Our Orange Revolution
What Did the President Do, and When Did He Do It?
Scott Lincicome, bless him, has come up with the perfect title under which to cover the big Trump-Ukraine scandal. What better inspiration to take for the latest revelations that the Orange Man is Bad than Ukraine's 2004-5 Orange Revolution?
Back then, if you will recall, Ukrainians came out into the streets to protest a 2004 presidential election rigged by the Putin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. The protests led to a carefully monitored revote in which a clear victory went to the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Yanukovich returned to office in 2010, but his massive corruption and hostility toward integration with the European Union led to a series of street protests that caused him to flee to Russia in 2014.
Now Ukraine is at the center of geopolitics again, in a way I am sure it never wanted to be.
The latest revelation, which has revived the impeachment investigation against President Trump, is that our president used a July 25 telephone call with Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to demand as a "favor" in exchange for US support that Ukraine launch an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
This is a clear abuse of presidential power. Donald Trump is using the diplomatic powers of the presidency, which are supposed to be used only on behalf of the national security interests of the United States, and employing them for his own private benefit, in this case for domestic electioneering. This is exactly the kind of abuse of power for which the process of impeachment was devised.
I have just stated the essence of the situation in clear and simple terms, but we're going to have to spend a lot of time plowing through the obfuscation that has been deliberately piled up around this case. Let's take the issues one at a time.
What About the Whistleblower?
Trump's telephone call with Zelensky was brought to the attention of Congress by an official "whistleblower" complaint from an as-yet-unnamed CIA employee. So the first line of defense by Trump defenders was to attempt to discredit the whistleblower, declaring that his account was "hearsay" or that his complaint was coordinated with Democrats in Congress. These arguments have mostly been answered. (The employee was following a procedure established by statute.) But they are also irrelevant, because the White House has already released the "official readout" of the telephone call. This is a rough transcript summarizing the conversation, compiled and approved by the White House Situation Room staff, that is used to make sure diplomats and cabinet official know what happened in the call.
The official readout clearly shows Trump asking Zelensky specifically to investigate Biden's son, and couching it as a "favor" in exchange for US support.
I would like you to do us a favor, though.... The other thing, 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.... Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it...it sounds horrible to me.
You'll notice that Trump's favor was a two-part favor and I only quoted the second part, "the other thing." The first thing wasn't any better, and I'll be getting to that shortly. But the point is that we don't need a whistleblower any more to tell us what Trump said and did. We know.
Was There a Quid Pro Quo?
The other defense of Trump is that there was no clear quid pro quo in the call. But hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid was mysteriously held up in the months leading to the call, and US diplomats working with Ukraine were convinced that an investigation targeting Biden has been specifically required as Trump's condition both for this telephone call and for a planned White House meeting between the two leaders, which Zelensky was eager to procure as a sign of US support in Ukraine's ongoing conflict with Russia.
Newly released texts exchanged by Sondland, Volker, and other US officials during this period read like a government-sanctioned shakedown. Again and again, they make clear that Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would not get military aid or the Oval Office invitation he coveted until he committed to investigations that Trump hoped would deliver damaging information on former vice president Joe Biden and undermine the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Only if Zelensky can convince Trump that he will "‘get to the bottom of what happened’" in 2016” will he be granted a meeting with the president, Volker tells one of Zelensky's top advisers in late July in a text that alludes to Trump's belief that Ukraine sought to sabotage him in the presidential election....
Giuliani told Yermak that the Ukrainian president needed to make a public promise to pursue the corruption investigations, according to Volker's testimony. Sondland and Volker set about revising the wording of a statement proposed by the Ukrainians that Zelensky could issue upon announcing his trip to Washington. When the two diplomats sent the statement to Giuliani, he was dismayed that it wasn't more specific, and according to Volker, he demanded that the Ukrainians insert specific references to the 2016 election and Burisma, the gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
In an Aug. 10 text message, Volker tells Yermak that once the statement is ironed out, they can then “use that” to get the date for the meeting between Trump and Zelensky.... Ultimately, Volker testified Thursday on Capitol Hill, the statement was shelved, because the Ukrainians didn't feel comfortable making explicit reference to the Burisma and election interference investigations.
Moreover, any request made of Ukraine by a US administration is inherently a quid pro quo. Ukraine is a dependent nation that needs US backing to resist domination by Vladimir Putin's Russia. If the US president is persistent in a demand, as it seems Trump was, it is difficult for Ukraine to resist. The irony is that in seeking to escape the Russian politics of the personal shakedown by a strongman, Ukraine's leaders encountered exactly the same thing coming from our president.
Last of all, this evidence of a quid pro quo, while obvious and abundant, is not even necessary. It is the request itself, the use of official diplomacy to specifically target Trump's domestic political rival, that is improper, no matter what inducements were used to back it up.
Let's be clear about this. If Donald Trump were merely sending Rudy Giuliani, in his capacity as Trump's personal lawyer, to go to Ukraine and poke around for dirt on his rivals, that would not be an impeachable offense. It would just be "opposition research"--and perhaps a bit of a comedown for "America's Mayor" to be reduced to acting as just another shifty political fixer. The offense here is the use of the office of the presidency to subordinate the nation's diplomacy to domestic electioneering. It is the act of selling America's diplomatic favors in exchange for the president's own personal gain.
What Were the Bidens Up To in Ukraine?
But what if Joe Biden's relations with Ukraine were equally corrupt? What if he was using his son to collect bribes from the Ukrainians and used his position as vice-president to quash an investigation?
You have probably been bombarded with this claim by multiple conservative clickbait sites who present it as obvious and proven truth. It is at best a myth and in most cases an outright lie.
Hunter Biden is a definite political weakness for Joe Biden, because he has been working a racket common to other political hangers-on: taking lucrative jobs as consultants on business deals and on the boards of directors of big companies--jobs they only got because of their political connections. This is not corrupt per se, just a bit sleazy.
It is Joe Biden's good fortune in this, as in other things, that his political weakness is shared by his potential rival. Donald Trump's family is up to its neck in various business deals in China and elsewhere, and his administration is accused of trying to shake down Ukraine's state-owned natural gas company for the benefit of Trump's supporters.
But back to Hunter Biden. The younger Biden helped broker a deal for an investment fund financed by big Chinese companies--working as an unpaid advisor at the time, but buying into the fund, presumably on favorable terms, after his father left office. And he served for a while on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, for which he was paid rather handsomely.
But the rest of the story is pure invention. Here it helps to have been following events in Ukraine since before a few weeks ago, and particularly to know which Ukrainian journalistic sources to go to. Here is a summary of the case in the Kyiv Post.
These latest developments suggest that a well-worn international scandal--one the Kyiv Post has covered since it broke--has risen from the grave to haunt American politics once more.... But there's a problem: the claims are not backed up by any evidence...
Burisma Holdings is the largest private oil and gas extraction company in Ukraine. It was founded in 2002 by Mykola Zlochevsky, a Ukrainian businessman and former top government official who was later investigated for alleged illegal enrichment and money laundering.
Hunter Biden, a lawyer by trade, served on Burisma's board of directors from 2014 to 2019. Other notable figures on the board included former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, investment banker Alan Apter, and the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, Joseph Cofer Black....
Did Joe Biden get the prosecutor who was investigating his son fired?
There was no investigation of Biden's son in Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities did investigate Burisma Holdings, the company he worked for, and its owner Zlochevsky for alleged fraud and money laundering.
In 2016, Biden indeed pressured Ukraine to fire its Prosecutor General at the time, Viktor Shokin, threatening to withhold over $1 billion in US loan guarantees if the official wasn't removed. There is footage of Biden bragging about doing this. But Biden was not alone in calling for Shokin's ouster. He was simply expressing the longstanding consensus in Ukraine's pro-reform circles and among its partners.
Most importantly, there is no indication that Shokin was investigating Burisma, the company affiliated with Biden's son.
Who was the prosecutor general in question? Viktor Shokin, 66, was Ukraine's prosecutor general from February 2015 to April 2016. By the end of his term he was likely one of the most unpopular figures in Ukraine, having earned a bad reputation for inaction and obstructing top cases.... Calling for Shokin to be fired were anti-graft activists, non-profit government watchdogs, and top members of the ruling coalition in parliament. By the time the US joined in, the calls to fire Shokin had been going on for months.
Moreover, when Biden did call for Shokin to be fired, the US ambassador to Ukraine listed among the reasons Shokin's failure to investigate Zlochevsky.
So the real story is exactly the opposite of what Trump's sycophants are claiming. The US did not seek Shokin's firing to protect Biden's son--who was never under investigation--but rather because Shokin was too soft on corruption.
That leads us to the second most ridiculous lie in this whole fiasco.
Was Trump Rooting Out Corruption?
As Trump puts it, "if you look and you read our Constitution and many other things, I have an obligation to look at corruption. I have an actual obligation and a duty."
This would be laughable if it weren't so brazen. Remember that Trump has spent years proclaiming that Paul Manafort, his disgraced former campaign manager who is currently serving time in prison for fraud and witness tampering, is a "very good person" who was treated unjustly. Yet it was common knowledge before Trump hired him that Manafort was corrupt and had raked off millions as a fixer for the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine. He was brought down when his own assistant ratted him out, and a Trump-supporting jury member concluded, "I wanted Paul Manafort to be innocent, but he wasn't."
But that's not how Trump sees it. The report on the Trump diplomats' shakedown of Ukraine notes that Trump still sees the case against Manafort as a personal attack on himself.
Trump's preoccupation with Ukraine traces back to the 2016 US presidential race, when a financial ledger surfaced in Kiev linking Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to millions of dollars in secret payments from a pro-Russian, Ukrainian political party he advised. The disclosures forced Manafort to resign his campaign position and fueled suspicions that Trump's candidacy was being assisted by interference from Moscow.
Trump's own conclusion was that it was Ukraine that was really interfering in the US election. More on that in a moment, but consider one other thing. A reporter had the presence of mind to ask President Trump, "Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don't involve your political opponents?" Trump had no answer.
That leads up to the most ridiculous lie being invoked in Trump's defense.
Was Ukraine the Real Culprit?
I mentioned above that there was a first "favor" asked of the Ukrainian president, and that was to investigate a conspiracy theory in which Russia did not hack the e-mail system of the Democratic National Committee and did not interfere in the 2016 election, and Ukraine has been secretly covering it up.
I already linked to a piece from the technology media debunking this fantasy. There is no reputable source I have found that believes in this theory or has any evidence to offer for it, and it contradicts everything we know about Russian activities and Vladimir Putin's intentions. This theory is purely an invention of the fever swamps of the Internet, the same kind of people who fed us the Pizzagate and Seth Rich conspiracies. But Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani apparently believe it, and they think that by leaning on the president of Ukraine, they're going to blow this thing wide open.
This is part of a much wider conspiratorial mindset, and at The Bulwark, Tim Miller does us all a service by delving into these fever swamps so we don't have to. The details get insanely complicated, with an emphasis on the "insane," but the upshot is that "the US intelligence community--desperate to prevent Trump from ascending to the presidency--worked with the Clinton campaign, Democratic National Committee insiders, intelligence agents in multiple foreign countries, and Ukrainian oligarchs in order to fabricate evidence of Russian interference and cover up what was an inside job all along."
The details are less important than the overall thrust, which is that everybody was in on it--the FBI, the CIA, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Ukraine, and even the British, Italian, and Australian intelligence services--everybody, that is, except Russia.
Crowdstrike then fabricated evidence from the servers to implicate Russia, which, you will remember, was an innocent bystander this whole time. And not just innocent, but kind of a dupe. Because all of the old KGB hands who now run the country somehow missed the MASSIVE INTELLIGENCE CONSPIRACY happening in the United States--in which they were being implicated--even though a big part of it was taking place in their backyard.
This tells you, I think, the most likely origin of this conspiracy theory, or at least whose interests it serves. We're supposed to believe that the known, demonstrated, and more or less open actions of the Russians--its hacker brigades and troll farms--don't exist, and instead what's really going on is a bunch of super-secret stuff nobody can quite prove.
If you don't think this craziness can actually be real, I regret to inform you that Glenn Beck, who increasingly comes across as Alex Jones dressed up like Colonel Sanders, has gotten out his chalkboards and gone all Beautiful Mind on this. He sketches out the conspiracy theory in his normal way: by finding superficial and tangential connections between a bunch of politically connected people, plunking their photos all together on a board, making heavy insinuations about how they're all in it together, then basically shouting, "Can't you see it?"
Here's the shorter version.
The problem is that this sort of thing is coming, not just from the usual conspiratorial corners of the Internet, but from Rudy Giuliani and through him to the president, who is using it to upend our alliances and turn the geopolitical stance of the United States upside down more radically than Barack Obama ever tried to do.
One of the consistent themes here is that Trump's own national security advisors keep trying to talk him out of these theories, and he keeps overruling them, with his people insisting that the entire US government, the so-called "deep state," is in on it. As Mona Charen points out, just as we have to believe that all of our allies are conspiring against us while Russia is innocent, "To insist that Trump is pure, everyone else must be the villain. In just three years, nearly every institution in America has been defamed in service to the malignance at the top."
Beyond the specific misconduct of Trump demanding that Ukraine target his political opponents, all of this raises a basic question of fitness for the office. Can we afford to have a man in the grip of conspiracy theories, with a mind closed off to evidence from actual experts, in the highest office in the land?
I've just plowed through a lot of evidence about what President Trump is doing and why, because it is necessary to clear through the partisan obfuscation. But this is all kind of moot now, because Trump has already gone from saying that no, he didn't collude with a foreign dictatorship to interfere with the US election, to doing it on live TV, inserting into the middle of a press conference a request for the government of China to investigate Joe Biden and his son.
So the response from Republicans is no longer about what the president did and when he did it. It's about whether they're going to do anything to stop him. It's about how deeply Trump's corrupting political influence has spread.
This article will be concluded in the next edition of The Tracinski Letter.