at the center of the impeachment scandal, as “one of the great crime fighters of all time”.

In the extraordinary, often rambling 55-minute interview, Trump also:

  • Claimed, without evidence, that he was trying to root out corruption in Ukraine when he withheld aid over the summer.

  • Claimed he was the reason China had not taken steps to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

  • Said government officials had praised the former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – a highly regarded diplomat whom Trump has repeatedly smeared – because “she’s a woman, you have to be nice”.

  • Complained that Yovanovitch, who has served presidents in both parties, was “an Obama person” and took too long to hang his picture in the Ukraine embassy.

  • Called the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the top woman in Congress, “crazy as a bedbug”.

The Fox & Friends hosts were largely bystanders during what effectively became a Trump monologue.

Trump’s 25 July call with Ukraine’s president is at the center of the House impeachment investigation, which is looking into Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate his political rival, the former vice-president Joe Biden, as he held back nearly $400m in aid.

Trump reiterated “there was no quid pro quo”, contradicting sworn testimony by multiple impeachment witnesses.

In the call, Trump insisted he wanted the impeachment inquiry process to go to trial, suggesting he wanted to be impeached. He suggested a trial would enable him to question the House intelligence committee chair, Adam Schiff, and the whistleblower, whose complaint sparked the launch of the impeachment inquiry in late September.

“We wanna call the whistleblower. But you know who I want as the first witness, because frankly, I want a trial,” Trump said.

“You want a trial?” the Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade asked incredulously.

“Oh I would …” Trump said, before trailing off and then beginning an attack on Schiff.

Trump also worked to undercut witnesses at the hearings, including Yovanovitch, whom Trump recalled from her post in Kyiv in May without explanation, shortly after the state department had asked her to stay on another year. The president called her an “Obama person” and claimed without evidence that she did not want his picture to hang on the walls of the embassy.

However, a member of the longtime diplomat’s legal team denied Trump’s claim, asserting Yovanovitch hung the photos of the president, the vice-president and the secretary of state “as soon as they arrived” at the embassy.

“There are a lot of things that she did that I didn’t like,” Trump said, adding that he asked why administration officials were being so kind to her during her testimony earlier this week. “Well, sir, she’s a woman. We have to be nice,” he said they told him.

Yovanovitch told impeachment investigators she felt “shocked and devastated” by Trump’s personal attacks on her, and that she was “amazed” corrupt elements in Ukraine had found willing American partners to take her down.

“The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine,” Schiff said during the hearing, “but why would he want to?”

Departing from impeachment, Trump claimed he was the reason China had not brought in the military to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Trump said he told China’s president, Xi Jinping, that efforts to quash the protests would complicate negotiations for a US-China trade deal.

China has warned it will retaliate against the US if Trump signs a bill supporting the Hong Kong protests.