Republicans want to question Joe Biden’s son Hunter and other figures at the center of a nexus of conspiracy theories and lies that Trump and his propagandists have long employed to misdirect Americans away from Trump’s own bottomless corruption.
A remarkable and important series of exchanges on “Meet the Press” — including an epic rant from a Democrat about our media’s both-sidesing tendencies — demonstrates the true nature of the game plan we’re about to see from Trump and Republicans.
It all started when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) offered a spectacularly disingenuous new defense of Trump’s corruption. First, Paul claimed Trump was right to withhold military aid from Ukraine, because Trump truly believed that Biden was, in fact, corrupt.
Then Paul insisted that in pressuring Ukraine to undertake “investigations” of Biden, Trump was doing the same thing Biden did when he withheld aid to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor. Trump’s propagandists have twisted that act into a tale of Biden-and-son corruption that is entirely fabricated. Trump extorted Ukraine to force it to somehow make that fabrication true.
Finally, Paul did concede Trump pressured a foreign country to investigate a political rival, but added that Hillary Clinton “hired a British spy to hire Russians to get dirt called the Steele Dossier,” and equated that with Trump’s conduct.
NBC News’s Chuck Todd seemed to allow Paul’s basic framing to stand unchallenged, saying at one point: “So two wrongs make a right?” That prompted this remarkable pushback from Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), which you should watch in full:
The core distinction here is between shaping foreign policy around some conception of what’s in the national interest (withholding U.S. aid to get Ukraine to battle generic corruption) and perverting foreign policy to serve Trump’s political interests (withholding aid to extort Ukraine into helping absolve Russia of 2016 electoral sabotage on Trump’s behalf and to smear a 2020 opponent).
Paul laughably tried to reconcile these things by arguing that, since Biden actually was corrupt, in withholding aid Trump was acting in the national interest, as if the fact that Biden is a 2020 rival is pure coincidence. But Biden wasn’t actually corrupt, and Trump was subverting the national interest to his own.
What Biden did in Ukraine
Fortuitously, the New York Times has a deeply reported look at what Biden really did in Ukraine during those years as vice president. Biden was carrying out U.S. foreign policy by prodding Ukraine — awash in civil unrest and corruption, getting plundered by oligarchs and under Russian assault — to undertake reforms to bring it in line with Western democratic ideals, as a bulwark against Russia.
This is the important subplot lurking beneath the scandal headlines — that in leaving Ukraine vulnerable to Russia in order to strong-arm Ukraine into carrying out his own self-interested corrupt designs, Trump retreated from the United States’ posture of siding with Ukraine in a broader battle between liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarian kleptocracy.
As Franklin Foer has shown, Biden was trying to pull Ukraine into a more democratic orbit, and Trump in effect pulled in the other direction, mingling his own corruption with Russian geopolitical interests.
Importantly, the diplomats horrified by Trump’s misconduct have also testified to this broader story. As Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. suggested, Trump betrayed a “democratic neighbor” that is “eager to join Western institutions and enjoy a more secure and prosperous life.”
Thus, the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor that Biden sought was in keeping with U.S. policy and broadly supported by numerous international institutions. What’s more, that prosecutor was failing to investigate corruption, and wasn’t even investigating Burisma (Hunter Biden’s company).
It’s legitimate to raise questions about what Hunter Biden’s Burisma work shows about the propriety of profiting off proximity to power. But this doesn’t alter our understanding of what Joe Biden actually was doing in Ukraine, which — unlike Trump’s conduct — was shaped around the national interest.
As for the comparison to Hillary Clinton’s supposed collusion and hiring of a spy, all that is based on wild exaggerations and fabrications as well. Naturally, the other witnesses Republicans want to call are supposed to shed (fake) light on that story.
How Trump’s propaganda works
This episode on “Meet the Press” illustrates in a back-door way what the real aim of pro-Trump propaganda is, and how it will be employed in the inquiry’s public phase.
Remember, it was a longtime imperative for Trump and lawyer Rudolph Giuliani to get Ukraine to issue a public statement confirming sham investigations that would rewrite the story of 2016 and help rig 2020 for Trump. This scandal is all about disinformation — about getting news organizations to treat disinformation seriously, to create a miasma of doubt around Russia’s 2016 sabotage and an aura of corruption around Biden.
Indeed, as former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon has admitted, the way to create this sort of aura is to get the mainstream media to cover such allegations, no matter how discredited, to introduce them into the mainstream discussion and get them treated as representing one side of a good-faith political dialogue.
That’s the obvious goal behind getting the impeachment inquiry to include public testimony from people like Hunter Biden. And along those lines, this “Meet the Press” episode is a cautionary tale. It shows what it looks like when a bad-faith actor — Paul — floats this kind of disinformation and succeeds in getting it treated far too respectfully.