When Sen. Kamala Harris asked Attorney General William Barr whether Trump or anyone else at the White House had ordered him to investigate a political opponent, it was one of the highlights of Barr’s Senate appearance, because of both Harris’ forceful questioning and Barr’s sputtering reply. But while Trump has frequently demanded that anyone who ever said something less than laudatory about him get an immediate visit from the FBI, there’s a particular topic that Harris may have had in mind—one that relates to one of her fellow candidates for office in 2020. Because for weeks now, Donald Trump has been trying to create a false narrative to use against Joe Biden.
When Americans think about Ukraine, it’s mostly because Russia has been conducting nearly constant military intervention in the former Soviet republic for a decade, or because it’s another place where Trump’s campaign chair helped escort a pro-Russian president into power. But lately Republicans have been bringing up the name Ukraine as if there’s something that Democrats did there. On Thursday, Trump retweeted a link to a tweet claiming that Biden was “entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal,” but as a New York Times story details, the real scandal here isn’t happening in Ukraine.
At the heart of the charge Trump is making against Biden is this: Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of an energy company called Burisma Holdings that was was targeted by a Ukrainian prosecutor. This prosecutor was one of several figures whom Joe Biden railed against on a trip to Ukraine in which he complained about corruption in the country’s government, including a threat to withhold U.S. funds if Ukraine didn’t clean up its act. In the next election, the prosecutor was voted out, and Ukraine got its funds. Burisma may have benefited from that change, though it’s not clear to what extent. Not surprisingly, the whole purpose of adding Hunter Biden and other prominent Americans to Burisma’s board was the hope of positioning the Ukrainian company to leverage its American connections. To the extent that it raised the company’s visibility, it probably did work. Hunter Biden’s term on the board was for five years. It has since expired, and Biden stepped down earlier this year.
But the reason this story is reentering the public eye isn’t that any evidence has turned up that Hunter Biden and Joe Biden coordinated with Ukrainians to affect U.S. foreign policy. It’s that Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani are using U.S. foreign policy as their latest weapon against a political opponent.
The problem with the accusation that Joe Biden was pushing to get rid of the prosecutor only because he was causing problems for Burisma is that the prosecutor actually was corrupt. He had been singled out in multiple reports, European leaders had already called for his removal, and Biden was basing his statement on a report from the State Department, not on something he had generated on his own. The closest thing to an actual problem here seems to be that Biden’s son, with little to no qualifications, was on the board at all—which clearly was an attempt on the part of Burisma to build connections in the U.S.
The reason that this story is showing up again now is that it’s being pushed by Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani. But what’s being pushed is way beyond a claim that Biden’s son got a posh position. Giuliani has been floating a “theory” that not only did Biden somehow benefit from a get-tough attitude in Ukraine, but that somehow “sympathetic Ukrainians” were behind the Russia investigation.
How this conspiracy theory ties into the other conspiracy theories that Giuliani and others have been pushing about the Russia investigation isn’t clear. It doesn’t have to be. Giuliani’s entire thrust is simply to add more confusion—and, of course, to build a bridge that allows Biden to be tarred with a “scandal” that serves as an all-purpose attack on Democrats. “Ukraine” is the code word for Republicans pushing a conspiracy that’s growing to include claims being made about Clinton, Biden, Obama, the FBI, the Steele dossier, the Mueller investigation … it’s all-purpose. And if it also helps distract from the fact that Paul Manafort genuinely was involved in scandalous behavior in Ukraine, giving Trump cover for a pardon, that’s good, too.
Giuliani admits that he started pushing this line specifically because “he was seeking to counter the Mueller investigation,” but Republicans are likely to lean heavily on this mock scandal if Biden continues to be the front-runner in Democratic polls.
But just because there doesn’t appear be any real connection between Hunter Biden and U.S. policy, much less the Mueller investigation, doesn’t mean there isn’t an actual scandal here. But it’s not Biden’s scandal.
In the last few weeks, Giuliani hasn’t just been pushing this conspiracy with the conservative media. He’s also talked to the prosecutor who was voted out. He’s also talked to the new prosecutor, who has—surprise—opened a new investigation into the company where Hunter Biden worked. Giuliani has even talked to investigators looking into the company. And there’s this:
[Giuliani] met with the current prosecutor multiple times in New York this year. The current prosecutor general later told associates that, during one of the meetings, Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Trump excitedly to brief him on his findings, according to people familiar with the conversations.
There is a genuine scandal in the works here. That scandal is Trump and Giuliani using U.S. foreign policy to press a country that’s critically dependent on U.S. support into being used as a tool against political opponents.
What has Trump done with the information that Giuliani “excitedly” passed along? He’s called William Barr about it and “suggested” he would like the Department of Justice to look into the situation. Which is … exactly what Kamala Harris asked Barr about. And exactly what he hedged on answering.
Trump is using the Department of Justice directly to gather information he can use against the man he sees as his most likely opponent in 2020. He’s using Giuliani to push around a foreign government and interfere in a foreign investigation.
That’s a real scandal.