KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's top prosecutor said on Friday he would look into several important cases previously dealt with by his predecessors, including a criminal case involving the owner of a natural gas company employing a son of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
The development came amid an impeachment investigation against President Trump over a request he made to the Ukrainian president, asking him to investigate Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, and his son's work in Ukraine.
The moment raised questions about whether Ukraine was, in fact, bowing to the public and private pressure of the US president, on which millions of dollars in aid depended.
Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who took office in August, said he intended to review 15 cases in all, including high-level investigations of wealthy Ukrainians, including the owner of natural gas company Burisma Holdings, where Biden's son, Hunter served on the board until earlier this year.
The prosecutor did not say how long his audit would last. At the beginning of the audit, Ryaboshapka told a news conference in Kiev: "The keywords were neither Biden nor Burisma."
"The key was the procedures that were terminated or investigated by the previous leadership," he said, but allowed: "In this large number of cases, there may be others with these two words."
The Ukrainian authorities have been debating for months a discussion of the case related to elder Biden, one of the top candidates in next year's presidential election. They tried to signal to Trump and his allies that the issues will be investigated, even as they tried to wire Democrats who were not bowing to Trump's pressure.
However, Trump's repeated public calls for the Ukrainian government to investigate a case of a possible opponent in next year's elections – which he described in a telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July as a "favor". – are essential to the formal House Committee impeachment inquiry called by President Nancy Pelosi.
The investigation is examining whether Trump has betrayed his oath of office and the security of the country, seeking the help of a foreign power to tarnish a political rival. Trump vigorously denied anything wrong, calling his phone call Zelensky "perfect."
Trump's allies said a reconstructed link transcript showed no favor, making the impeachment investigation unfounded. But Democrats said Trump's favor request and the fact that he had already withheld Ukraine's millions of aid before the call raised serious questions that must be addressed.
At the call, Zelensky suggested he would assist Burisma's investigation, according to the White House call notes. The Ukrainian president said he would soon be appointed a new prosecutor who would be "100% my person" and "would investigate the situation."
The Ukrainian president said his country is also almost ready to buy Raytheon-made anti-tank missiles to be used to better ward off Russian-backed armored fighter attacks. Trump replied, "I'd like you to do us a favor."
Ryaboshapka, who previously worked for the clean government group Transparency International, will direct the Ukrainian prosecutor to deal with the issues raised by Trump in the phone call with the Ukrainian president.
At the news conference, Ryaboshapka said he did not receive any phone calls about the cases or was under undue pressure on other matters. "No foreign or domestic politicians, officials or non-employees have called me and tried to influence my decisions in specific criminal cases," he said.
Ryaboshapka added: “The prosecution is beyond politics. We are conducting an audit of all cases, including those that were investigated by the prosecutor's office's previous leadership. "
If the laws are violated, he added, "Let's react accordingly." Asked if he had any evidence of Hunter Biden's wrongdoing, he told reporters, "I don't have that information."
No evidence of Mr. Biden's or his son's wrongdoing appeared, and the older Mr. Biden denied the charges. But Trump doubled, urging China to investigate the Bidens and accusing the country of spending $ 1.5 billion on Hunter Biden to influence his father and strike favorable trade deals with the United States.
Ryaboshapka's comments on Friday were the first indication of how Ukrainian criminal justice officials were dealing with one of two investigations raised by Trump on the call.
On Thursday, the State Department initially approved the sale of $ 39.2 million of 150 Javelin missiles and related equipment to Ukraine. The sale of javelins to Ukraine has yet to pass through Congress. Ukraine has been fighting Russia for five years in eastern Ukraine since Moscow's seizure of Crimea.
Ryaboshapka's announcement that the case was now bogged down in an unclear internal audit in the attorney general's office disrupts any clear signal from both sides in the American political debate.
Zelensky faced criticism at home for telling the US president that naked political criminal investigations would be investigated, perpetuating the country's long post-Soviet struggle with politicized processes.
In the summer, a Zelensky aide said that in meetings and phone calls with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, he had refrained from any specific commitment to investigate the cases. After Ukraine's new president appoints a new prosecutor, he said, investigations will resume on his merits.
The incompatibility between the private assurance that Ukraine would help Trump and his allies find filth in one of the main opponents in the United States elections and public statements much more carefully continued on Friday.
Former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko met several times with Giuliani to discuss an investigation in Ukraine about the natural gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
Lutsenko also said that Hillary Clinton's Ukrainian supporters helped set up Trump's 2016 campaign president Paul Manafort, an allegation that has not been proven.
In an interview with a conservative US political commentator published on The Hill in April, Lutsenko said one of his prosecutors was investigating the gas company that paid Hunter Biden for board membership.
In March, Lutsenko's subordinate in the prosecutor's office, Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, identified the owner of Burisma as a suspect in a criminal case.