Democrats denounced a plan by President Donald Trump's personal attorney to push Ukraine to open investigations that he hopes could benefit Trump politically, saying it was an overt attempt to recruit foreign help to influence a U.S. election.
But lawyer Rudy Giuliani has scrapped plans to visit Ukraine, citing concerns about who he would be dealing with there.
"I've decided ... I'm not going to go to the Ukraine," Giuliani told Fox News on Friday night. "I'm not going to go because I think I'm walking into a group of people that are enemies of the president ... in some cases enemies of the United States, and in one case an already convicted person who has been found to be involved in assisting the Democrats with the 2016 election."
Giuliani had said earlier that he would to travel to Kiev in the coming days to urge the government to investigate the origins of special counsel Robert Mueller's recently concluded probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and the involvement of former Vice President Joe Biden's son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.
Joe Biden is the early Democratic front-runner to challenge Trump in the 2020 election. The Biden campaign has denied that Biden or his son, Hunter, did anything improper.
Giuliani's plan had seemed poised to create an unprecedented moment — a lawyer for the American president seeking foreign assistance in trying to damage political rivals. To Democrats, it was a blatant evocation of Russia's meddling on behalf of Trump when he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016
"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, chairman of 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, first reported by The New York Times, would have been 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 Joe Biden.
Trump and Giuliani have urged scrutiny of Hunter Biden and have questions about whether Joe Biden helped oust a Ukrainian prosecutor whose office was investigating the oligarch behind the company that paid Hunter Biden. Some Trump allies have suggested they can tarnish Joe 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 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.
Trump's re-election campaign distanced itself from Giuliani's efforts, saying it had nothing to do with the lawyer's inquiry.
Still, the episode could trigger uncomfortable questions about foreign entanglements for the White House, which is still grappling with the aftermath of Mueller's inquiry.
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.
Associated Press video journalist Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.