But shortly after Trump was elected, it seemed, delivering justice was no longer needed. He suddenly didn’t want to put Clinton in jail anymore. “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about,” he said, adding that, “I’m not looking to go back and go through this.”
You could have been forgiven for thinking Trump was using the situation for political gain, rather than out of a sincere desire to deliver justice.
And the example is instructive when it comes his latest allegations against his next presumptive electoral opponent, Joe Biden.
Trump has now seized on a pair of alleged scandals involving Biden — the first involving Biden’s interactions with Ukraine and the latest involving the alleged law enforcement plot to take down Trump. And with the former having been roundly revealed as baseless during Trump’s impeachment inquiry (and now apparently abandoned), Trump is turning to the latter.
There’s a key difference between the Clinton emails and the Biden allegations, which is that Clinton’s use of a server was significantly more substantive. It was the subject of an FBI investigation that found Clinton and her colleagues had been “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” While Democrats have denounced the coverage of Clinton’s emails, there was clearly some there there.
When it comes to the Ukraine allegations and now what Trump has dubbed “Obamagate,” there is considerably less there. These allegations rely more upon a series of dubious and conspiratorial inferences that simply haven’t been borne out thus far in the public record. And yet, there are plenty of similarities between all three efforts.
One is the proximity of them to an election. In Clinton’s case, Trump focused like a laser on egging on his supporters’ “lock her up” chants during the 2016 election — and just as quickly dropped the notion after he won. In Biden’s case, Trump’s and his allies’ interest apparently only perked up once the 2020 campaign began (in the case of Ukraine) and once Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee (in the case of “Obamagate”).
Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani’s earliest documented meetings with Ukrainians, for instance, began shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, as candidates such as Biden approached runs for president and Biden was polling like the Democratic front-runner. A story in the New York Times casting Biden’s Ukraine efforts as a potential liability appeared a week after he announced his actual candidacy.
Similarly, Trump’s efforts to implicate Biden in an alleged plot against him by law enforcement have taken off in recent days, about a month after Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The timing of the former effort, in particular, is conspicuous. Biden’s efforts to get Ukraine’s top prosecutor removed were public knowledge dating to 2015, and his son Hunter Biden’s employment on the board of a Ukrainian energy company was known in 2014. Yet the alleged interlinking of those two things wasn’t pressed publicly in the first two years of Trump’s presidency — or, apparently, investigated by the Justice Department.
The second key similarity is the “locking up” of one’s opponents. Trump, in a Thursday interview with Fox Business Network, said, “If I were a Democrat instead of a Republican, I think everybody would’ve been in jail a long time ago, and I’m talking with 50-year sentences ... and people should be going to jail for this stuff.” He added: “This was all [Barack] Obama; this was all Biden. These people were corrupt.” He said without evidence that Biden “knew everything about it.”
Trump didn’t say it directly, but the clear implication was that Obama and Biden sanctioned the corruption — and should potentially be held legally responsible for it.
The third similarity — particularly with the Ukraine stuff — is the shifting nature and lack of specificity of the allegations. Trump, in an exchange with The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker early this week, was unable to name the alleged crimes he believes were involved in “Obamagate.” When he failed to name any, Rucker pressed him, and Trump could muster only: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
This harks back to the Ukraine allegations. What Trump brought up with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky were two very specific things: The idea that Ukraine had a server that cast doubt on Russia’s role in 2016 election interference, and — most important here — the allegation that Biden got the Ukrainian prosecutor removed because the prosecutor was probing Hunter Biden’s company.
“The other thing,” Trump told Zelensky according to the rough transcript released by the White House, “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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me.”
The major problem with this allegation was that the prosecutor was actually known for being too soft on corruption and wasn’t presently probing Hunter Biden’s company, Burisma Holdings. His removal was also a very clear policy initiative of the Obama administration and much of the Western world. So this argument quickly and noticeably morphed into not so much that Joe Biden had done something wrong, but that Hunter Biden had done something wrong by cashing in on his father’s position — not at all the same thing.
During Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, his lawyers mentioned Hunter Biden more than 90 times, but they referred only to Trump’s actual allegation — that Joe Biden sought to remove the prosecutor — twice.
And that’s the key commonality with what we’re seeing now. Whatever might have been done wrong, Trump doesn’t seem to know quite what. It’s theoretically possible something might one day actually result from it, but it’s not at all evident what at this point. The point for Trump seems to be to sow doubt about his political opponent, first and foremost, and to force Biden — and the media — to contend with the whisper campaign.
The media, in particular, have spent a lot of time thinking about how much time they devoted to — and how they covered — the Clinton email scandal. At least in that case, though, there was something concrete to cover, in that it was an investigation headed by the Justice Department under Obama, who came from Clinton’s party.
Trump’s ultimate goal here, though, appears similar. In the case of the Clinton emails, then-FBI Director James B. Comey was drawn into decisions that he acknowledged were influenced by the looming election. Today, Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, has made a series of controversial decisions that have erred in the direction of Trump and his allies. Trump seems to be wagering that Barr’s decisions moving forward might lend his allegations at least the veneer of credibility, which isn’t inconceivable given the precedents.
In which case, Trump will apparently be happy to claim a true scandal, regardless of his actual intent of bringing the accused to justice.