Watching the media cycle around President Trump’s apparent abuse of power—and the underlying Biden nontroversy in Ukraine—gives me a frustrating, helpless feeling. It’s like when you’re watching a horror movie and the psychopath with a chainsaw is creeping up on some clueless dupe and you scream, “HE’S. RIGHT. BEHIND. YOU.” You know it’s going to turn out badly and Leatherface is going to wind up doing his happy dance—but AGGH you want to try to help anyway.
Part of the reason it’s so frustrating is that we all know the script by now. Trump uses his perch for corrupt ends in the most ham-handed, farcical way imaginable. Then he denies it happened. As the truth seeps out through blind leaks, the position changes from denial to self-aggrandizement: Hell yeah I did it. What of it? Then comes the misdirection where the Trumpists pivot from defending the president’s actions to exaggerating some alleged misdoing by a Democrat and claiming it’s way worse than whatever crime Trump admitted to. Because while it wasn’t a crime and Trump is proud of doing it, the Democrat who maybe might have done something vaguely similar is totally corrupt and Lock her up, baby!
It is maddening. And most of the mainstream media has turned out to be ill-equipped to handle Trump’s gaslighting, eagerly repeatinghis false accusations without the requisite context. And meanwhile, the Trump-friendly conservative outlets are his comrades-in-alternative-facts, giving legions of MAGA warriors the ammo they need to flood their Facebook feeds with the latest misinformation.
But despite the frustrating reality, the only way to combat or change this cycle is to disrupt it. So consider this is a humble attempt to do just that and provide some clarity to those of you who are too busy to bathe in the minutiae of the Ukranian prosecutor’s office and might be susceptible to throwing up your hands and placing a pox on both their houses.
(1) Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, did take consulting work for a Ukrainian oil company, Burisma, that was under investigation by a Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for the work under the prior Russian-allied regime. This is where the true part of the Trump disinformation comes to an end.
(2) The problem was that Shokin actively stood in the way of international investigations that the U.S. and other democratic reformers were pursuing.
(3) Vice President Biden, U.S. diplomats, and our E.U. allies all called on the prosecutor to be fired so the corrupt oligarchs could be investigated MORE AGGRESSIVELY. This includes the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine calling out by name Mykola Zlochevsky, the oligarch who ran the company Hunter Biden worked for, as someone this prosecutor was letting off the hook.
(4) Donald Trump was allegedly pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate a domestic political foe on a bogus conspiracy for personal gain. Joe Biden was pressuring the Ukrainian government to root out corruption in their own country and bring about democratic reforms.
(5) For the kids in the back:
PRESSURING A FOREIGN GOVERNMENT TO INTERFERE ON YOUR BEHALF IN DOMESTIC ELECTIONS = VERY BAD.
PRESSURING A FOREIGN GOVERNMENT TO INVESTIGATE CROOKS = GOOD.
Despite this, many news outlets are simply reporting this chain of events as Biden trying to push out a prosecutor who was investigating a company his son consulted for. While this is, technically, true, it does not include the one fact that is most germane to the situation: that this prosecutor was being pushed out for not investigating the company hard enough.
There’s a 2015 speech by the United States Ambassador to Ukraine which lays this case out in explicit detail with regards to Zlochesvky and Burisma:
We have learned that there have been times that the PGO not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases.
For example, in the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, the U.K. authorities had seized $23 million in illicit assets that belonged to the Ukrainian people. Officials at the PGO’s office were asked by the U.K. to send documents supporting the seizure.
Instead they sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him. As a result the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus.
The misconduct by the PGO officials who wrote those letters should be investigated, and those responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should—at a minimum—be summarily terminated.
It bears mentioning that in contrast to the Trump foreign policy where diplomats words are meaningless and are regularly undermined by haphazard Trump tweets based on Fox News segments, during the Obama years—and every other modern presidency—ambassadors spoke on behalf of the government and their comments were vetted by the State Department and White House.
So the Obama administration was not only arguing that they wanted Hunter Biden’s client to be investigated, but that this case was one of the prime examples where the Ukrainian prosecutor was failing to do his job and was actively standing in the way of international investigations and colluding on behalf of the oligarch.
To suggest that this was some effort to clear Zlochevsky, you would have to rely on an absurd House of Cardsian conspiracy where Biden had an ambassador plant this false flag criticism into a random speech at an international forum. This theory may seem totally compelling to a thrice-divorced mayor who’s a dozen scotches deep at Cafe Milano at 8 o’clock on a Thursday night.
But for the rest of us there seem to be some holes in the theory.
Robert Mackey, formerly of the New York Times and now at the Intercept, has covered this story closely for years. His multiple, deeply-reported stories on the subject show that everyone who was concerned about fighting corruption in Ukraine wanted the prosecutor ousted. Here’s Mackey:
“Shokin was fired,” the executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, told me in May, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”
Contemporary reporting around Shokin’s firing demonstrates that this view was widespread. The Irish Times led their story on the sacking stating that “the European Union has welcomed the dismissal of Ukraine’s scandal-ridden prosecutor general and called for a crackdown on corruption.” The New York Times reported that Shokin was dogged by a case where two of his subordinates absconded with “troves of diamonds, cash and other valuables” without prosecution. “When a department in Mr. Shokin’s office tried to bring it to trial, the prosecutors were fired or resigned.” The Atlantic Council’s Ukraine fellow wrote that Shokin was an “odious prosecutor general” who “skillfully blocked reform” and fired his “honest deputy” as the last act before he was removed from office.
Every available piece of evidence points to Biden spearheading a genuine anti-corruption effort that was in line with U.S. values and the wishes of our allies.
And yet Trump is poised to replay the crooked playbook. In 2016 the grifting accusations against Hillary Clinton had merit, but paled in comparison to the naked money-grubbing graft of the Trump family. And now Hunter Biden has made this water-muddying easy for team Trump. Hunter has indeed colored outside the lines: His rap sheet of personal and professional crises paint quite the picture. But if having a boob for a son was disqualification for the presidency, we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with.
Donald Trump’s great innovation as a political actor is that he discovered how to weaponize the media against the country. He realized that the media’s traditional attempt to present balance in its political coverage meant that he could do just about anything, and reporters would feel compelled to contact some source to explain how, if you squint, it might be normal and bookers would put someone on air to defend him. The idea of “balance” required the media to always present a dissenting view of Trump, no matter how egregiously wrong his actions might be.
He also realized that the media’s imperative to run down every story meant that he could always distract them from one scandal by creating another. It’s the political version of chaff: One scandal can end your presidency. A hundred of them is just white noise.
But we don’t have to continue living this cycle. We can stop playing along with it. What happened in Ukraine, after-all, is not a game. Sometimes things are cut and dry. Sometimes one man is fighting corruption and the other guy is corrupting all of us, on purpose.
This is one of those times.