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Commentary: Trump Just Tossed Portman In Hot Water Over Ukraine

Evan Vucci, Alex Brandon

If you are a member of Congress and the president from your own party stands up and says "there's nobody more honorable" than you, you might be tempted to be puffed up a bit.

Unless, of course, that president is Donald Trump, the man who is the very definition of the term loose cannon.

And especially if he begins praising you in the middle of an angry, contentious press conference at the White House with Finnish president Sauli Niinisto at his side, who sat, looking dumbfounded, as the American president raged at the "corrupt people" of the press.

Niinisto must have been wondering, How do I find the door marked exit?

This happened Wednesday to Ohio's junior senator, Republican Rob Portman, who must have felt a little gob-smacked to hear Trump use him as proof of his innocence of any impeachable offense.

Trump was responding to questions about a conversation he had with Ukrainian president on July 25 that has triggered House Democrats to launch an impeachment investigation.

A transcript of the conversation released by the White House makes it crystal clear that Trump asked Zelensky to help with an investigation of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who was involved in Ukrainian business ventures.

At the time, Trump was holding up delivery of nearly $400 million in aid to the Ukraine government.

To Zelensky, the message was probably pretty clear: Dig up dirt on my political enemy Biden and his son or you can forget about the $400 million in aid.

At least that is what most Congressional Democratic and some Republicans believe – it was a quid pro quo, a bit of extortion by the president of the United States and an impeachable offense.

Enter Portman.

At Wednesday's chaotic press conference, Trump said he had hesitated before releasing the money to Ukraine because "they're rated one of the most corrupt countries in the world" and that he believes Europe wasn’t doing enough to help Ukraine and dumping the load on the U.S.

"In fact, Rob Portman backed me up and there's nobody more honorable than Rob Portman of Ohio,'' Trump said. "Because he called up: 'Please let the money go.' I said, 'Rob, I hate being the country that's always giving money.

"I gave the money because Rob Portman and others called me and asked," Trump said. "But I don’t like to be the sucker and European countries are helped far more than we are."

Portman spoke to Trump on Sept. 11. On Sept. 12, Trump released the money to the Ukraine government.

With that, Portman – who is co-chair of the congressional Ukraine caucus – was plopped right down in the middle of the drama between the White House and the House Democrats.

Back in Portman's home state, the Ohio Democratic Party wasted no time in getting up in Portman's grill about Trump's White House remarks.

"It's obvious from the timeline of events and the president's statement today that Rob Portman was intimately involved in the conversations between Donald Trump, U.S. officials and Ukrainian officials as Trump withheld vital funding from that nation and asked them to help with his own personal agenda,'' said David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

"It's time for full transparency from Rob Portman – what did he know about the growing Ukraine scandal and when did he know it?'' Pepper said.

Emily Benavides, Portman's communications directeor, put out a statement Thursday saying that the Ohio senator has "long been the Ukraine's staunchest supporter as it works to combat Russian aggression and strengthen its democracy."

When there was a hold on the funds for the Ukraine, Benavides said Portman acted to get them released.

"At no time during the work for Ukraine did the former vice president or the former mayor of New York come up."

At this point, there is no reason to believe otherwise.

Benavides sent WVXU a transcript of what Portman told Fox News last week and said that what Trump said Wednesday was "entirely consistent" with Portman's Fox interview.

Here's a portion of the Fox interview:

"I'm co-chair of the Ukraine caucus,'' Portman said. "I'd been urging the vice president, the secretaries of Defense and State to release the funds and on that day, I called the president because we were getting to the point where the funds had to be released.

"And the president was very clear with me, he only raised one issue and that issue only, that was about the Europeans not doing enough,'' Portman said. "He said, 'Rob, I understand we need to help Zelensky and I know you want this aid to go, but I'm worried that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, aren't doing enough to help Ukraine.

"I don't disagree with him on that," Portman told Fox. "We were kind of at the point where we had to obligate the funds so they could be effective for Ukraine to defend itself, so we needed to get the money going, but I think the president was interested in using the funds as leverage to try to get the Europeans to do more. That's what he said to me."

Portman said, too, that "I don’t see the quid pro quo that the Democrats are claiming."

"Never did the president threaten the aid, nor did he with me,'' Portman told Fox News. "In other words, he never linked the aid to corruption in general or certainly not an investigation in particular."

The Ohio senator's contention that he knew nothing about an investigation of Biden until he saw the transcript of Trump's July 25 call to Zelensky may prove to be true.

But Pepper calls it a "farcical" contention.

Less than a week before Portman's call to Trump, The Washington Post, in an editorial, said that Trump was trying to force Ukraine into intervening in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

"In other words, the story was already out in the open,'' Pepper said. "Portman claiming he had no clue at that point is simply not credible and defies common sense."

True or not, it is not inconceivable that Portman may end up having to make that argument before a House committee investigating impeachment charges against Trump.

All because the Angry Bird in the White House couldn’t manage to leave Portman out of one of his rants at the "corrupt people" of the press.

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Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.