Unpacking the Trump-Ukraine-Biden Scandal

On the surface, the Trump-Ukraine-Biden scandal seems pretty simple. In a way it is. Because of this, partisans on both sides have aggressively made their case partisan case and the objective facts seem to be getting lost in the muck. That’s because it is actually more complicated than it seems. I’m going to try and break it down for you.

I am going to do this through the frame of responding to an OpEd I read in the Washington Post recently that makes a false equivalency between President Trump and Democrats titled, Democrats’ double standard on Ukraine by Marc A. Thiessen. If you don’t pay for the Washington Post, you can read the syndicated column on any one of a number of local newspapers. Here’s the Helena Independent Record or the Sioux City Journal. Take your pick.

It is important to note that this is an OpEd in the Washington Post, not a news piece. OpEd’s aren’t always very well sourced and fact checked – they are the author’s opinions, divorced of the newspaper’s actual legitimate journalism operations.

It is also important to note that Marc A. Thiessen is a former speech writer for U.S. President George W. Bush (2004–09) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (2001-06). He started his career in D.C. working a lobbyist for Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. Yes, that Manafort: convicted felon, Paul Manafort. Thiessen is hardly going to be a good source of objective, accurate information regarding the Trump-Ukraine-Biden scandal, especially considering Paul Manafort is involved.

Thiessen briefly introduces a report from CNN in May “that Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote a letter to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, expressing concern at the closing of four investigations they said were critical to the Mueller probe.” He goes on to state that “they implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake.” And eventually posits the following question:

“So, it’s okay for Democratic senators to encourage Ukraine to investigate Trump, but it’s not okay for the president to allegedly encourage Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden?”

To answer Thiessen’s question: Yes.

Let’s get the facts straight.

Real quick, before we begin, I must disclose my own “personal connections” to Ukraine. I have been fascinated with following Ukraine’s politics ever since I did an report on Ukraine (and Kyrgyzstan) for my International Political Economy class at UIC in 2008. I am also, not so secretly in love with Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Orange Revolution, and former unjustly jailed political prisoner.

Part 1: What The Senators Did

On May 4, 2018, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wrote a letter to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. They were seeking information on why, out of 3,000 active corruption investigations the four involving Paul Manafort had been singled out to have subpoenas and witness interviews blocked by the former Prosecutor General’s office. This was in direct response to a report in the New York Times on May 2, 2018 titled, Ukraine, Seeking US Missiles, Halted Cooperation With Mueller.

This is alarming. It seems rather suspicious and has serious national security implications. It appears that Ukraine is helping to obstruct an investigation – by subverting their own justice system – in order to curry favor with the Executive branch of the U.S. The implications that U.S. foreign relations are possibly being used for personal matters cannot be understated. If only there was a special committee in congress that provided oversight to U.S. foreign relations. Wouldn’t that he helpful?

As it turns out, there is. It is called the Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Senate. And Robert Menendez, Richard Durbin, and Patrick Leahy all sit on that committee. In fact, it as part of their constitutional mandate it is considered both necessary and proper (McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135, 177 (1927)) for the Senate to oversee the executive branch in the execution treaties, handling of relations and interactions with our allies. This is frequently done by communicating with our allies to ask questions about actions taken by the Executive branch. That is precisely why this committee exists. Hence the name.

See also:

In fact, the Foreign Relations Committee primarily oversees arms deals between the United States and our allies and strategic partners. Since this seemed to relate directly to an arms deal with Ukraine, it was urgently incumbent on them to follow up and find out what was going on.

So, following their constitutionally mandated duties as members of the Foreign Relations Committee, these Senators were asking Ukraine if the Executive branch of our government had encouraged, requested, or Ukraine to stall the Manafort investigation and block cooperation with the Mueller probe or if that action had simply happened independently. It is important to note that since then, Paul Manafort, has been convicted of several felonies in the U.S. and has openly admitted in his testimony that he is guilty of the crimes he was being investigated for in Ukraine which he did on behalf of the deeply corrupt Yanukovich.

Let’s be clear about what these Senators did not do. They did not request an investigation into President Trump. They did not ask for any kind of investigation to be opened or started. They were not trying to instigate or initiate anything. They were asking for a few specific facts that were already known and readily available.

Furthermore, these Senators did not threaten to withhold financial aid from Ukraine, as Thiessen suggested. The closest came to implying this is that they made multiple references to the corrupt Yanukovich administration which stole millions of taxpayer dollars from Ukraine and has been under investigation since leaving office. These corruption investigations, and rooting out the Yanukovich corruption from the Ukrainian government is something the eyes of the whole world are on and something, as we will soon find out, that not only the U.S. government, but also the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are watching closely and making financial aid contengent upon.

So, it isn’t unreasonable to for Thiessen to infer that financial aid is at stake even though the Senators never mentioned this. But it is a stretch. And it is also horribly misleading. There is a difference between extorting someone by saying, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to withhold this money,” and advising someone by saying, “The money you receive from us and numerous other sources has always been contingent on the assurance that it won’t be used to line the pockets of corrupt politicians and if you keep sending signals that this is no longer the case, no one is going to want to give you money anymore.”

But, the Senators didn’t say that. Thiessen inferred it. So why must we waste our time discussing this further?

Now, since the Mueller probe was mentioned, it is important that we briefly review why U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller existed in the first place. I could write a series of blog posts debunking misinformation and outlandish conspiracy theories swirling around the Mueller probe, but here I will just stick to the basic facts.

Part 1.1: Why was there a Mueller probe?

It is important to understand that the Mueller Probe was not really about investigating President Trump. It was primarily about investigating illegal Russian activities that occurred within the United States.

In the summer of 2016, the FBI was investigating Russia and Russian entities for crimes they have since been indicted for based on numerous tips received from multiple foreign and domestic sources. When the investigation began, they also uncovered numerous connections and suspicious contacts between the Trump Campaign and Russia, many of which seemed to center around convicted felons Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. On a side note, none of this originated from the now infamous Steele dossier which was not even known about at the time.

On February 13, 2017 Michael Flynn was forced to resign after he was caught lying to the F.B.I. regarding the Russian probe. The next day, President Trump asked F.B.I. Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. President Trump had already previously asked Comey about the Russia probe and to swear personal loyalty to him, so this was becoming part of a disturbing pattern. However, the investigation was partially insulated from Presidential interference because the F.B.I. reported to the Attorney General of the United States, and the AG is supposed to be independent of Presidential influence.

This became a problem when newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions was caught lying providing incorrect information to congress about his contacts with Russians during his confirmation hearing and chose to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation on March 2, 2017. He was further probed for perjury for false statements he made about George Papadopoulos before congress.

Then, in May 2017, President Trump fired James Comey, lied about why he did it, and it became increasingly clear that Comey was fired in order to shut down the Russia probe.

This reasonably led to the belief that the FBI could not perform it’s duties and fully investigate illegal Russian activity in the U.S. because it appeared to involve members of the Trump campaign and Trump was repeatedly using his position as President of the United States to limit or end the investigation to protect himself and associates from being caught for criminal wrongdoing or suffering the political fallout of being investigated. This created the necessity for a Special Counsel to continue and complete the investigation and Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was now overseeing the FBI’s Russia probe, appointed Robert Mueller on May 17, 2017.

The Mueller probe was never an “investigation into Trump” as pundits and partisans would have you believe. It was an investigation into Russia that appeared to possibly have involved President Trump’s campaign and associates and therefore very clearly needed to be insulated from his influence because he appeared to be trying to shut it down.

Part 1.2 – Was what they did okay?

Back to Senators Menendez, Durbin, and Leahy. After receiving credible information that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was under investigation and in the process of being convicted for federal crimes in the U.S., was also under investigation in Ukraine for crimes he committed there and that Ukraine had taken the extraordinary steps of limiting the scope of their investigations they quite reasonably wondered why. It seemed reasonable to suspect that President Trump may have used his office to cause this (which would constitute an abuse of power – using the office of the Presidency to exploit foreign relations and interfere with law enforcement for personal matters). After all, we already had it on record that he had attempted to limit or end the investigation multiple times domestically. So, they basically asked Ukraine: “Yo, Ukraine. What happened there?”

As it turns out, what happened there is Ukraine acted on it’s own out of deference to President Trump. They intentionally stalled the Manafort investigation because they were aware of his close ties to Trump and wanted to curry favor with Trump. But, this was done of their own initiative, not at the request of Trump.

Volodymyr Ariev, a member of the Ukrainin Parliament said they put the Manafort investigations “in the long-term box,” stating,”In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials. We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.” This is problematic on it’s own for different reasons, but it is not illegal, and not an abuse of power at the behest of the President.

So, when the Senators received satisfactory answers to their questions, they dropped it and moved on. No investigation. No public insinuations. No nothing. Constitutional duty fulfilled. End of story. End of issue. Clearly, they weren’t doing this for personal reasons, to score political points, or to launch a smear campaign against President Trump.

So, to answer the first part of Marc Thiessen’s false equivalency question: Yes! What they did is very much okay. It is not just okay, it is their job, required by the highest law in the land, the United States Constitution.

Part 2: What President Trump Did

Now, what President Trump did was a tad bit different. President Trump asked the President of Ukraine to (re)open an investigation into Hunter Biden, a private citizen and the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, for the purpose of stirring up public confusion and turning voters off of his potential, assumed rival in 2020. He specifically said he was asking for a favor.

I hesitate to say reopen, because Joe and Hunter Biden were never officially under investigation in the first place. It was considered, but there was not even the appearance of wrongdoing, so it never happened. So, maybe we could say, President Trump was asking Ukraine to reconsider opening an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden since they had already considered it before and decided there was no evidence of wrongdoing to justify it.

It is important to note, Hunter Biden and Joe Biden are not under investigation or suspected of any crimes in the United States. So, there is no reason to pursue them abroad in the first place. It is also important to note, that what President Trump is acting on to is not a credibly sourced and true report in the New York Times, but rather a internet conspiracy theory that Rudy Giuliani dug up and has foisted on President Trump. This was old information that the far-right cooked up a bunch of crazy conspiracy theories about back in 2015 and have not only been completely debunked in the intervening time, but President Trump was aware of this.

It is important to note that this conspiracy theory likely originated from the Russian state controlled media propaganda machine, Sputnik, which has been going after Biden on multiple occasions in it’s attempt to criticize and assert influence over Ukrainian politics.

Part 2.1 – The Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory

Here is the conspiracy theory: Hunter Biden is corrupt and greedy. So corrupt and greedy that he decided to take a job in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Ukraine, by joining the board of the corrupt oil and gas company, Burisma Holdings. Burisma Holdings was corrupt and Ukraine’s top cop, Viktor Shokin, was trying to investigate them. Vice President Joe Biden didn’t want this to happen because he was afraid it would expose his son’s corruption, so he contacted then President Petro Poroshenko and asked them to fire Shokin in order to shut down said investigation into Burisma. That would constitute an abuse of power – using the office of the Vice Presidency to exploit foreign relations and interfere with foreign law enforcement for personal matters. If it were true.

Sound like a familiar charge? Yep, that’s what President Trump has done and been accused of doing numerous times. So, under the time honored moral principal of “I’m rubber and you’re glue,” Donald Trump decided to pursue this conspiracy theory into Biden.

The only problem is it has already been pursued. And it turned up nothing.

Now, let’s get the facts straight. First, we have to acknowledge that Hunter Biden has benefited tremendously from nepotism. Real surprise there. His name might as well be Eric, Ivanka, or Don Jr. for all that is concerned. As such, he has been sought out and had doors opened for him simply due to who is father is and who he knows.

It is very likely that this is why Burisma Holdings hired Hunter Biden to serve on their board. In this case, Burisma was already under investigation for being part of money laundering scheme associated with it’s owner, Oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, and they wanted to clean up their image. Having the Vice President’s son on their board could serve that purpose.

Let’s be clear here. This was an bad idea of epic proportions for Hunter Biden to do simply because it created the appearance of possible conflicts of interest domestically. It caused Christopher Heinz (John Kerry’s stepson) to sever business ties with Hunter Biden. Joe Biden’s staff pushed him to encourage Hunter to not take this job. It is also important to note that Hunter Biden is somewhat of the black sheep of the Biden family and isn’t exactly easily influenced by his father. He might even be characterized as a rebel.

That being said, Hunter Biden is a private citizen, not a government official, and it is not illegal for him to serve on Burisma’s board, so there was no legal reason for him not to. Burisma is a private company, not a government entity. Hunter Biden is free to make bad decisions that look bad for his father, and I guess, unfortunately, Joe Biden doesn’t have the authority or influence to control what Hunter Biden does.

Joe Biden, knowing he had very little influence to exert over his son anyway, and out of respect his son’s agency did not “put his foot down” and demand that his son not join Burisma’s board. He did, however, immediately take steps to insulate himself from communicating with Hunter about anything involving Burisma and Ukraine. Maybe Joe Biden should have forced his adult son to not take the job. That might have helped him avoid the bad optics for sure, but that probably wouldn’t be a realistic expectation.

Remember how I originally told you Burisma was under investigation? Well, that is only partially true. The investigation into Zlochevsky was stalled, along with numerous other corruption investigations. Central to this was Prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Sokin was accused of being corrupt and his investigations were accused of being “for show” and not legitimate. He had dumped numerous investigations into disgraced Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych (who, as political payback, had his opponent for the Presidency, Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the most courageous and amazing women in the world jailed after he came to power , but that’s another story for another time). These actions by Shokin caused great concern with several Western European countries, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, was insisting that Ukraine was doing far too little to combat corruption. Sokin had come to power with a promise to combat this corruption, but seemed to be doing the opposite – covering it up and furthering it. The IMF had decided to pull investment from Ukraine out of concerns that their investment would not be properly used or be effective in such a corrupt country. This is still an ongoing concern. They gave Ukraine an ultimatum that Shokin be removed or investment would be curtailed.

Enter: Joe Biden. In March 2016, Vice President Biden was on a trip in Ukraine. He had been informed by Lagarde that the IMF’s loan guarantees were about to be cut off and Lagarde had asked him if he could do something about it. So, as Biden has stated, “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’”

Mind you, this money wasn’t Biden’s to give or not to give. This was the IMF’s money and he was just the messenger. The reason had nothing to do with Biden (Hunter or Joe), it had to do with the IMF’s concerns over investing in a corrupt country and their disdain for Shokin who had broken several promises.

We all know what happened next. Shokin was fired. But not really because of Joe Biden – even though he wants to take all the credit. This firing was a long time coming and the result of mounting pressure from the international community as well as within the Ukrainian government. He was not adequately investigating corruption in the previous administration he was previously associated with. Ironically, now President Trump is praising Shokin as being a good prosecutor despite overwhelming evidence and consensus to the contrary. I guess that whatever Joe Biden is against, President Trump thinks he has to be for.

Here is the truly ironic conspiracy-theory busting part of all this. Because Shokin was fired, and replaced by Yuri Lutsenko the investigations into Burisma actually moved forward. The case concluded in 2017 with no charges being filed against him – and then was reopened in 2018 by court order. He has been implicated in additional corruption charges. Keep in mind, this case against Burisma had nothing to do with Hunter Biden and was involving the period before he even worked there. So, there was no personal reason for Joe Biden to try to have it shut down.

So even if Joe Biden was trying to help Hunter and Burisma out by getting Shokin fired (he clearly was not), he did the exact wrong thing. By calling for Shukin to be fired, Joe Biden knowingly helped moved the Burisma investigation forward. That’s not corruption. That’s integrity.

Yuri Lutsenko did at one time expressed concern over Hunter Biden’s position on the Burisma board and his connection to Vice President Joe Biden and the possibility that there was a conflict of interests or abuse of power. After all, it certainly looked bad. Public comments made to this effect were quickly taken out of context and spun off into internet conspiracy theories by Russian propaganda and far-right nutjobs, and thus, the conspiracy theory Giuliani and Trump are pushing was born.

But, the problem is that Yuri Lutsenko already looked into Hunter Biden and the Biden-Ukraine connection for any possibly improprieties and came up with nothing. He cleared Biden of any wrongdoing and there was no reason to move forward with any further investigations into the Bidens.

Part 2.2 – Was what he did okay?

So, President Trump is following up on an old, debunked internet conspiracy theory that falsely alleges Joe Biden abused his power as Vice President. What does this have to do with the interests of the United States? And the answer is none. Is it part of President Trump’s job, constitutionally mandated, implied, or otherwise, to advocate for the opening of investigations into private U.S. citizens and political rivals in foreign countries? Certainly not. This quite simply isn’t what good Presidents do. So why do it?

The answer is simple: Joe Biden is considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination to run against President Trump and polls currently reflect him beating Trump 50.5% to 42.8% – a difference of 7.7 points, more than any other Democratic candidate. The most recent poll to this call back in July, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on July 14, showed Biden at +9. Emerson College showed Biden at +7 on July 9. ABC News/Washington Post showed Biden at +10 to +14 on July 7.

This is contrary to the unsubstantiated claim that President Trump and his advocates have made that “Democrats know they can’t win in 2020” and that all the polls show them losing which is why they are pursuing impeachment. Almost all the polls show him consistently losing to Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and even Yang and O’Rourke. Often by massive double-digit margins. The few occasional polls that show Trump winning are from notoriously bad pollsters that don’t have a track record of accuracy due to shoddy methods.

So actually it is President Trump who is shaking in his boots about likely losing in 2020, not the Democrats. According to the polls, Joe Biden appears to be his greatest threat. So, Trump is trying to discredit him by promoting misinformation and a false narrative to either prevent him from capturing the nomination or winning the general election.

And Trump is trying to do this by asking Ukraine to reopen an already closed investigation that found no wrongdoing into Biden’s son. Trump was withholding U.S. foreign aid intended to protect the U.S. national security interests in Ukraine against Russia as leverage to get Ukraine to open up a sham investigation into his political rival in order to help him win the 2020 election. The transcript of the call confirms most of these facts. Trump’s admissions confirm even more. Very few dots need to be connected here.

In fact, it gets even worse. According to the whistleblower’s complaint, agreeing to open an investigation into Biden was a condition of getting the call in the first place and he froze aid to Ukraine ahead of the phone call allegedly in order to achieve this. This has also been verified by sources within the Ukrain.

The best comparison I can think of is if the President of Ukraine was facing a tough re-election campaign against a political rival with ties to the Trump organization (Trump has extensive business dealings in Ukraine) and he called our President and asked him to reopen the Mueller investigation and discontinued it’s cooperation with NATO ahead of the call and held that hostage as a condition of speaking with the U.S. until we agreed to reopen the Mueller investigation. That would be pretty nutso, wouldn’t it?

As you can see, the differences are stark.

U.S. Senators did not pressure Ukraine into investigating Trump. They did not extort Ukraine or unilaterally put U.S. national security interests at risk. They fulfilled their constitutionally mandated duties to inquire if the executive branch of our government had abused it’s power and our relationship with an ally to shut down investigations into convicted felon Paul Manafort. There was nothing to see, so they moved on.

President Trump, on the other hand, used the office of the Presidency to hold up foreign aid of vital national security interest in order to pressure Ukraine into reopening a pointless investigation into Hunter Biden, in which Biden had been cleared of any wrongdoing, in order to discredit his top domestic political rival, Hunter Biden’s father. This does not involve any current domestic criminal investigations or any national security interests and therefore falls completely out of the purview of the Presidency and constitutes a gross abuse of power.

He is also involving the U.S. Justice Department and his personal lawyer, a non-governmental employee, Rudy Giuliani in this effort, further complicating the abuse of power charges further showing this is for personal gain in addition to opening himself up to felony campaign violation charges. The DOJ’s initial decision to not pursue the later adds even more troubling broth into this already swampy stew.

So, to answer the second part of Marc Thiessen’s false equivalency question: No! What President Trump did was very much not okay. It is not just not okay, it is possibly in violation of multiple laws, and a gross abuse of power for personal gain.

Trying to stretch the facts to compare these two communications in a tortured false equivalency certainly gives Silly Putty a run for its money, both for it’s physical properties as well its name.

Letter from U.S. Senators to Ukraine Prosecutor General, May 4, 2018

2018-05-04-menendez-letter

Reconstructed transcript of July 25, 2019 Trump-Zelensky phone call

2019-07-25-trump-zelensky-phone-call

August 12, 2018 Whistleblower Complaint

2019-08-12-whistleblower-complaint