“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump said to Zelensky on July 25, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House four months ago. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
The son at issue was Hunter Biden, and the prosecution that was alleged to have been stopped centered on an energy company called Burisma. As the Ukraine scandal unfolded, though, that presentation of events was revealed as wildly inaccurate, from the motivation on Biden’s part to the claims about an investigation to assertions that Biden bragged about halting a probe. The Post’s fact-checking team has looked at this repeatedly; our assessment of what Trump and his allies have claimed is lengthy.
That hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to reiterate unfounded claims about Biden. As his impeachment trial loomed in the Senate, it became clear that Biden would play an unwitting starring role, and serve as a counterpoint to Trump’s own behavior, which would have the effect Trump sought from an announcement by Ukraine: elevating specious or debunked claims against someone who may end up facing Trump in this year’s presidential election.
So on Monday, the first full day of presentations by Trump’s legal team, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi — herself no stranger to controversy — stepped to the lectern to prosecute the case against Joe Biden.
Much of her presentation centered on Hunter Biden’s work on Burisma’s board, an obviously problematic role from a political standpoint but not a role that violated any laws on his or his father’s part. At one point, though, Bondi focused on an allegation against Biden that’s been repeatedly debunked, sharing untrue claims as though they’d never been assessed for veracity at all.
That allegation focused on a panel discussion Biden participated in after having left office. He was describing how in 2015 he pushed for the firing of Viktor Shokin who, at the time, was Ukraine’s prosecutor general.
“Years later,” Bondi said, “now-former vice president Biden publicly details what we know happened: his threat to withhold more than a billion dollars in loan guarantees unless Shokin was fired.”
She showed a snippet of Biden relating that threat at a Council on Foreign Relations event in 2018. In the video, Biden offers the threat: Fire Shokin or the United States won’t provide loan guarantees to Ukraine.
“What he didn’t say on that video?” Bondi continued. “According to the New York Times, this was the prosecutor investigating Burisma: Shokin. What he also didn’t say on the video was that his son was being paid significant amounts by the oligarch owner of Burisma to sit on that board.”
A bit later, she extended her argument.
“On July 22nd, 2019, The Washington Post wrote the fired prosecutor general Shokin ‘believes his ouster was because of his interest in the company’— referring to Burisma,” she said. “The Post further wrote that, ‘had he remained in his post, he would have questioned Hunter Biden.’ ” Three days later, she said, Trump and Zelensky spoke.
But hers is a wildly misleading presentation of what happened.
Shokin was under fire from a number of international organizations and leaders at the time that Biden leveraged U.S. aid to call for his firing. He was seen by the administration of Barack Obama and others as problematic for his failure to vigorously investigate corruption.
In fact, in the same July 22 Post article Bondi cited, a representative of a Ukrainian anti-corruption organization pointed to Shokin’s failure to prosecute Burisma as evidence of his ineffectuality.
“Shokin was not investigating. He didn’t want to investigate Burisma,” Daria Kaleniuk of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center told The Post. “And Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.
Notice that the quotes she isolated from that article were The Post quoting Shokin. It was Shokin who told The Post that he got fired because he was focused on Burisma, a perfect example of an unreliable narrator.
What’s more, Shokin is by now the only major figure in this controversy who claims that Burisma was under investigation at the time Biden called for him to be fired. Bondi claims that the Times said Shokin was investigating the company, but even the article in which that’s broadly claimed, which was published last May, notes that “there is considerable debate about whether Mr. Shokin was intent on pursuing a legitimate inquiry into Burisma or whether he was merely using the threat of prosecution to solicit a bribe.”
Shortly after that Times report, other reporting called claims about there being an active investigation at the time into serious question. In October, a Times fact-check noted that Burisma investigations sat dormant under Shokin. What’s more, Yuri Lutsenko, who replaced Shokin as prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News a few weeks later that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Again, Biden’s effort to pressure Ukraine over its failure to tackle corruption was joined by numerous others. In February 2016, for example, the International Monetary Fund made a similar threat about withholding aid if corruption in the country wasn’t addressed.
There’s only one reason that this broadly debunked line of attack should be resuscitated at this point: It deflects allegations of wrongdoing from Trump back to Biden. That was at the heart of Trump’s desire for an investigation of Biden in the first place, to impugn Biden. It fits neatly into the well-worn grooves of the-other-guy-did-it-too that serves as a path for so many defenses of Trump. Of course, this is precisely the sort of rhetoric Trump wants to see and, hey, he’s the one paying the bills.
That this presentation came after hours of dismissing the House’s case for impeaching Trump as flawed or weak should not go without comment. Trump’s team began the day by reiterating its carefully tailored denials of the House case and by excoriating their opponents as having set facts aside in favor of a good yarn. Then up steps Bondi and lays out a presentation full of innuendo and falsehood in service of a political misdirection.
Trump will no doubt see it as a success. It took a remarkably convoluted route, but Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Biden served to elevate those specious allegations to national attention after all.