Democratic candidate Tom Steyer backs rival Joe Biden around impeachment inquiry, says he 'should be left out of this'

Long-shot presidential candidate Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and leading Democratic donor, ruled out attacks on former Vice President Biden at the next Democratic primary debate over the allegations that are central to the impeachment inquiry.

“This is an attempted smear by the Trump campaign. Just the way he tried to smear Hillary Clinton,” Steyer said in an interview with Yahoo News Thursday, defending his political rival. “I think that Mr. Biden should be left out of this. I don’t think he’s done anything wrong. I think a bunch of newspapers looked at it and decided he hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Set off by a whistleblower complaint against President Trump over his repeated calls for Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter and allegedly withholding almost $400 million in military aid from Ukraine as leverage, an impeachment inquiry was announced earlier this week. Trump denounced the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry, which had been announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, and turned to attacking Biden.

Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have accused Biden, during his term as vice president, of intervening with the government of Ukraine in an effort to advance his son’s business interests there.

Steyer, who has been described as “fiercely competitive and used to getting his way,” said he will continue to believe Biden “unless something new comes up,” but doubts anything will.

“I don’t think there’s any question that that’s a red herring in this story,” he said. “The story here is that the president of the United States once again put himself ahead of the American people and used his office to help himself.”

Before Steyer announced his White House bid two months ago, he launched in 2017 a public education campaign, “Need to Impeach,” investing about $40 million in “a national movement of passionate, energetic advocates committed to removing Donald Trump from office.”

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer at the Yahoo offices in New York City on Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo: Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer at the Yahoo offices in New York City on Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo: Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

Steyer took to Twitter Tuesday to cheer the inquiry decision: “Two years ago, we began a movement to hold this lawless, criminal president accountable. We are finally at a watershed moment. The beginning of an official impeachment inquiry is the beginning of taking our democracy back.”

He now says “it feels like the grassroots won, like the people of the United States were on this.”

“This was always about the people, and it’s still about the people,” Steyer continued. “In fact, the actual court that counts is the court of public opinion.”

Pelosi, who has stressed for some time that any impeachment process should be understandable to the general public and that the case against Trump needs to be “ironclad,” said, “Public sentiment is everything.”

“With it, you can accomplish almost anything,” she said on Tuesday. “Without it, practically nothing.”

Of the Ukraine scandal, Pelosi said, “We have many other, shall we say, candidates for impeachable offenses … but this one is the most understandable by the public.”

Trump called the impeachment talk “ridiculous” and another “witch hunt.” On Thursday, after his acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified on Capitol Hill about the whistleblower complaint and confirmed the still-unidentified official “did the right thing,” the president lamented that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff would not look into Biden and his son’s dealings in Ukraine.

The unnamed whistleblower cited conversations and details provided by “more than half a dozen U.S. officials,” alleging that Trump is “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” These efforts included Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, urging the government in Kiev to investigate Biden’s role in pressing for the ouster of state prosecutor Viktor Shokin in 2016.

Biden, as vice president, led diplomatic efforts to end corruption in Ukraine, including lobbying for the removal of Shokin, widely regarded by both U.S. and Western European governments as corrupt. Shokin had investigated an energy company that had put Hunter Biden on its board of directors at a salary reported to be $50,000 a month. But Shokin’s investigation had ended without charges before the vice president’s involvement, and there is no evidence in public — although Giuliani claims to possess it — that Joe Biden was intervening to help his son.

Biden has led in almost every Democratic poll all year until this week, when several new surveys put him tied or very slightly behind Elizabeth Warren. In a different poll, he maintained a double-digit lead, but a smaller one than a month ago. He said last weekend, “Trump’s doing this because he knows I’ll beat him like a drum. And he’s using the abuse of power and every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me.”

Even before Pelosi approved plans for an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, the White House and Trump’s campaign were preparing a counterattack. Comments from top Trump staffers encapsulate the three major elements of the president’s emerging impeachment playbook: predicting the effort will backfire on Democrats, arguing the opposition has wanted to oust Trump from the moment he was elected and trying to shift the focus on Biden.

The Biden campaign said it would hold the media responsible if it neglects to put the charges in context.

“Biden and his team think they have the answers. Among their conclusions: There are no guardrails. No one else will fight your battles. Responding to accusations from Mr. Trump and his allies — even to deny them — only gives them oxygen. And haranguing the referees in the media is a must,” wrote the New York Times.

But the silence has led to concerns that the Democratic frontrunner might share Clinton’s fate if he doesn’t respond to the accusation head-on while Trump revives his 2016 playbook.

“Hunter Biden could end up being the 2020 version of Hillary’s emails,” Steven Levitsky, the co-author, with Daniel Ziblatt, of “How Democracies Die” told Politico. “In the case of these baseless allegations, it is essential that all the major Democratic candidates line up and defend Biden against those charges.”

Steyer said he doesn’t fear that the impeachment inquiry will overshadow his campaign or preempt discussing important issues such as health care or climate change at the next Democratic debate.

“Impeachment to me is right among issues that have to do with the grassroots [movement],” he said. “So if that’s what we want to talk about, this sort of proves my thesis that, in fact, the grassroots is a success, that’s where the wisdom of the United States is and that is what we should be paying attention to.”

Grassroots, Steyer said, is about taking on power and winning, and the initiation of a full-blown impeachment inquiry “is a great example.”

“I’m not scared to talk about this,” he said.

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: