Trump Denies Tying Ukraine Aid to Biden Probe
It feels like deja vu: Donald Trump brands a Democratic rival as corrupt even as he’s accused of enlisting the help of a foreign country to help push the story.
In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business — and her decision to delete 30,000 emails rather than turn them over to investigators.
The story mushroomed. “Russia, if you‘re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally. Other back-door contacts with Russians became the subject of a two-year investigation of the Trump campaign and foreign interference in the election.
Now, Trump is pushing a largely discredited story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his position as a director of a Ukrainian energy company. Trump has meanwhile acknowledged discussing Joe Biden’s anti-corruption activities in Ukraine with that country’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“He’s running the same playbook essentially,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Princeton University professor who studies political scandals. “This is the same pattern repeating itself.”
But 2020 is not 2016. And Biden is not Clinton. Here’s how the two cases differ:
Trump’s allegation, unsupported by evidence, is that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general in 2016 in order to stop an investigation of Burisma Holdings, where Hunter Biden served on the board.
Biden, as vice president, did demand that Ukraine oust its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for corruption. And he later said he had threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees from Ukraine unless its leaders dismissed Shokin. The Ukrainian parliament wound up voting to remove the prosecutor.
But Shokin’s top deputy, Vitaliy Kasko, told Bloomberg News that the investigation into Burisma Holdings had been closed for more than a year before Biden addressed corruption issues with Ukraine‘s president. Kasko also sought Shokin’s ouster.
“The elements of scandal are much weaker on the Hunter Biden side than they were with Clinton,” Nyhan said. “And comparably the evidence is much stronger on the Trump side.”
Biden’s anti-corruption message to Ukraine in 2016 was consistent with Barack Obama’s national security policy and had been vetted by National Security Council staffers, said a former Obama administration official who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. The concern wasn’t that Shokin was too aggressive in pursing political corruption — it was that he wasn’t aggressive enough.
Those concerns were shared by other Western leaders, said former Obama National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. “It was something very much a live issue around the world,” he said.
Clinton broke the rules, if not the law, by keeping classified information on a home email server. The FBI decided not to bring criminal charges against the former secretary of state. But the arrangement did violate federal records laws and State Department policies, an inspector general report said.
There’s no comparable investigation into Biden, and there’s no allegation that he violated Ukrainian or U.S. law. While ethics experts questioned the appearance of Hunter Biden’s arrangement at the time, ethics rules do not apply to the grown offspring of U.S. officials, and there’s no legal requirement for the president or vice president to recuse themselves from subjects where family members also have an interest.
Fairly or unfairly, Clinton developed a reputation over 25 years in public life as being opaque about her projects. During the Whitewater land-deal controversy, subpoenaed billing records from her law firm were discovered in the White House residence with her fingerprints on them -- after she said they were missing.
Biden has no similar baggage. His public image has been caricatured as being gaffe-prone, uncomfortably touchy and given to long, rambling anecdotes. He dropped out of the 1988 Democratic presidential primary after being accused of plagiarism, but has never faced an ethics scandal.
In 2016, Clinton became the subject of two different email stories: Her handling of State Department emails through a home server, and the hacking of Democratic emails leaked by WikiLeaks and others.
Those storylines often became conflated: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!” Bernie Sanders, her 2016 primary opponent, said in a debate.
But at the time, relatively little was known about Russian attempts to exploit Clinton’s emails to get Trump elected.
Timeline of Events
Trump’s phone call to Ukraine’s president happened one day after Robert Mueller testified to a House committee about his report on Russian interference in the election and Trump’s attempts to thwart his investigation.
Mueller was ultimately unable to prove or disprove allegations that the Trump campaign actively colluded with the Russians. But the probe put Trump’s contacts with foreign leaders under a microscope for two years, heightening sensitivities about foreign interference in U.S. politics.
Clinton’s email arrangement wasn’t publicly known until the New York Times reported it in 2015.
But Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma was first reported by the Associated Press in 2014 and mentioned in contemporary news reports of Biden’s work on Ukraine issues.