— President Trump, speaking to reporters, Sept. 22, 2019
“I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.”
— Former vice president Joe Biden, speaking to reporters, Sept. 21
“Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden’s statement, because it was disgraceful, where he talked about billions of dollars that he’s not giving to a certain country unless a certain prosecutor is taken off the case. So, somebody ought to look into that.”
— Trump, remarks to reporters, Sept. 20
President Trump is under fire for having repeatedly raised Joe Biden, a possible opponent in the 2020 presidential race, in a July conversation with Ukraine’s president at a time when the struggling nation expected to receive military aid for its nascent war against Russia on its eastern border. (The aid eventually arrived after demands from Congress.) The same conversation appears to figure in a whistleblower complaint from the intelligence community, but the details are not entirely clear because the administration has blocked the sharing of information about the complaint with Congress despite apparent requirements under the law.
This is one of those vast and complex stories that consume Washington but frequently confuse ordinary Americans. The Trump White House appears to be counting on that confusion to offer a fog of claims and allegations to make it appear as if Biden had done something wrong.
On top of that, Trump is arguing that because Biden said he withheld aid from Ukraine in the name of battling corruption, there’s nothing wrong with Trump withholding aid from the same country in the name of fighting corruption (i.e., Biden was involved in supposedly corrupt dealings and should be investigated).
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters.
But there is no equivalency here: We fact-checked these allegations in May and found they did not add up. In fact, Biden’s case has gotten stronger with time.
Trump has claimed that Biden in 2015 pressured the Ukrainian government to fire Viktor Shokin, the top Ukrainian prosecutor, because he was investigating a Ukrainian gas producer, Burisma Holdings, that had added Biden’s son Hunter to its board. But it turns out that the investigation had already been shelved when Biden acted and may have even involved a side company, not Burisma. The Ukrainian prosecutor was regarded as a failure, and “Joe Biden’s efforts to oust Shokin were universally praised,” said Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist heavily involved in Eastern European market reforms.
Moreover, Yuri Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian prosecutor general who succeeded the fired prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
To help readers keep the allegations straight, let’s dissect the president’s latest statements.
Biden lied about talking to his son
Biden told reporters that he never spoke to his son about his overseas business dealings.
Trump labeled that a lie. “Who wouldn’t speak to your son?” asked Trump, who has always maintained he never spoke to his son Donald Jr. about the Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives. “Of course you spoke to your son.”
In July, in a profile of Hunter Biden in the New Yorker, Hunter described one brief exchange with his father on the issue.
In December, 2015, as Joe Biden prepared to return to Ukraine, his aides braced for renewed scrutiny of Hunter’s relationship with Burisma. Amos Hochstein, the Obama Administration’s special envoy for energy policy, raised the matter with Biden, but did not go so far as to recommend that Hunter leave the board. As Hunter recalled, his father discussed Burisma with him just once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’ ”
Is that a substantive discussion or not? We will leave it to readers to decide, but it’s a thin reed on which to hang the label of “lie.” In any case, Biden never said he spoke to his son, as Trump claimed he did.
Biden was ‘disgraceful’ when he bragged about holding back the funds
Trump is referring to a 2018 appearance by Biden before the Council on Foreign Relations. Here’s what Biden said:
“I remember going over, convincing our team … that we should be providing for loan guarantees. … And I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from [then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko] and from [then-Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor [Shokin]. And they didn’t…They were walking out to a press conference. I said, ‘Nah, … We’re not going to give you the billion dollars.’ They said, ‘You have no authority. You’re not the president.’ … I said, ‘Call him.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ … I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a b----. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
Biden is certainly being self-congratulatory here. But, as noted, Biden’s action was coordinated with other major players in the region and celebrated at the time because Shokin was widely seen as a failure.
Bloomberg reported that “the U.S. plan to push for Shokin’s dismissal didn’t initially come from Biden, but rather filtered up from officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.” In the same month Biden traveled to Ukraine, Bloomberg also reported, “hundreds of Ukrainians demonstrated outside President Petro Poroshenko’s office demanding Shokin’s resignation, and he was dismissed.”
“This decision creates an opportunity to make a fresh start in the prosecutor general’s office. I hope that the new prosecutor general will ensure that [his office] becomes independent from political influence and pressure and enjoys public trust,” Jan Tombinski, the European Union’s envoy to Ukraine, said in a statement when the firing was announced. The statement decried the “lack of tangible results of investigations into serious cases.”
It’s unclear when exactly this conversation took place but it appears to have been during a visit by Biden to Ukraine in December, 2015, when he spoke to the Parliament and decried the “cancer of corruption” in the country. "The Office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform,” he noted. Shokin was removed from office in mid-March and Biden and Poroshenko announced on April 15 the loan guarantee would go forward; the agreement between the United States and Ukraine was signed on June 3. Biden’s account to the Council on Foreign Relations appears to squeeze months of negotiations into a few hours.
Note that the money in question was $1 billion in loan guarantees — not “billions” of dollars in aid, as Trump claimed.
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