Sooner or later, Donald Trump’s impeachment defense had to come down to a claim that he wasn’t seeking election interference from foreign nations, but merely urging them to investigate corruption.
There was nowhere else for Trump to go.
Trump’s solicitation of Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden can no longer be disputed. Aware of that inescapable fact, Trump pivoted from denial to open admission.
Trump’s admission that he asked Ukraine and China to investigate his likely opponent in the 2020 election goes part of the way toward establishing a violation of law.
But it doesn’t go all the way.
Asking a foreign country to undertake an investigation of alleged corruption, by itself, isn’t necessarily illegal—or even wrong. Using the power of the United States to push allies and adversaries to fight corruption can be a good thing in appropriate circumstances. For example: When a U.S. president urges neighboring countries to fight the corruption created by drug cartels, this is an entirely appropriate use of executive power.
What isn’t good—or legal—is asking a foreign country to interfere with a U.S. election. And it doesn’t take a quid pro quo—“you help me politically and I’ll do something for you”—to make such a request illegal. With—or without—a quid pro quo, requesting foreign election interference is both egregiously wrong and illegal. This is not a matter of opinion. It is black-letter law: No person may “solicit, accept, or receive” a contribution of money “or other thing of value” from a foreign national.
Which is why Trump was left with no options.
Unable to deny the fact of his solicitation of Ukraine and China, Trump had to deny the purpose. It wasn’t help in the 2020 election that Trump was seeking when he asked Ukraine and China to investigate his political rival, his story goes. It was all just part of Trump’s War on Corruption:
Never mind that nobody ever heard of Trump’s War on Corruption, or that it seems to be focused exclusively on Joe Biden and his family.
Never mind that the War on Corruption seems to have never come up in Trump’s dealings with corrupt governments such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or the Philippines.
Never mind that Biden isn’t the only candidate in the 2020 race with a child doing business in China: Ivanka Trump received valuable trademarks from China—despite the fact that she had already closed her brand due to declining sales—just as Trump was engaging in negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
No, never mind all that. If Trump was going to try to present himself as a corruption fighter instead of an election fixer, he had to come up with something about the Bidens that could be passed off, at least to his base, as corruption worthy of investigation.
Enter Hunter Biden.
In the words of a former aide, “Hunter is super rich terrain” for political attack: “Hunter’s proximity to power shaped the arc of his career.” In plain English, he has made a career out of being his father’s son. The story of his troubled life—including the loss of his mother in a car wreck, career false-starts, struggles with alcohol and cocaine, failed rehabs—doesn’t come from opposition research, but from Hunter’s own painful, public soul baring. None of this has been secret.
If Trump was going to take advantage of this target of opportunity, he would have to amp up the story with allegations of something that looked like corruption, and somehow reflected not only on Hunter, but on Joe Biden.
Enter Steve Bannon and his gang of conspiracy-mongering trolls.
Bannon is the founder of the “Government Accountability Institute.” Despite its name, this organization, largely funded by billionaire Trump supporter Robert Mercer, isn’t about accountability at all.
It’s a dirt machine.
As Joshua Green describes in his book Devil’s Bargain, Bannon designed the organization as a means of transmitting partisan dirt-digging to the mainstream media. Its president is a Breitbart News editor-at-large named Peter Schweizer. It’s the same organization that ginned up phony stories about the Clintons for use in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In March of 2018, Schweizer and the Institute published a book that supposedly laid out conflicts of interest arising out of Hunter Biden’s service on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. And he tried to dirty up Hunter’s father by suggesting that Joe Biden had used his position as vice president to squelch an investigation that threatened his son with criminal prosecution.
While most of Trump’s conspiracy theories are too convoluted to comprehend, much less buy into, this one is quite simple. Trump’s accusation about the Biden family’s dealings with Ukraine boils down to the following:
(1) In 2014, Hunter Biden took a high-paying position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company run by a shady oligarch. Biden’s only qualification for this position was that he was the son of the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden.
(2) In 2016, Vice President Biden strong-armed the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in order to thwart an investigation into Burisma that threatened to expose wrongdoing by his son.
That’s it. That’s the whole story.
The first piece of this narrative is largely true. Hunter Biden taking a highly-paid board position in a shady Ukrainian gas company at the same time his father was pushing Ukraine to clean up corruption was inappropriate. It rightly raised questions of at least the appearance of conflicts of interest.
But the second piece of Trump’s conspiracy theory, that Joe Biden wrongly brought about the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor in order to protect his son from indictment for corruption, isn’t just false—it’s the opposite of true.
In fact, Shokin was fired for precisely the opposite reason: He was fired because he wasn’t pursuing corruption among the country’s politicians. Firing him didn’t end and couldn’t have ended Shokin’s inquiry into Burisma because he wasn’t conducting one.
If anything, the firing of Shokin would have been counter to Hunter’s business interests. And in any case, by urging Ukraine to fire Shokin Biden was executing U.S. foreign policy decisions that had been made in close consultation with our Western allies, the International Monetary Fund, and anti-corruption organizations in Ukraine and elsewhere.
In a nutshell, Trump’s attempt to smear Biden for doing his job is an Alice-in-Wonderland level fairy tale that takes the truth and turns it into the opposite of reality.
And the same is true of Trump’s asking the repressive Communist government of China to investigate the Bidens. It appears to be manufactured out of nothing.
Trump has suggested that China gave Hunter Biden $1.5 billion for influencing his father to enter trade deals that favored China more than the United States. “You know what they call that? They call that a payoff,” Trump bellowed.
And while it’s true that companies associated with Hunter Biden (and members of Trump’s family), have done business with China over the past decade, there’s no evidence that Hunter Biden got rich from it, much less that he became a billionaire. In fact, Hunter Biden’s lawyer says that Hunter earned nothing from the venture that Trump seems to be citing.
According to the New York Times, the $1.5 billion that Trump attributed to Hunter Biden appears to be the amount of money that a Shanghai-based company aimed to raise in 2014. While Hunter Biden had an unpaid position on the company’s board at the time, he owned no interest in it until he purchased one in 2017, more than a year after his father had left the vice presidency.
This isn’t a War on Corruption. It’s a War on Biden.
And the purpose of the War on Biden is to solicit foreign governments to contribute something of value—propaganda against a likely opponent—to Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign.