John Kennedy at Press Club 070119

U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, R-Madisonville, addressed the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, July 1, 2019.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Kennedy wants to ban family members of top U.S. officials from business dealings in Ukraine, a move that draws on President Donald Trump's defense in the controversy over his interactions with the Eastern European country's leader.

The Madisonville Republican's proposal to introduce legislation that would ban such business dealings prompted ridicule from a Democratic colleague, who waved it off as a "political hit job." 

Trump has spent the past week pushing unproven claims that political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden had pressured Ukraine to help his son, Hunter, who was a paid contractor for a gas company there. A rough transcript from the White House of a call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy showed Trump urging the Ukraine leader to look into the allegations about the Bidens.

Trump and his allies have sought to raise the unsubstantiated Biden corruption claims in defending the president after House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry last week.

Kennedy, who has a penchant for wading into headline-grabbing issues of the day, didn't directly mention the claims about Biden in a news release announcing his plans to file legislation when Congress returns from recess Oct. 14. 

“The Ukraine government is historically corrupt, which is one way Russia exerts influence there,” Kennedy said in the news release. “It is hard to know who to believe or trust, though I hope President Zelenskiy will chart a new, more ethical course. Senior members of our government should not be a part of, or seen to be a part of, this conduct. That hurts America, and it hurts the good people of Ukraine with whom the American people stand."

He said his bill would remove any appearance of impropriety or potential conflict of interest for any immediate family member of a senior United States official.

Kennedy's proposal would ban all immediate family members of senators, House members and members of the president’s cabinet, as well as relatives of the vice president or the president, from working as consultants, employees, independent contractors or board members for any entity doing business in or with Ukraine. It would apply to parents, siblings and children.

Kennedy's office declined to answer specific questions from The Advocate about why the legislation would be limited to Ukraine, nor would his office provide additional details about the bill or supply a draft copy of it for review.

It's also unclear how it would be enforced and who would be held accountable for violations. 

"This is obviously a silly, political hit job," U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said of Kennedy's proposal on Twitter. 

Murphy said he'd be willing to work on an expanded proposal applying to all foreign countries so that it would apply to Trump's own children who have been running the Trump Organization internationally in his stead. Trump has faced questions about his family's foreign business dealings since taking office.

There are no existing laws prohibiting such dealings in China, Russia and other countries the U.S. has accused of improper influence in the United States.

While Kennedy's proposal may generate some headlines, is unlikely to gain much traction in the divided Congress that still has major issues to face before the end of the year, including passing a budget, confronting a long-stalled trade deal and attempting to lower drug prices and end surprise medical bills — things Republicans and Democrats have identified as priorities.

A constitutional law professor, who asked not to be named because he had not seen the full text of the legislation and was speaking only from the brief details Kennedy's office provided, said he saw no immediate constitutional problems with Kennedy's proposal. 

Louisiana Republicans have rallied around Trump amid the impeachment inquiry, with U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, repeatedly taking to the airwaves to defend the president, often pointing back to the Biden claims.

Hunter Biden was reportedly paid $50,000 a month to serve on the board of the country's largest privately-held gas company while VP Biden was tasked with handing U.S. diplomatic relations with the country.

Around the same time, Joe Biden threatened to withhold funds from the country unless it fired a Ukrainian prosecutor who had been accused of widespread corruption.

There is no proof Biden’s action was related to his son, and the former vice president has denied any impropriety.

Still, Trump and his allies have seized onto the sequence as justification for Trump pressing on the country to investigate Biden, by then the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. According to the call's transcript, Trump offered the assistance of his personal legal counsel, Rudy Giuliani, as well as Attorney General Bill Barr, to the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden.

The call prompted a whistleblower, who the New York Times has identified as a CIA officer, to file a report of concern over the interaction.

Kennedy got into a heated exchange with Meet The Press host Chuck Todd on live television a week ago over the issue and said the Biden claims should be investigated.

"I’m not alleging that the vice president did anything wrong. I’m just telling you that the American people are looking at this and going, 'OK?'" Kennedy said on MTP Daily on MSNBC.

He also questioned Hunter Biden's qualifications for his position at the Ukrainian company.

"Do you think they got Hunter Biden’s name off ZipRecruiter? I don’t. And I don’t think the American people do either," Kennedy said.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.