Here's the short version of this entirely wild story up front: It seems more and more likely that in trying to find information damaging to former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the presidential election, Trump pressured Ukraine's government, both directly and indirectly, to investigate Biden's son — and potentially did so using military aid as a means of leverage.
Oh, and it's apparently the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of the House of Representatives launching an impeachment inquiry.
That's all, well, a lot! But on Sept. 13, all we knew was that a whistleblower inside the US intelligence community was being blocked from telling Congress about...something.
Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a press release said he was issuing a subpoena to the Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.
Maguire, Schiff claimed, was illegally keeping the whistleblower's testimony from Congress despite the Trump-appointed inspector-general for the intelligence community deeming the complaint credible and of “urgent concern."
Before we can talk about that though, we need to talk about Hunter Biden.
It's been reported for a minute now that Trump views Biden as his biggest threat in the 2020 election. And in modern politics, it only makes sense for a candidate's campaign to do opposition research against their opponent. And a look into Hunter Biden's Ukrainian business dealings should be fair game. What happened though...wasn't that.
Back in 2014, Ukraine burst into the headlines after Russia annexed some of its territory and helped separatists in another territory, launching a war that has claimed an estimated 13,000 lives as of earlier this year.
That year, Hunter joined the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company. Both Joe — who, at the time, was vice president — and Hunter have insisted that nothing untoward happened to land him the gig, though it was likely a hire based on the Biden name.
When Biden's 2020 campaign began in earnest, Hunter stepped down from the board. That hasn't stopped journalists from digging into whether there was a conflict of interest at play since the vice president was not only the Obama administration's point person on Ukraine, but had hyped the potential of Ukraine's natural gas sector while in that role.
Ukraine has proved the perfect place to hunt for dirt on the Biden family.
Ukraine, which has seen two revolutions since the fall of the Soviet Union, has had a bunch of problems with corruption in its various governments’ ranks. Viktor Shokin, who was appointed prosecutor general in February 2015, tasked with rooting out that corruption, was fired in 2016. And the Obama administration, including Biden, pushed for him to be removed, since by most accounts he was not actually very good at fighting corruption.
His successor has said that no evidence of any wrongdoing exists in connection with Hunter Biden's role at Burisma. Another former official said that an investigation was opened into the company but was long dormant by the time the US pushed for his exit. And Daria Kaleniuk, cofounder of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center told the Washington Post that “Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.”
But in more recent interviews, Shokin has indicated that he was interested in looking into Burisma further, since its chairman was tied to the government that was ousted in 2014, and would have questioned Hunter Biden. That's played right into Biden's opponents' efforts to use the Burisma connection to wound his presidential campaign.
The story that's been spun up goes something like this: Joe Biden, while vice president, used his office to pressure Ukrainian officials to stop any investigation, and possibly prosecution, of his son related to his time at Burisma. Biden, they say, went so far as to push for the prosecutor handling the case to be fired — which would amount to a clear case of corruption, using his office to benefit his son and help him avoid prison time.
Enter Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and currently Donald Trump's personal lawyer.
Note that he's not a lawyer for the White House or any other part of the Trump administration or a member of the 2020 Trump reelection campaign team. He's a lawyer for Trump as an individual. But despite not being actually in government, he's been the point person for digging up information on the Biden family in Ukraine.
Giuliani has made no secret of the time he's spent in Ukraine. Back in May, he told the New York Times that he was going there to push the government to investigate both the Bidens and the (also debunked) claim that Democrats were actually the ones colluding with a foreign power in 2016 to try to win the election.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” [Giuliani] said. “Somebody could say it’s improper. And this isn’t foreign policy — I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
He wound up canceling that specific trip, but his pressure campaign has remained steady, which we'll get to again in a second. He's been aided in his efforts by two of his clients, a pair of Soviet-born Florida businessmen, who have been at the "center of Giuliani’s back-channel diplomacy," the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and BuzzFeed News previously disclosed.
"Since late 2018, the men have introduced Giuliani to three current and former senior Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss the politically damaging information," the July article read. "The effort has involved meetings in at least five countries, stretching from Washington, DC to the Israeli office of a Ukrainian oligarch accused of a multi-billion dollar fraud, and to the halls of the French Senate."
The anti-Biden campaign has involved leaning on Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, who took office earlier this year. And that's where things go from "weird" to "possibly illegal."
Ukraine has been attempting to defeat Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country since 2014 and has counted on military aid from the US to help that effort. But on Aug. 28, Politico reported that Trump had decided to review a $250 million package to Ukraine despite the Pentagon's support for the funding.
Meanwhile, Giuliani kept up his meetings with Ukrainians in May, even as Zelensky's incoming government tried to keep out of the Biden drama. In August, Giuliani met with a top aide to Zelensky in Madrid — a week before the news about the military aid freeze came out. Giuliani would later say that aide promised that Ukraine would “get to the bottom” of the Biden situation.
"US Embassy officials in Kiev repeatedly expressed concerns about the contacts between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials," the Post reported recently. "They have not been privy to most of the discussions, and at times, have only learned later from the Ukrainians, who said they were unsure if Giuliani was officially speaking for the US government, according to two officials with knowledge of the matter."
Three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Government Oversight — announced on Sept. 9 that they would be opening an investigation into whether Giuliani had acted improperly in his meetings with Ukrainians.
Oh, and coincidentally enough? That military aid to Ukraine was released just two days after the congressional probe was announced. And then on Sept. 13, the day that Schiff made his subpoena public, Zelensky said that Ukraine was actually getting an extra $140 million in aid.
This all brings us back to the whistleblower that Schiff wanted to hear from. The details that have come out since then have slowly painted a very unflattering picture.
The headlines have only steadily become worse for Trump over the last week.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post first revealed that the whistleblower's complaint concerns "communications with a foreign leader" and a troubling "promise."
That was followed on Thursday by the Post reporting that the country at the heart of the issue was Ukraine, prompting people to first start drawing the Biden connection.
Trump, in his fashion, pushed back on the idea that anything was wrong with what he allegedly did or didn't do.
Giuliani caught a lot of people's attention on Thursday when, on CNN, he appeared to immediately flip-flop on whether he'd been pressuring the Ukrainians.
Then the Wall Street Journal dropped a story on Friday that tied many of the pieces together: the president, they said, had pushed hard on a call with Zelensky to have Hunter Biden investigated.
Trump and Zelensky spoke on the phone on July 25, and apparently mentioned his desire to have Biden investigated eight times during that call.
"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," a readout of the call on the Ukrainian presidency's website reads.
The WSJ report noted that Trump "didn’t mention a provision of US aid to Ukraine" during the call, citing an anonymous person with knowledge of the call, who also "didn’t believe Mr. Trump offered the Ukrainian president any quid pro quo for his cooperation on any investigation."
But, as his former fixer Michael Cohen has testified, that's not really the way that Trump has ever worked. "Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates," Cohen told a congressional panel in February. "In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie."
This leaves a lot of questions up in the air — and a lot of people pushing harder than ever for an impeachment inquiry.
It’s hard to ignore the elements that make this affair a synthesis of both the 2016 election and everything that’s happened after, a reminder of how wild these years have been. Trump as ever can’t help but add fuel to the fire when he’s held accountable, doing everything he can to deflect attention from himself. But in doing so he keeps the Biden-Ukraine story in the news — which is also what Trump wants.
Biden, for his part, put out a statement on Friday: "If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country."
Trump got back on Twitter on Saturday morning, in an apparent attempt to both tamp down the reporting that's come out and keep the Biden story alive.
He undercut that message on Sunday, though, when he told reporters that he had in fact spoken with Zelensky about Biden. "The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don't want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine and Ukraine has got a lot of problems," he said, before taking off for an event in Texas.
The three House panels' investigations into Giuliani's efforts aren't going away. Nor is the whistleblower's testimony. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi issued a letter to her caucus over the weekend saying that if the administration withholds the whistleblower complaint, it "will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation."
But the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, along with the DNI's office, has said the matter in the whistleblower's statement was privileged and so didn't need to be passed over to the legislature — but the administration has offered no details on just what is protected under executive privilege in the complaint and has yet to release the transcript.
The military aid component is another big question mark: as of now, there are no conclusive strands linking the delay in getting that funding to Ukraine and the Biden issue. Giuliani has insisted that he had no idea about the aid package holdup during his meetings — but said on Bloomberg on Monday morning that he "can't say 100%" that Trump never threatened to block the aid in his pursuit of an investigation. We also don't know what he has told the president about his meetings or just what the chain of events was that lead to the pause.
On Monday, Trump came close to saying the quiet part aloud: "It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? ... It's very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption."
By the next morning, the president had confirmed the Post's report from the night before that he'd ordered the hold on the funds to Ukraine at least a week ahead of his call with Zelensky. Trump said on Tuesday afternoon that he'd release a transcript of the call — but not the whistleblower's complaint.
Less than three hours later, Pelosi pulled the trigger on launching an official impeachment inquiry. •