AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump pushed back today against a series of news reports about promises he's alleged to have made to a foreign leader. A whistleblower reportedly raised concerns about Trump's conduct with the intelligence community's inspector general. News reports say the foreign leader on the call was the president of Ukraine. Asked about it in the Oval Office today, the president called it fake news, and he went on to suggest the real scandal lay with Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden's ties to Ukraine.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It doesn't matter what I discussed. But I will say this - somebody ought to look into Joe Biden's statement because it was disgraceful.
CORNISH: Trump's comments came during a state visit with Australia's prime minister, where he also announced new sanctions against Iran. Here to talk about it is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
Welcome to the studio.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
CORNISH: So this has created a standoff between the White House and Congress because the acting director of National Intelligence has refused to share any of the details of the whistleblower's concerns, right? So we don't know why the whistleblower...
CORNISH: ...Was like, hey, there's a problem. So what did the president have to say about it?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the president was very defensive. He called the allegations ridiculous. He said he did not know who the whistleblower was but charged that the person was partisan. Now, he wouldn't confirm that any call had actually taken place but said his calls with world leaders are always appropriate. The issue with Biden is complicated. It involves Biden's conduct when he was vice president and allegations that Trump is making that Biden was pressuring Ukraine to get rid of a prosecutor who was investigating a company that had ties to Biden's son, Hunter. Biden was actually on the campaign trail today. He said there's nothing to this allegation and that the president should start acting like the president.
CORNISH: I want to get back to the whistleblower for a second. Do we have a sense of how serious the allegations are?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it could be very serious. We're still learning a lot. For one, it raises questions about how the president handles delicate matters. It also matters because this is a complaint that has caused a standoff between Congress and the intelligence community. Democrats want to know if Trump, in fact, made a promise to a world leader and what that was, but they haven't been able to get their hands on the complaint. Democrats also want to know if President Trump or his aides have put pressure on Ukraine to help dig up dirt on a potential rival in 2020. And this issue is not going to go away because Trump is scheduled to meet with the Ukraine president on Wednesday at the United Nations in the General Assembly.
CORNISH: I want to move on to Iran for a second. It's been nearly a week since Saudi oil facilities were attacked. Trump and the administration basically say, look; there's no doubt that Iran was behind these attacks. And they actually announced a new round of sanctions. But is this the extent of the U.S. response as we know it?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, certainly, the Trump administration is starting with the sanctions on the central bank. This is how Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described them.
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STEVEN MNUCHIN: This is very big. We've now cut off all source of funds to Iran.
ORDOÑEZ: But we also spoke with a sanctions expert who worked at the State Department during the Obama years. He said the bank was already substantially sub-sanctioned, and no significant transactions were authorized after May of this year. He called it more symbolic than actually practical. But most experts agree that Iran's economy is hurting, hence why the country and the leaders are lashing out the way that they are. As for taking a military option, Trump stressed that he's always prepared, that the United States is prepared more than anyone else. But he also made clear that he was in no hurry.
CORNISH: Was there any surprise at the president's comments today in terms of taking on this issue of the whistleblower complaint?
ORDOÑEZ: I wouldn't say that there was a huge surprise. But, certainly, his pushing back definitely took some people by surprise.
CORNISH: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
Thank you so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.