A very, very long time ago, the House of Representatives impeached President Trump for abusing his power by pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation of his opponent, Joe Biden. Then every Senate Republican except Mitt Romney decided either that this was fine, or that it wasn’t abusive enough to justify removal, or that — as senators including Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Shelly Moore Capito optimistically put it — he had learned his lesson.
Meanwhile, here’s a funny footnote to this long-forgotten episode in our distant past. Yesterday, Ukraine’s president announced the investigation.
The spur for this investigation is an old recording produced by Trump’s Ukrainian allies. The recording is Biden, during his tenure as Vice-president, talking with Petro Poroshenko, then-president of Ukraine, about the firing of that country’s corrupt prosecutor.
If you have forgotten the contours of the story, a quick refresher. The Obama administration was focused heavily on opposing corruption in Ukraine, because the health and legitimacy of Ukraine’s democracy was necessary to shore it up against being subverted by Russia. (Vladimir Putin had subverted Ukraine through a combination of external military pressure and internal operations, including paying Paul Manafort to prop up a president who would do Putin’s bidding.) A major step in the anti-corruption agenda was persuading Ukraine to fire its ineffectual prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, whose dithering had allowed the country’s wealthy oligarchs to remain in place.
So Biden leaned hard on Ukraine, even threatening to withhold U.S. aid unless Ukraine fired Shokin. Republicans have since tried to reframe Biden’s pressure on Ukraine as some kind of scandal. In fact, it was a completely above-board exercise in diplomacy. Biden was supporting the pro-reform agenda that was shared by Western allies and pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations.
After losing his job, Shokin started scheming to return to power. His cause gained support from a shady collection of corrupt business interests, many tied to Russia. One of those figures is Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker with ties to the KGB, suspected of murdering political rivals, and was once known as “Ukraine’s Putin,” a nod to his anticipated role as a future strongman. Derkach met with Rudy Giuliani, who has hooked up with various low-lives and Russian allies in that country who have grudges against Biden.
Yesterday, Derkach released a recording of Biden talking to Ukraine’s then-president about the firing of Shokin. The video has absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden. It in fact depicts Biden discussing the pro-reform work he carried out openly and (rightly) boasted about as a foreign-policy success. Still, the existence of a new recording was enough for Trump’s messaging apparatus to suggest it indicated some form of wrongdoing:
Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, quickly promised to investigate. Now, Zelensky’s probe seems to be aimed at Poroshenko, his predecessor and rival, not Biden. But the connection is close enough to produce headlines like this (via Fox News), using the words “Biden” and “probe” and “leaked audio” in a way that vaguely hints at wrongdoing:
It might seem surreal that Trump would simply pick up his low-rent scheme right where he left off, given that it got him impeached and the payoff is modest. But one of the oddities of this episode is that its effect is radically contingent on the attention of the media and public officials.
In May of 2019, Giuliani was visiting Ukraine, and openly boasting about his plans to use Trump’s diplomatic leverage to shake loose dirt on Biden. He wasn’t hiding it. He wasn’t even denying it was improper. (“There’s nothing illegal about it. Somebody could say it’s improper.”) Nobody cared.
The whole scheme was sitting there in plain sight until a whistle-blower filed a formal complaint, which the Trump administration tried to cover up. Then Congress decided to investigate and initiate impeachment. Republicans toggled between denying it happened and insisting it was not a big deal if it had, then let Trump go.
Now he’s back at it, but because of both the coronavirus and having successfully established the precedent that he can get away with this, nobody is treating it as a first-tier scandal. It’s back to being what it started as: grist for generating headlines that imply some kind of wrongdoing by Joe Biden.