As President Trump’s trial hurtles toward a vote on new witnesses, his lawyers have based his defense in part on the notion that Trump’s demand that Ukraine investigate the Bidens was legitimate.
They’ve cited two facts — that Biden threatened to withhold loan guarantees from Ukraine to leverage that ouster and that Biden’s son Hunter sat on the board of Ukrainian company Burisma — which they claim presented a potential conflict of interest. That made Trump’s suspicions reasonable, they say.
But Republican senators themselves know this argument is nonsense. And here’s how we can be certain they know this.
At a Senate hearing in 2016, a number of GOP senators who are still in office today sat in attendance during discussions of the Obama administration’s approach to Ukraine. At those hearings, officials and outside experts repeatedly discussed the need to remove the prosecutor in question — Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor general — describing this imperative as central to official U.S. policy.
What’s more, Joe Biden’s own role in prompting this ouster came up repeatedly, and it was openly and explicitly discussed that the loan guarantees were being used as leverage to bring it about — as U.S. policy.
None of this was treated as remotely controversial at the time.
Ever since we learned that Trump and personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani sought to pressure Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation that would smear the Bidens, Trump’s defenders have continued to assert that Biden’s conduct in Ukraine was suspicious at best, and scandalously corrupt at worst.
Trump defenders have noted that Biden boasted in a January 2018 speech about withholding a loan guarantee to bring about Shokin’s ouster, and that, given Hunter’s role on Burisma’s board, this showed Biden engaged in his own corrupt quid pro quo.
This whole narrative is based on lies. In recent months, news organizations have convincingly established — in retrospect — that ousting Shokin was U.S. policy at the time, backed by international institutions, because his office was actually facilitating corruption. They’ve also established that Hunter was irrelevant to the investigation into Burisma and that this probe was dormant at the time of the pressure to oust Shokin.
But, crucially, the public record at the time also shows that the ouster of Shokin, including the use of loan guarantees as leverage, was U.S. policy — and that at least some Republican senators knew all of this as it was happening.
GOP senators have long known this was uncontroversial
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in March 2016, Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama, testified about efforts to oust Shokin. Nuland noted that Shokin had resigned but that the Ukrainian parliament still had to remove him (which happened soon after).
Nuland also told senators that the agenda of the United States’ aid program for Ukraine, with the “generous support” of Congress, included replacing Shokin, for the good of fighting corruption in Ukraine.
Nuland noted it was a U.S. priority to secure a “new prosecutor general who is committed” to “indicting and prosecuting the corrupt.”
Nuland also cited the loan guarantee as leverage. “We have pegged our next $1 billion loan guarantee” in part on “ensuring that the prosecutor general’s office gets cleaned up,” Nuland said.
Biden comes up at hearing
Biden also came up repeatedly at this hearing. Nuland explicitly noted that Biden himself had conditioned U.S. support for Ukraine on getting rid of that prosecutor as a matter of U.S. policy. She cited a speech that Biden had given in Ukraine a few months earlier, in which Biden declared: “The office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform.”
In reference to that speech, Nuland told senators that Biden had publicly declared that this reform is "what our support depends on.”
GOP senators present at the hearing — and who remain in office today — included John Barrasso (Wyo.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), James E. Risch (Idaho) and David Perdue (Ga.).
What this shows is that ousting the prosecutor was about fighting corruption in Ukraine as a matter of administration policy — and that GOP senators understood this full well at the time. Indeed, none of that stirred any controversy.
Shokin comes up at another hearing
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in October 2015, before Shokin was removed, Nuland stated it was U.S. policy to target Shokin. Nuland said the United States was pursuing “a cleanup of the prosecutor general’s office so that it begins to serve the Ukrainian people rather than ripping them off.”
Nuland added this was being done with the help of “European advisers,” and that the administration’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine had the support of the International Monetary Fund.
Gardner was present at this hearing.
It was already known to some degree that a few GOP senators at the time supported the administration’s efforts to clean up Shokin’s office. A February 2016 letter signed by Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) called for such reforms.
That GOP senators were present at hearings where this was extensively discussed as administration policy underscores this further.
Trump’s bogus defense
The idea that Trump had reasonable cause for concern about Biden’s activities in Ukraine is central to justifying his pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce a sham investigation of those activities.
As Trump’s legal brief argues, it was “legitimate” for Trump to bring this up with Zelensky, because “Biden threatened withholding U.S. loan guarantees” to secure Shokin’s dismissal “even though Biden was, at the time, operating under what appeared to be, at the very least, a serious conflict of interest.”
That conflict, of course, is supposedly that Hunter was sitting on Burisma’s board.
But as GOP senators themselves well know, having been briefed on the policy at the time, that wasn’t motivating the policy in the least.
It has been public since 2014 that Hunter got the Burisma gig. GOP senators should be challenged to point to any examples of them raising alarms about any of this at the time.
The real story is that the Hunter story has been reverse-grafted by Trump and Giuliani on to Joe Biden’s activities, to create a fake rationale for getting Ukraine to smear Biden. The idea that Trump was concerned about corruption has always been absurd, given that he only demanded investigations that would help him politically, as if that was pure coincidence.
Indeed, it’s even more absurd than this. As James Risen has detailed, in 2015, U.S. officials criticized the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office for failing to assist with a British investigation into Burisma’s owner, which cuts directly against the nonsense that this was a corrupt effort to help Burisma (or Hunter).
The bottom line is that it was not legitimate for Trump to claim Biden’s effort to oust Shokin was linked to Hunter’s Burisma gig to justify his corrupt demand of Zelensky. To allow Trump to make this legitimate simply by saying there might have been such a link is to concede to him the power to rewrite reality with disinformation, all to justify his extortion of a foreign power to help him cheat his way through the next election.
GOP senators who know better might be prepared to concede that power to him. But we don’t have to.
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