As former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden maintains a narrow lead in the Democratic primary polls, current president Donald Trump continues to do everything he can take his rival down. Yet the president's recent public efforts to link Biden to a corruption scandal in Ukraine have been undermined by bombshell news of a whistleblower complaint from within the American intelligence community. The allegation is that Trump privately urged Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son's dealings in that country, and the complaint's timing has also raised the possibility that Trump threatened to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine unless Zelensky did his bidding. Three years after benefitting from clandestine foreign interference in a U.S. presidential election, it seems that Trump is trying to facilitate another interference himself.
How did the Biden family get involved in Ukraine?
In February 2014, a popular revolution in Ukraine deposed its then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. The Russian government, which supported Yanukovych, invaded Ukraine and annexed the country's Crimean Peninsula region shortly thereafter, and the Obama administration tapped Biden to quarterback the American diplomatic response to the unfolding crisis. Among Biden's proposals was a strategy to boost gas production as a way of maintaining energy and economic independence in light of the hostilities with its neighbor. "Imagine where you’d be today if you were able to tell Russia: ‘Keep your gas,’" he mused to Ukrainian lawmakers. "It would be a very different world."
Meanwhile, in April of that year, Hunter Biden—the vice president's son, now 49 years old—was appointed to the board of directors of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. At the time, good-government activists raised a few common-sense red flags about the arrangement. “If an investigator sees the son of the vice president of the United States is part of the management of a company…that investigator will be uncomfortable pushing the case forward,” said Daria Keleniuk, who heads Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Action Center (ACA), to the Wall Street Journal. A Biden spokesperson countered that Hunter was a private citizen, and reiterated that the vice president "does not endorse any particular company and has no involvement with this company." Life went on.
Later in 2014, the Ukrainian prosecutor general opened a corruption investigation of Burisma Holdings owner Mykola Zlochevsky, whose two-year tenure as Ukraine's Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, from 2010 to 2012, gave rise to concerns that he had used his position in government to enrich himself. In 2015, a new prosecutor general named Viktor Shokin took over the office and, by extension, the Burisma investigation.
By all accounts, Shokin was comically inept and/or corrupt, and refused to investigate many of the oligarchs and bureaucrats—including Zlochevsky—whose alleged misconduct helped spark the revolution in the first place. As the New York Times's Andrew Kramer wrote in March 2016, Shokin shrugged his shoulders when "troves of diamonds, cash, and other valuables" were found in the homes of several Shokin colleagues—suggesting the receipt of bribes. The affair became known in Ukraine as the "diamond prosecutors" case when a handful of defiant prosecutors underneath him tried to bring a case and he fired or reassigned them.
As a result, many world leaders began calling for Shokin's ouster—including Biden, who opined in December 2015 that corruption was eating at the country "like a cancer." Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned that absent a "substantial new effort" to enact anti-corruption reforms, it was "hard to see" how the IMF's bailout of the economy "can continue and be successful." The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, labeled Shokin's office as an "obstacle" to such reform efforts, and said it was "making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining" them.
Where does this go wrong?
In a 2018 speech at a Council on Foreign Relations event, Biden recalled meeting in Kiev with then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko shortly after Poroshenko issued a vague promise to "take action" against Shokin. Biden told attendees that he had threatened to withhold about $1 billion in U.S. loans unless Shokin was fired posthaste. "I looked at them and said, 'I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,'" he remembered as the audience laughed. "Well, son of a bitch. He got fired." The Ukrainian parliament indeed voted in late March to remove Shokin from office.
What is the Trump administration's version of this story?
That Vice President Biden wanted Shokin gone not because Shokin was inept and/or corrupt, but in order to stop the investigation into the energy company on whose board of directors his son served.
What evidence exists for this thesis?
None, really. If anything, Biden calling for the ouster of a prosecutor who wasn't investigating Zlochevsky would have made things worse for his son's company, not better. And even for a man prone to gaffes, it seems rather unlikely that Biden would view a public speech a prudent forum in which to discuss his role in a grand diplomatic blackmail scheme. As the ACA's Kaleniuk put it to the Washington Post in July, "Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation."
In May, then-prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko told Bloomberg that his office had turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either Biden. After a ten-month investigation, Lutsenko's office cleared Zlochevsky, too. On April 21, the country elected a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who parlayed four years of playing the Ukrainian president in a popular TV satire to a real-life election win—roughly the equivalent of Julia Louis-Dreyfus transitioning from the series finale of Veep to a successful bid to become the next Vice President of the United States.
How have Trump and his allies reacted these developments?
By continuing to insist that something in Ukraine is amiss—and that the powers that be simply haven't looked hard enough yet. Since Zelensky's election, former New York City mayor and bumbling television lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been beating the proverbial scandal drum about the Biden family's comings and goings in Ukraine. "The media blackout of the investigations in Ukraine of alleged Democrat corruption is further proof of a double standard," he tweeted on April 28, three days after Biden announced his 2020 candidacy. Giuliani has also taken an interest in allegations that Ukrainian government officials provided Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign with damaging information about Trump's then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, a onetime Yanukovych consultant who is now serving a multiyear federal prison sentence.
For anyone who remembers the Hillary Clinton emails saga or the Seth Rich conspiracy theories, the playbook is a familiar one: make a few vague, ominous-sounding statements linking political adversaries to nefarious-sounding scandals, and let the conspiracy theorists fill in the blanks. In a wild September 19 exchange with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Giuliani both denied asking Ukrainian officials to look into Joe Biden and admitted to asking Ukrainian officials to look into Joe Biden within 30 seconds.
Over the summer, Giuliani met with the current prosecutor general and other high-level Ukrainian officials, and even announced plans to travel to Kiev to meet with Zelensky in person—only to cancel after, as he put it, Democrats tried to "spin" his efforts to meddle in the 2020 election as efforts to meddle in the 2020 election.
Now, what's this about a whistleblower?
Last month, a still-anonymous intelligence official filed a whistleblower complaint with Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community. According to the Washington Post, the complaint stemmed from a "promise" Trump allegedly made to a foreign leader during a phone conversation on July 25. Then, the Wall Street Journal identified the leader in question as Zelensky, and reported that Trump had asked him "about eight times" to reopen the government's investigation into the Bidens—and suggested that he consult with Giuliani on how to proceed.
Also this summer, the Trump administration held up some $250 million in military aid that Congress had already appropriated to Ukraine. The timeline here is a little fuzzy: Trump held up the money in early July, before the call with Zelensky, and then released it on September 12. The White House has not released a transcript of the call, so we don't know yet if Trump actually floated any sort of quid pro quo arrangement. Even if the president didn't explicitly do so, however, the timing doesn't look good—especially since the Democratic chairs of three House committees had announced an investigation of their own into Giuliani's mysterious Ukrainian lobbying efforts on September 9, just three days before the aid package's release.
Giuliani did not help matters in his interview with Cuomo, during which he asserted that the president "has every right to tell the president of another country" to "straighten out the corruption in your country if you want me to give you a lot of money." Nor did he help matters in a Fox Business appearance on Monday, when he told Maria Bartiromo that he could not say the story that Trump had threatened to cut off aid to Ukraine is "100 percent" false.
What has Trump said about the phone call?
"It doesn't matter what I discussed," he told reporters last Friday, calling his call with Zelensky "totally appropriate." It was a "perfectly fine and routine conversation" in which "[n]othing was said that was in any way wrong," he tweeted on Saturday. On Sunday, Trump again described the conversation as "absolutely perfect," and denied the existence of any quid pro quo arrangement. He admitted, however, that the two had talked about the Bidens.
The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.
What's the status of that whistleblower complaint?
Federal law requires the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to forward "urgent" whistleblower concerns to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees for review. Yet the acting DNI, Joseph Macguire, has refused to do so, stating that the complaint material involves "confidential" and "potentially privileged communications" by people who are not within the intelligence community. Over the weekend, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff told CBS's Face the Nation that Macguire explained that he's answering to a "higher authority" in refusing to turn it over; DNI, as the Washington Post notes, is a Cabinet-level position that answers to the president.
How have House Democrats responded to this?
Literally by issuing a strongly-worded letter.
If the Administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.
Does that letter, which alleges the commission of "a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the President," use the word "impeachment"?
It does not.
That's No Joke. Consider: He is the most quietly effective politician in D.C. (Don't laugh.) The "Most Influential Vice President in History." (Seriously, stop laughing.) One of our nation's most senior statesmen. (Look it up!) So why is the man who could be the next president also the butt of so many jokes? Jeanne Marie Laskas gets to know the most misunderstood man in Washington.
Originally Appeared on GQ