Biden, of course, leads the field in the Democratic primary to face Trump in next year’s general election. The investigation Trump wanted to see was meant to focus on Biden’s push in late 2015 to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor who’d earned the ire of U.S. and international officials for turning a blind eye to corruption. Trump and his allies claim without evidence that Biden advocated for the prosecutor’s firing because the prosecutor may have been investigating a company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
Shortly after Trump put that pressure on the Ukrainian president, his administration halted military aid to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress, only proceeding with that aid after a whistleblower within the intelligence community filed a complaint apparently focused on Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president.
In short, then, Trump may have tried to leverage congressionally sanctioned aid to boost his own reelection chances — or, at least, he reportedly leveraged his position as president to push a foreign nation to aid his reelection campaign.
In short order, Trump’s allies — by now well experienced in waving away concerns about his presidency — moved into action. In a series of appearances on television and radio, they identified the real wrongdoing in the situation, blaming a diaspora of people and organizations in an effort to downplay or erase questions about Trump.
Joe Biden is the real wrongdoer
Biden has been the most common target of Trump’s defenders and of Trump himself.
The way those defenses are offered, though, varies.
On Sunday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” Pompeo, a stalwart defender of his boss, suggested that the situation was indeed not complicated: Biden did something wrong.
“If there was election interference that took place by the vice president, I think the American people deserve to know,” Pompeo said, referring to Biden — and echoing the questions that have lingered around Trump’s 2016 victory since before his presidency began. “We know there was interference in the 2016 election and if it’s the case that there was something going on with the President or his family that caused a conflict of interest and Vice President Biden behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the way leaders ought to operate, I think the American people deserve to know that.”
Axios noted how Trump’s most fervent media defender, Fox News, positioned the story Sunday, compared with MSNBC. MSNBC noted how Trump was trying to shift questions onto Biden — and Fox embraced that precise shift.
It’s worth noting the particularly sloppy defense that Fox News chose to highlight. It was an interview with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. The suggestion Nunes made wasn’t only that Biden was culpable but, indeed, that he was already paying a political cost for being so deeply mired in this controversy.
“These stories first originated back when Hillary Clinton was trying to make sure Biden didn’t get in the race,” Nunes said. “So now that these have been resurrected, it sure looks like the scheme has backfired. And, like I said, it looks like this is the end of Biden’s campaign. I really do... his lead is basically down to zero.”
The allegation that Biden did something wrong in December 2015 didn’t originate with an effort by Hillary Clinton to keep Biden out of the race, given that he announced he wasn’t running that year in October 2015. What’s more, Nunes’s claim that Biden’s lead was “down to zero” was apparently based on a new poll in Iowa where Biden is running even with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
That poll was conducted before the Ukraine story emerged in the news.
The problem with this theory? The central problem with the Biden-did-wrong theory is a dearth of evidence that Biden did anything wrong. While it’s easy to see how Biden’s demands about the Ukrainian prosecutor could be spun as an effort to aid his son, there has been no evidence to emerge that Hunter Biden’s role was the motivation for that firing, that Biden acted alone in making the demand, that he knew of an investigation or that an investigation into the company even existed. Instead of rewriting our Fact Checkers’ analysis of the situation, we’ll instead just point you to that article.
And we’ll note that advocating for a prosecutor who is more likely to fight hard on corruption would seem like a weird choice.
Hunter Biden is the real wrongdoer
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin marched boldly into a minefield while talking to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.
“What I do find inappropriate is the fact that Vice President Biden at the time’s son did very significant business dealings in Ukraine,” Mnuchin said of the controversy. “I, for one, find that to be concerning. And, to me, that is the issue perhaps that should be further investigated.”
“I don’t understand,” Tapper replied. “So it is okay for Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump Jr. to do business all over the world, it’s okay for Ivanka Trump to have copyrights approved all over the world while President Trump is president, but while Vice President Joe Biden was vice president, his son shouldn’t have been able to do business dealings?”
“Again, I don’t — I don’t really want to go into more of these details,” he said, “other than to say …”
“Well, you’re just setting a precedent that the president is violating,” Tapper replied.
“Again, I think there is a significant difference in what you’re saying, okay, or what I was saying between Biden and his son’s relationship with the Ukraine oligarch,” Mnuchin said, “and potential business dealings that the Trump Organization has had which predated his presidency.”
That can be a subtle distinction. In August, for example, Donald Trump Jr. traveled to Indonesia to tout a resurrected resort there. It was in the works before Trump’s presidency, but at least one ethics group questions the extent to which it stretches Trump’s pledge that the Trump Organization would not to engage in new international deals during his presidency.
Trump Jr., meanwhile, expressed his own support for the idea that Hunter Biden had acted inappropriately, favoriting a tweet criticizing Hunter Biden’s having apparently profited from his father’s name.
The problem with this theory? While it’s certainly fair to question the appropriateness of a vice president’s child partnering with a foreign company, there is also some hypocrisy to those criticisms in this case. And, as above, there’s no evidence that Hunter Biden’s role prompted Biden’s demands.
Ukraine is the real wrongdoer
Trump and his allies have repeatedly pointed to Ukraine and Ukrainian politics to defend Trump since he took office. As questions arose about the 2016 Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian actors, Trump’s team tried to gin up a countervailing theory that Ukraine was working to boost Hillary Clinton.
In an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that Ukraine’s role broadly should earn scrutiny.
“All things Trump have been looked at regarding Russia. Now it’s time for all things Ukraine to be looked at,” Graham said. “I like Joe Biden. I’ve been a friend of his for a very long time. But we can’t have two standards here. The prosecutor was looking at things in the Ukraine, and he got fired, and there’s all kind of allegations about the Ukraine dumping information into the legal system and political system in 2016 about Manafort and others, you know, Hunter Biden, what kind of situation did he have financially? I’m hoping somebody will take a look at all things Ukraine like they did with Russia from the Department of Justice.”
The problem with this theory? The theories about Ukraine trying to influence U.S. politics or the 2016 election have consistently been shown to lack merit.
The theory that Ukraine was “dumping information” in 2016 centers on two incidents. In one, a contractor with the Democratic National Committee sought help from people at the Ukrainian Embassy in digging into then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s work in that country. In the other, evidence that Manafort had received secret payments from a pro-Russian political party was released by a Ukrainian organization in August 2016, leading to his ouster from the campaign.
In neither case is there evidence of a top-down effort on the part of Ukraine to aid Clinton. Both center on efforts to uncover information on Manafort, whose payments for his work for Ukraine led to convictions for money laundering and fraud. He is now in prison.
The whistleblower is the real wrongdoer
This story came to national attention after the Trump administration sought to prevent Congress from seeing the original complaint from a whistleblower inside the intelligence community. Mirroring months of attacks on the FBI agents who’d probed the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia, Trump allies cast the whistleblower as a “deep state” “spy” who had behaved dishonorably in bringing the story to light.
On Fox News last week, while acknowledging that he didn’t have broad context for what the whistleblower’s allegation was, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) declared that the situation looked like “another Deep State attack.” Speaking to Fox News’s Bret Baier on Friday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) insisted that all of the facts weren’t out, but that this appeared to be part of a pattern of someone “selectively put[ting] something out” to try to undermine the results of the 2016 election.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s most energetic defenders, told reporters that there are “people in the intelligence community and other parts of the government who just have it out for the president.”
“I don’t have any worries about the president,” he added.
The problem with this theory? Even if the whistleblower were Hillary Clinton herself, it wouldn’t change the content of the conversation Trump had with Zelensky.
The media is the real wrongdoer
At an event in Texas over the weekend, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) identified his own culprit in the situation: reporters covering the story.
“I am a little troubled that apparently some of the initial reports came from somebody who didn’t have firsthand knowledge, and then it sort of took off like a wildfire,” Cornyn said of the story. “Lot of speculation. I’d prefer to wait until we get the access to the real information to make a judgment.”
Of course, the problem with that is that Congress was blocked from getting the whistleblower’s report in the first place. That’s what prompted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to subpoena the document.
Cornyn is not alone. In his interview with Hewitt, Graham suggested that the Ukraine story “makes the [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh story look like good journalism” — a reference to assertions from conservatives that the New York Times’s article about accusations against Kavanaugh was fatally flawed.
Trump shared a clip from Fox News in which Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) blames the media for the story, suggesting that it was simply part of the same complaints about Trump that have existed since he took office.
“It’s exactly the kind of thing they’ve been accusing Trump of all along,” Meadows said. “Can you imagine if the prosecutor in Ukraine, if his name was ‘Bob Mueller,’ what would have happened?”
It’s not clear what that means.
The problem with this theory? The simplest way to undermine the media’s reporting as incorrect or overly eager is to release the whistleblower complaint and the transcript of the Zelensky call so that the reporting can be contrasted with reality. So far, the administration hasn’t done so.
There was no wrongdoing at all!
This is the angle taken by Trump.
On Sunday, he claimed that the call with Zelensky was a “beautiful, warm, nice conversation” in which he didn’t pressure Zelensky at all. He later tweeted “breaking news” to that effect, spinning things back to Biden once again.
The problem with this theory? The American public is being asked to decide whom to believe, Trump or press reports. Trump’s assertion that nothing untoward happened depends, for now, on taking his word over that of the media and our sources.
That’s a big gamble for Trump.