President Trump has spent over two years trying to “prove” that Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine were corrupt. He and lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani schemed over this for many months, with Trump ultimately trying to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation into those activities, which got Trump impeached even as the smears they manufactured crashed and burned.

Now Trump has been counting on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to validate these narratives, via an inquiry conducted by the Homeland Security committee, which Johnson chairs. The goal was to use the official sheen of a Senate probe — one also conducted with the Finance Committee — to manufacture the impression of wrongdoing on Biden’s part.

But as befits this cast of bumblers and incompetents, the star witness in the GOP’s own investigation has actually further undermined those smears.

Johnson has now released his long-awaited (by Trump, anyway) report on his investigation. One of its big revelations is supposed to be that George Kent, a top State Department official, testified that he “raised concerns” inside the Obama administration about appearances of conflicts of interest surrounding the business activities of the then-vice president’s son Hunter.

But, while that itself is true, there’s a big problem here: Kent also gave the committee testimony that completely undermines the larger narrative that Trump and Republicans have tried to spin into political gold for over a year.

The story they try to tell

The basic story they have long tried to tell goes like this. As vice president, Biden sought the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Burisma, an energy company that was paying Hunter Biden a lucrative salary to sit on its board, from investigation. Joe Biden also conditioned foreign aid on that prosecutor’s ouster.

All this is supposed to show that Biden corrupted Obama administration foreign policy on his son’s behalf.

But this “Hunterghazi” tale has been widely debunked. In reality, Burisma was not even being investigated at the time, and the vice president was working to oust that Ukrainian prosecutor because the prosecutor himself was corrupt.

That was the actual Obama administration policy, and this goal was backed by international institutions precisely because they had a stake in a corruption-free Ukraine. GOP senators were briefed by Obama officials about this policy at the time, including about the conditioning of foreign aid, and had no objections to it.

Kent himself — that would be the Republicans’ own star witness — has now confirmed much of this, in testimony to the committee as part of the GOP’s own investigation.

In that testimony, as the Democratic response to the GOP report details, Kent knocked down every key pillar of the GOP story line:

  • Kent debunked the idea that Burisma was protected from investigation, stating that “I did not witness any effort by any U.S. official to shield Burisma from scrutiny.”
  • Kent debunked the idea that the U.S. effort to oust the Ukrainian prosecutor was about stopping an investigation into Burisma, flatly stating that it was not.
  • Kent confirmed that the quest for that ouster was about purging Ukraine of corruption, noting that “Ukrainian society” wanted the prosecutor gone because he was “protecting corrupt friends.”
  • Kent confirmed that the conditioning of aid as leverage had nothing to do with Hunter Biden and that it originated with those involved in formulating “Ukraine policy.”

Kent already testified to some of these points during impeachment. But now he offered it directly to the GOP investigation itself.

Appearances versus realities

The Johnson report purports to use Kent’s concerns about appearances of conflict of interest to create the impression of corruption on Joe Biden’s part. It notes that in the last years of the Obama administration, Kent raised concerns to officials in Biden’s office about the “perception” of a conflict of interest, which he called “awkward.”

The GOP report notes that Kent testified about this before the committee. But as the GOP report itself shows, in that testimony Kent worried that critics would use Hunter Biden’s involvement to question the true motives behind administration policy, not that the motives themselves were problematic.

To be fair, the part of the story concerning appearances is problematic. Hunter Biden should not have taken the Burisma money. It did create perceptions of a conflict. State Department officials were in fact preoccupied with these appearances.

And such perceptions themselves are bad. They undermine public faith in the integrity of government, even if there are no genuine underlying conflicts — that is, no actual cases of public officials using the government for private gain — as in this case there aren’t.

It’s also fair to question the judgment of the vice president in allowing this to happen, though it’s unclear what control he might have exercised over his son, who had other personal problems that reportedly anguished his father.

But the bottom line here is that the central holy grail that Trump and Republicans have been pursuing just isn’t there.

Comically, the GOP report deals with this by slipping in the following line:

The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.

Not clear? Actually it is clear: Hunter Biden’s role didn’t affect U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Indeed, the line itself constitutes a striking admission: After pouring extraordinary amounts of effort into making this seem like a scandal, they could not produce evidence of their central claim.

The ultimate irony here is that this effort to prove that Joe Biden abused official resources for personal gain is itself an example of exactly this — but on the part of Trump and his co-conspirators.

Just as Trump subverted U.S. foreign policy to his personal gain by attempting to bulldoze a foreign ally under duress into helping validate his campaign messaging, the GOP report is yet another attempt to manipulate a government product for Trump’s benefit. It may be dressed up with vague insinuations and the imprimatur of an oversight committee, but it’s just one more crass, shameless misuse of official resources.

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