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It’s clear, at this point, that President Trump should be very worried about Ukraine, with a flurry of damning details emerging Thursday: a report in the Wall Street Journal that he ordered the removal of the ambassador to Ukraine after months of complaints from his allies that she was obstructing efforts to investigate Joe Biden; a report in the New York Times that two of Trump’s top envoys to Ukraine drafted a statement for the country's new president in August that would have committed Ukraine to pursuing such investigations; and a trove of newly released, smoking-gun-like text messages showing that U.S. ambassadors pushed President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden as a condition for a White House visit.
So, yes, Trump should be worried. But how worried should Joe Biden be?
For the record, before we proceed: As the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, Biden pushed for the removal of a prosecutor who was failing to pursue corruption and who both the administration and the international community wanted out. The prosecutor was not investigating Biden’s son Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and Biden was not freelancing for personal reasons. In fact, Ukrainian officials have said the Burisma probe was focused on the years 2010 to 2012, before Hunter Biden joined the board. Removing the prosecutor actually made it more likely — not less — that corruption would be investigated, including any involving Burisma. End of story.
The problem for Biden is that while he didn’t do anything wrong, Trump and his allies have spent the past 10 days throwing up smoke and saying he did — including publicly calling on China to look into the Bidens. And now they’re putting a ton of money behind their allegations.
Earlier this week, the Trump campaign announced a $10 million national TV buy centered on impeachment and Ukraine; yesterday, the campaign revealed that $1 million of that sum will be spent on anti-Biden commercials in the key early primary states of Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada. Called “Biden corruption,” the ad in question is so misleading that CNN has already refused to air it.
“CNN is rejecting the ad, as it does not meet our advertising standards,” a network spokesperson told the Daily Beast. “Specifically, in addition to disparaging CNN and its journalists, the ad makes assertions that have been proven demonstrably false by various news outlets, including CNN.”
But other networks and local stations are not obligated to do the same, and the Trump campaign has enough cash to keep pumping out anti-Biden spin indefinitely (including on Facebook, where Trump spent more than $2 million over the past week and plans to spend another $1 million attacking Biden). According to new filings, Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee raised $125 million in the third quarter of the year — five times as much as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were the quarter’s leading Democratic fundraisers, and nearly double what Barack Obama had raised at the same point in his 2012 reelection bid. Right now, the Trump campaign claims it has $156 million in cash on hand, which is likely more than every Democratic candidate combined.
Democrats are plainly concerned. According to interviews by Politico with nearly 20 Democratic National Committee members and other prominent Dems, there are “complaints that the national party isn’t delivering a digital counterpunch, that it’s getting swamped by Republican fundraising, and … that Democrats lack a prominent voice who is providing anything like the kind of sustained bombast coming from the Republican side.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, has been doing its best to push back, countering Trump’s Ukraine attacks with a planned $6 million early-state fall ad campaign and sending a letter to Fox News Thursday demanding it not run Trump’s commercial.
“Though the Trump campaign is prepared to fabricate outright lies, your station’s airwaves should not be used to disseminate them,” Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz wrote in the letter. “We are putting you on notice about the absolute falsity of the advertisement’s claims, and we expect that you will reject it."
The problem is that Biden’s counterpunching may not be enough. Already, Trump’s onslaught seems to have persuaded Ukraine’s new chief prosecutor to conduct an “audit” of the Burisma investigation, which will keep the story in the news. And there are signs that Trump’s smears are shaping public opinion. According to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, 43 percent of registered voters believe the president’s false claim that Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to keep them from investigating his son’s business ties, with 37 percent not buying the president’s allegations and one in five unsure. A plurality of independent voters (39 percent) also believe Trump’s conspiracy theory.
“The fact that four in 10 independents are inclined to believe what they have heard from Trump is a warning sign for the Biden campaign,” said Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray. “How the candidate fights back against this charge will be crucial to his argument of electability.”
It’s possible that Biden may be suffering some collateral damage among Democrats as well. On Sept. 22, the day Trump acknowledged discussing Biden in his call with the Ukrainian president, the former vice president was averaging 30.3 percent in the national polls; today he is averaging 26.2 percent, tied for his lowest number of the entire cycle. His lead over Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, has shrunk to 2.2 percent, the smallest it’s ever been.
And that is precisely Trump’s point. “By going after Biden,” Politico reported Thursday, “the Trump team hopes to pave the way for another Democrat to win the nomination. Those close to the president would prefer to run against a more liberal candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.”
Biden himself is acutely aware of the danger Trump’s strategy poses. During an appearance in Nevada on Thursday, the former vice president accused a “crazed” Trump of "repeatedly smearing me and my family” because “he’s afraid of just how badly I would beat him next November.”
"Millions of dollars in dishonest attack ads are blanketing the airwaves — paid for by the special interests so well served by his presidency,” Biden said. “He imagines that this tactic will allow him to pick his opponent and face only the candidates he thinks he can beat. Well, we’re not going to let Donald Trump choose the Democratic candidate.”
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