The Morning Jolt

White House

What to Make of the Trump–Whistleblower Kerfuffle

President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Everything you need to know about the intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint against President Trump, and Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Of Course Trump Wanted Ukraine to Investigate Somebody. He Always Wants Somebody Investigated.

This is not that complicated.

Donald Trump believes that just about everyone he doesn’t like must be corrupt or engaged in lawbreaking of some manner and should be investigated. Earlier this week, he tweeted out, “Look at the Obama Book Deal, or the ridiculous Netflix deal. Then look at all the deals made by the Dems in Congress, the “Congressional Slush Fund,” and lastly the IG Reports. Take a look at them. Those investigations would be over FAST!”

Last month, after sharing a tweet that speculated that the Clintons were responsible for Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide under suspicious circumstances, Trump indicated law enforcement should investigate the Clintons further: “The question you have to ask is, did Bill Clinton go to the island? Because Epstein had an island. That was not a good place, as I understand it, and I was never there. So you have to ask, did Bill Clinton go to the island? That’s the question. If you find that out, you’re going to know a lot.”

In July, the president called for an investigation of “corrupt government” in Baltimore, and that representative Elijah Cummings must be stealing money, adding “he should investigate himself with his oversight committee.”

That same month, he called on law enforcement to “subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation.” He also promised “the Trump Administration will take a look” at claims that Google committed “treason” by working with the Chinese government.

The previous month, he complained that Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence into the 2016 election never started looking into “how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress.” (This is presumably a reference to Clinton’s tech team using software called BleachBit. It is not a chemical and is not related to acid-washed jeans.)

He has twice called for the Federal Elections Commission and Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Saturday Night Live is colluding with the Democratic party.

In September 2018, Trump called upon the Department of Justice to investigate who wrote an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, purportedly from an administration official who was attempting to constrain and undermine the Trump administration from the inside. Trump said it was a matter of “national security.”

A few months earlier, Trump “demanded” that “the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” That same month, Trump ordered the Department of Commerce “to consider an investigation into whether the imports of automobiles, including trucks, and automotive parts” threaten “America’s national security.”

In November 2017, Trump called for an investigation of the death of an intern in then-representative Joe Scarborough’s office in 2001. The medical examiner determined that she had a heart condition, hit her head on a desk, and that there was no foul play.

You notice that few of these calls for investigations led to any investigations, right? (Also notice that in an era of relentless partisan warfare, you don’t hear very much from FBI director Christopher Wray, and when you do hear him testifying before Congress, he doesn’t generate much controversy. It’s reasonable to worry about the politicization of law enforcement at a moment like this, but so far, there’s not much evidence of it. The overwhelming majority of personnel at the FBI get up every morning, do their jobs, and follow the evidence like professionals, thank God.

It is easy to understand why Trump feels he was treated unfairly by the national news media, why he believes claims of Russian influence on the elections were meant to delegitimize his 2016 victory, and why he feels Robert Mueller’s investigation was a giant waste of time in attempting to find proof to verify a farfetched conspiracy theory. Trump had to endure a long and thorough investigation and now wants his political opponents to have their turn on the hot seat.

What’s more, Trump speaks as if he’s convinced that some sort of colossal, ruinous scandal is lurking behind each one of his foes, and all of them could be ruined if federal investigators would just look hard enough.

So it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that Trump — and allies like Rudy Giuliani — believe that Hunter Biden’s work for a giant gas company in Ukraine must be not merely unsavory or created the appearance of a conflict of interest, but somewhere along the line, the Bidens must have broken the law. (More on this topic below.)

Should the president of the United States repeatedly call for law enforcement investigations of his political enemies, based upon rumors, media reports, and his own theories? No, of course not. By doing so, he jeopardizes any legitimate law enforcement investigation by giving the targets of the investigations the arguments that they’re targets of a political vendetta.

But Donald Trump does a lot of things that the president of the United States hasn’t traditionally done and shouldn’t do. No doubt he’s been told this by advisors, lawyers, and staffers many times that every time he publicly calls for an investigation of a foe, he does a favor for that foe’s defense lawyer. He doesn’t care. He is who he is, and he’s not going to change.

Does this enter a different area if the president is promising X to foreign officials in exchange for an investigation of American political rival Y? It all depends upon the specifics. “That [insert Trump foe here] is a real crook, everybody knows it, everybody’s saying so, and if you guys caught him and nailed him to the wall, I’d be thrilled,” is probably just Trump being Trump. Some sort of explicit quid-pro-quo, like, “I will authorize the arms exports to your country after you guys indict him” would probably throw another log onto the bonfire of cries of impeachment.

Sooner or Later, Hunter Biden Will Become a Big Problem for His Father’s Campaign

The Washington Post, this morning: “A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.” If the discussion is about Ukraine, it probably revolves around the Trump campaign’s interest in what Hunter Biden did for Ukrainian companies in the tail end of the Obama administration.

As usual, partisans are getting wound up about a belief in some sort of secret and explicit lawbreaking, when the legal but unethical actions probably ought to generate sufficient outrage themselves.

When the Obama campaign was vetting Joe Biden to be vice president in the summer of 2008, “one of the most sensitive issues they examined” was the relationship between the senator and his family connection to the large Delaware bank MBNA. The bank was the largest donor to Biden’s campaigns over his career, hired Hunter Biden in 1996, and had made Hunter a vice president by 1998 — when he was all of 28 years old. Hunter departed to do a short stint in the Department of Commerce, but kept a $100,000 a year retainer from the bank after returning to the private sector as a lawyer in Washington, working for a lobbying firm. The Bidens insist Hunter’s lobbying work never crossed paths with his father’s work in the Senate. However, during this time, Joe Biden voted in favor of a bankruptcy reform bill that MBNA and other banks supported, and that many Democrats, including then-senator Barack Obama, opposed. (Elizabeth Warren is most likely licking her chops and waiting for just the right moment to go on the attack over that legislation.)

When you’re the son of a famous senator or vice president, doors keep opening for you. By 2014, Hunter Biden had been a bank vice president, a lawyer, a partner at a mergers and acquisitions firm, attempted to purchase a hedge fund, founded two consulting firms, and shortly after his father started his second term as vice president, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. That ended badly; he was discharged after about a year for failing a drug test.

Returning to the investment world, Biden’s business partners included Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital. In April 2014, at age 44, Hunter Biden joined the board of directors for Burisma Holdings, the largest non-government run natural gas company in Ukraine.

Not everyone in the Obama administration was comfortable with Hunter’s new business partners, according to The New Yorker:

Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the Vice-President to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.” When I asked members of Biden’s staff whether they discussed their concerns with the Vice-President, several of them said that they had been too intimidated to do so. “Everyone who works for him has been screamed at,” a former adviser told me. Others said that they were wary of hurting his feelings. One business associate told me that Biden, during difficult conversations about his family, “got deeply melancholy, which, to me, is more painful than if someone yelled and screamed at me. It’s like you’ve hurt him terribly. That was always my fear, that I would be really touching a very fragile part of him.”

At the very least, Hunter Biden’s business dealings were creating the appearance of a conflict of interest for the vice president. While no one has yet found evidence where Vice President Biden explicitly changed or pushed for changes in U.S. policy that would benefit his son’s business partners, perhaps the fairest criticism is that both elder and younger Biden simply couldn’t see potential problems that seemed glaring to everyone else:

Several former officials in the Obama Administration and at the State Department insisted that Hunter’s role at Burisma had no effect on his father’s policies in Ukraine, but said that, nevertheless, Hunter should not have taken the board seat. As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In 2018 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, former Vice President Biden described the time that he threatened to withhold foreign aid from the Ukrainian government unless they fired prosecutor Viktor Shokin:

I was supposed to announce there was going to be another billion dollar loan guarantee. I had gotten a commitment . . . that they were going to take action against the state prosecutor and they didn’t. And I said ‘We’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, ‘You have no authority. You’re not the president.’ … I said, ‘call him.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ I said, ‘you’re not getting the billion, we’re leaving in six hours.’ I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch! He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”

The argument from the Obama administration was that Shokin was resisting efforts to reform Ukraine’s judicial system and had done a poor job investigating corruption of the previous regime. The European Union and Ukrainian parliament were happy to see Shokin go.

But there’s one other really important wrinkle or at least a hugely consequential allegation. In April, John Solomon of The Hill reported that before Shokin was fired, the prosecutor was preparing a wide-ranging corruption probe into . . . the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, the same company that had Hunter Biden on its board of directors.

If that’s true, it changes a lot. Maybe the Obama administration had good and legitimate reasons to want to see Shokin replaced. But sending the vice president to strongarm the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who’s investigating his son’s company stinks to high heaven and reeks of corruption.

Clearly, Biden doesn’t think he did anything wrong; he was still telling the story about getting the prosecutor fired last year.

There’s a long history of high-ranking lawmakers and their offspring who have gone into lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. If you’re going to be a senator negotiating big changes to laws that affect banks, your son probably shouldn’t be working for one of the country’s biggest banks. If you’re going to be vice president and helping shape U.S. policy on China and Ukraine, you can’t play hardball to get a guy investigating your son’s company dismissed.

It’s not the job of the president of the United States to tell the Ukrainians who to investigate. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything worth investigating there.

ADDENDA: Coming soon, a new edition of the pop-culture podcast: looking at the miserable start to the NFL season for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets; the arrival of Seinfeld to Netflix, and whether the show holds up; the American Horror Story television series and what we fear at this moment; whether our society is getting more vindictive; and the U.S. military acknowledges some flying objects are unidentified.

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