In his July 25th phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump asked for a "favor"--that Zelensky launch public investigations supporting two of Trump's conspiracy theories: that the government of Ukraine--and not Russia--interfered in the U.S. 2016 election to support Clinton over Trump, and that Vice President Joe Biden had used his political influence to protect the economic interests of his son Hunter Biden in the Ukrainian company Burisma. Both of these conspiracy theories came to him from Rudy Guiliani and Fox News. Now, Trump is saying that the impeachment trial in the Senate should investigate these theories.
The historical chronology for all of this begins in February of 2014. In the Revolution of Dignity, pro-Russia Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and his government were overthrown, and he fled to Russia. The new government was moving towards the West and away from Russian influence. Russia's response was to annex the Crimean territory of the Ukraine in March and to launch an invasion in April of the Donbass, the eastern portion of the Ukraine. The war in the Donbass continues today.
The United States and the European Community pledged to support the Ukraine against Russian aggression. In the Obama Administration, Vice President Joe Biden became the primary leader in advancing the American policies towards the Ukraine. He visited the Ukraine five times.
On May 13th of 2014, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, was appointed to the board of Burisma, one of the largest natural gas firms in the Ukraine, and a company with a reputation for corruption in a country where corruption is rampant. Hunter Biden has had a tumultuous life that has made him the black sheep of the Biden family: he has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, a bitter divorce from his first wife, and a sexual affair with the widow of his older brother Beau (Entous 2019). It was not clear why Burisma would want him on their board other than having the support of the son of the Vice President.
This created at least the appearance of a politically corrupt conflict of interest. In early December of 2015, Vice President Biden travelled to the Ukraine to argue for an anti-corruption campaign in that country and to warn that a billion dollars in promised U.S. loans to the Ukraine might be withheld if Viktor Shokin, prosecutor general for the Ukraine, was not fired, because Shokin was known to be corrupt himself and was not prosecuting corruption. Shokin was later fired by Parliament in March of 2016.
Giuliani and Trump have said that the Vice President did this because Shokin was going to prosecute Burisma, and thus the Vice President was advancing the economic interests of his son. Actually, what they don't say is that Shokin had failed to pursue any investigation of Burisma, and many countries and international agencies had called for Shokin's firing because of his failure to fight corruption.
But still the appearance of political favoritism in the Vice President's son serving on Burisma's board was pointed out in a New York Times article on December 8, 2015. The author--James Risen--observed that "the credibility of the vice president's anticorruption message may have been undermined by the association of his son, Hunter Biden, with one of Ukraine's largest natural gas companies, Burisma" (Risen 2015). There was no evidence then or subsequently that the Vice President had used his power to help his son, but the appearance of possible misbehavior was there. A few weeks ago, Risen, who now writes for The Intercept, lamented: "It's strange to see my journalism twisted, perverted, and turned into lies and poisonous propaganda by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and their enablers. But that's what has happened to a news story I wrote four years ago" (Risen 2019).
Clearly, Joe and Hunter Biden are guilty of bad judgment. Hunter Biden should have seen that he would create the semblance of misconduct by joining Burisma. And Joe Biden should have warned Hunter not to do this. Joe Biden has said that he never talks with Hunter about his work, and so there is no possibility that he might favor Hunter's company. But, again, that ignores the public perception of possible corruption.
Beginning in 2018, pro-Trump partisans began to exploit the opportunity here for misinformation about the Bidens, which led to Trump's call with President Zilensky on July 25, and then the impeachment hearings. In March of 2018, Peter Schweizer published Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, which became a bestseller. Schweizer is editor-at-large at Breitbart News and the President of the Government Accountability Institute, which was founded by Stephen Bannon with money from Robert Mercer. Bannon's aim was to promote right-wing propaganda attacking Hillary Clinton and other leaders of the Democratic Party, with the hope that this propaganda would eventually be transmitted into the mainstream media (Mayer 2019).
Secret Empires includes a chapter on "Bidens in Ukraine," where one can see the rhetorical strategy of mixing facts with innuendo and unsupported assertions to lead the reader to think that the Bidens have been engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine, which is the strategy employed by Giuliani, Fox News, Trump, and Republicans like Devin Nunes. As you read this chapter, you need to ask the question: Where is the exact evidence that the Bidens are guilty of corruption? The answer is that there is no such evidence.
Consider, for example, this passage:
"Biden consulted regularly with the Ukrainian president by telephone and made five trips to the Ukraine between 2014 and 2017. He did so at the same time that his son and his son's business partners prepared to strike a profitable deal with controversial and reportedly violent oligarchs, Kolomolsky and Zlochevsky, who would benefit from his actions" (60).Notice how Schweizer creates by innuendo the impression that since the Vice President's discussions with Ukrainian officials occurred "at the same time" that his son was seeking profitable deals in Ukraine, the Vice President might have been helping his son, but without any direct evidence that this was the case.
You should also notice Schweizer's citations of sources. First, if you read these sources, you will see that much of his writing has been plagiarized from these sources and from some Wikipedia articles. But you will also see that his main sources on the corruption of Burisma--such as articles by James Stafford and Andrew Cockburn--do not even mention Hunter Biden! So, yes, Burisma has a history of corruption, and yes, Hunter Biden can be faulted for serving on the board of such a company. But still there is no evidence here that the Bidens were engaged in corrupt conduct.
Consider another passage:
"On January 16, 2017, Air Force Two was descending on Borypol Airport, just southeast of Ukraine's capital. This would be Joe Biden's last foreign trip before leaving office. It was cold and dark. Dressed in an overcoat, he descended the stairs quickly and was met by a delegation from the Foreign Ministry on the tarmac. This was his Ukrainian 'swan song,' as Reuters put it. 'a farewell visit by one of Ukraine's strongest political supporters.' The Obama Administration, under Biden's direction, had poured some $3 billion into the country. Later that evening he met with the prime minister of Ukraine, and then a late-evening meeting with his friend Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president. As the Kyiv Post reported, that later meeting was to be 'behind closed doors, and details of most of their discussion won't be made public.'"
"Four days before Biden arrived, Burisma made a dramatic announcement: the Ukrainian criminal investigation into the company and its founder had been ended by Ukrainian government prosecutors" (67-68).Notice the dark drama: "It was cold and dark. Dressed in an overcoat, he descended the stairs quickly." And the secrecy: "a late-evening meeting . . . behind closed doors." This is followed by Burisma's "dramatic announcement" that investigations had been ended. Aha, don't you see the connection? But what exactly is the connection if the announcement occurred four days before Biden arrived? And where's the evidence that Joe Biden's influence caused the ending of the investigations? The evidence is not there, but the readers still see the conclusion that Schweizer wants them to draw.
By late 2018, six months after the publication of Schweizer's book, Giuliani as Trump's personal lawyer is promoting the Biden Ukraine conspiracy theory in interviews and on Twitter. On April 1, 2019, John Solomon writes an article for The Hill propagating Schweizer's story. During that month of April, there are at least a dozen Fox News segments with Schweizer and Solomon promoting the story.
Finally, on May 1, 2019, Bannon and his friends achieve their final objective--their conspiracy theory is picked up by the mainstream media in a front page article in The New York Times by Kenneth Vogel and Iulia Mandel under the title "Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies." Giuliani and many others send out Tweets linking to this article. The oddity here is that this is The New York Times--supposedly the leader of the anti-Trump "fake news media"!
Here are the first four paragraphs of that article:
"It was a foreign policy role Joseph R. Biden Jr. enthusiastically embraced during his vice presidency: browbeating Ukraine's notoriously corrupt government to clean up its act. And one of his most memorable performances came on a trip to Kiev in December 2015, when he threatened to withhold $1 billion in United States loan guarantees if Ukraine's leaders did not dismiss the country's top prosecutor, who had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in his own office and among the political elite."
"The pressure campaign eventually worked. The prosecutor general, long a target of criticism from other Western nations and international lenders, was voted out months later by the Ukrainian Parliament."
"Among those who had a stake in the outcome was Hunter Biden, Mr. Biden's younger son, who at the time was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general."
"Hunter Biden was a Yale-educated lawyer who had served on the boards of Amtrak and a number of nonprofit organizations and think tanks, but lacked any experience in Ukraine and just months earlier had been discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. he would be paid as much as $50,000 per month in some months for his work for the company, Burisma Holdings."This summarizes exactly the story being told by Schweizer, Soloman, Guiliani, Fox News, and Trump. It's the same story we heard repeated by some of the Republicans in the impeachment hearings. But, again, notice that these opening paragraphs convey the innuendo of corrupt misconduct by the Bidens in Ukraine with no supporting evidence.
It's not until the 19th paragraph of this article that we see the only sentence in the whole article about evidence: "No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general's dismissal." Consider how different this article would have been if this had been the first sentence of the article, followed by an account of how Giuliani and other Trump allies have proposed a Biden/Ukraine/Burisma conspiracy theory unsupported by evidence.
Giuliani had meet with Yuri Lutsenko, who had succeeded Shokin as Ukrainian prosecutor general until August of this year. Giuliani claimed that Lutsenko confirmed the Biden conspiracy. But then in May and again in September, Lutsenko denied this by saying that Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws, and "Hunter Biden cannot be responsible for violations of the management of Burisma that took place two years before his arrival" (Birnbaum et al. 2019).
Hunter Biden left the board of Burisma in April of this year. His father has not publicly admitted his bad judgment in allowing his son to work for Burisma, which created the perception of misconduct that exposed him to the deceptive rhetoric of Guliani and Trump. In an interview with ABC News, Hunter has denied that there was any unethical conduct in his work for Burisma. But he did admit that in hindsight his joining Burisma was a matter of bad judgment, because he did not anticipate the problems it would create for his father. He also admitted that he probably would not have had the corporate jobs that he has had if his last name had not been Biden.
Now, isn't there something odd in Donald Trump and his son Donald Jr. accusing the Bidens of corrupt nepotism? Does anyone think that Donald Jr. and Ivanka would be working in the White House if they were not the children of the President?
In some ways, the deeper question here--beyond the partisan political debate in the United States--is how countries like Ukraine can escape their history of pervasive corruption. The answer, I suggest, is that countries like Ukraine need to adopt the legal and political institutions of a free society. In 2014, Ukraine ranked 111 out of 159 on the Human Freedom Index. In 2016, it ranked at 118. Many of the criteria for the Human Freedom Index involved factors like the rule of law, the protection of property, and the fair administration of justice that reduce the opportunities for corruption. This supports the American foreign policy objection of promoting Ukraine's aspirations for moving towards freedom and away from Russian authoritarianism. (I have written about the Human Freedom Index here.)
Birnbaum, Michael, David Stern, and Natalie Gryvnyak. 2019. "Former Ukraine Prosecutor Says Hunter Biden "Did Not Violate Anything." The Washington Post, September 26.
Entous, Adam. 2019. "Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father's Campaign?" The New Yorker, July 8 & 15 isssue.
Mayer, Jane. 2019. "The Invention of the Conspiracy Theory on Biden and Ukraine." The New Yorker, October 4.
Risen, James. 2015. "Joe Biden, His Son, and the Case Against a Ukrainian Oligarch." The New York Times, December 6.
Risen, James. 2019. "I Wrote about the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside Down." The Intercept, September 25.
Schweizer, Peter. 2018. Secret Enemies: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. New York: Harper/Collins.
Solomon, John. 2019. "Joe Biden's Ukrainian Nightmare." The Hill. April 1.
Vogel, Kenneth P., and Iuliia Mendel. 2019. "Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies." The New York Times, May 1.