Why you should care
Because the 2020 election could turn into a corruption-off.
Welcome to Russiagate Jr., the Ukraine Game. And this time there are receipts.
This unfolding fiasco has many parallels to the original, but instead of reexamining the 2016 election, everyone’s looking at whether Donald Trump tried to engineer foreign meddling in his 2020 reelection.
Here’s what we know so far: A whistleblower raised an urgent complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general in August. The complaint, at least in part, reportedly revolves around Trump pressuring Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family. The July 25 phone call sparked intrigue at the time, as Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani had been beating the drum about whether Joe Biden’s son Hunter had done some shady business in Ukraine. The official version of the call from the Ukraine side included this line: “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”
Over the weekend, Trump admitted bringing up the Biden controversy on the call with Zelensky, but insisted he wasn’t pressuring Ukraine.
The corruption meter certainly rises when we’re talking about coercing a foreign government to help his reelection bid.
Meanwhile, the administration is blocking Congress from seeing a copy of the whistleblower report. It sets up a court fight with House Democrats and ensures that little bits of the report will continue to leak out into the press, just like the Mueller report sneak previews we got all through 2017. But a transcript of this Ukraine call does exist, unlike the famous Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.
But like all the attempts to obstruct justice in the Mueller probe, it doesn’t seem Trump got what he wanted … yet.
The possible quo to this quid — though media sources are saying this wasn’t made explicit on the call — was military aid to Ukraine. Under pressure from Congress, the Trump administration released $250 million in held-up military aid on Sept. 12, one day before House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff went public with his concerns over the whistleblower. And if Trump asked for a Biden probe, it doesn’t appear he got one.
A top Ukrainian official told the Daily Beast that they were happy to investigate Hunter Biden but hadn’t received a formal request to do so. It’s an awkward spot for new president Zelensky, a former comedian elected to fight corruption. This week brings a planned in-person meeting between Zelensky and Trump at the United Nations that will be subject to the same kind of frenzy and scrutiny as Trump’s odd encounters with Vladimir Putin.
Now that this is all spilling over publicly, expect Trump to simply squeeze it for political gain.
Trump calls for investigations all the time — including, recently and bizarrely, the Obamas’ Netflix deal — with little effect. The corruption meter certainly rises when we’re talking about coercing a foreign government to help his reelection bid. And with House Democrats mired in Act II of Impeachment Hamlet, you can count on some strongly worded letters flying.
If Biden wins the Democratic nomination, expect Trump to relentlessly tell the story of how Hunter Biden served on the board of Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings during the Obama administration, and how Joe Biden helped force out Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. Biden and the international community believed that Shokin wasn’t doing enough to prosecute corruption cases. But the Trump/Giuliani spin is that Shokin’s ouster helped Hunter Biden because Shokin’s office was investigating the company.
Given how foreign governments are directly putting money into Trump’s pocket via his hotels, there’s a “glass houses” element to such claims, but all Trump needs is some smoke to turn the 2020 election into a corruption fest. It would mean Ukraine isn’t so much the sequel to Russiagate, but Hillary’s emails all over again.